Reposted from New York Times, May 30, 2011
Her Inheritance: An Eagerness to ServeBy RAYMOND HERNANDEZ
A few months before Kathy Hochul was born, her family was living in a 31-by-8-foot trailer not far from the hulking Bethlehem Steel plant near Buffalo. When things got a little better, they moved to the second-floor flat of a home in working-class Woodlawn.
The family was just getting by then: Ms. Hochul’s father, Jack Courtney, did clerical work at the plant at night and attended college during the day; her mother, Pat Courtney, stayed home and raised six children.
But they were unusually aware of the needs of those around them: On holidays, the family brought into their home developmentally disabled children who had no relatives to visit. And they collected food, clothing and furniture for families who were struggling in the region, hard hit by industrial decline.
Ms. Hochul, 52, startled the national political establishment last week, capturing a Congressional seat that had been in Republican hands for 40 years. But those who know her say it was her upbringing — in a modest, devoutly Roman Catholic, service-minded family — that made her instantly able to understand the unease among economically anxious voters over a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare.
Ms. Hochul, the second-oldest of six children, is being heralded as a rising star in the Democratic Party. But, because the closely watched Congressional race became something of a referendum on the issue of Medicare, little attention was paid to her biography.
Ms. Hochul (pronounced HOH-kuhl) has spent nearly her entire life in western New York, a Rust Belt region that is Midwestern in its cultural and political sensibilities. As the oldest girl, she worked from a young age, serving pizza and chicken wings at a restaurant in a blue-collar town just south of Buffalo, often arriving home late in the evening.
“I remember her coming home at 11, 12 or 1,” said Sheila Heinze, one of her sisters. “And she’d get into bed and start studying. We shared a room. Her little light would be on.”
Her parents instilled a sense of civic responsibility in the children, driving them into poor neighborhoods in Buffalo to deliver the food, clothing and furniture that the family had collected. And yet the Courtneys struggled themselves. “We used to shop at the used-clothing store,” Ms. Heinze recalled.
In high school, Ms. Hochul acquired her interest in politics, after a teacher took her class to Buffalo City Hall for a tour. She began doing volunteer work for a variety of politicians during summer vacations.
In 1976, she went to Syracuse University, where she became something of an activist, one time leading a boycott of the college bookstore after students complained that the store was charging outrageously high prices. (By then, her father had gone to work at an information technology company, where he rose to become president.)
In college, she also threw herself into another cause: trying to persuade the university to name a stadium it was building after Ernie Davis, the legendary Syracuse running back who died of leukemia at a young age.
The stadium was to be named the Carrier Dome because of a $2.75 million gift made by the Carrier Corporation, the city’s best-known company. So Ms. Hochul decided to take the students’ case directly to Mel Holm, the chief executive of Carrier.
Jordan Dale, the student body president, who went with her to Carrier’s headquarters, recalled how hard it was confronting one of the city’s most powerful men. “She was nervous,” he said. “But she knew what needed to be done.”
In the end, the Carrier name remained, though in 2009 Syracuse named the field itself the Ernie Davis Legends Field.
After graduating from Syracuse in 1980, she earned her law degree at Catholic University in Washington. In 1984, she married William J. Hochul Jr., whom she had met a few years earlier while working over the summer in the New York State Assembly.
After law school, she landed a job in a high-powered law firm in Washington. But she found the experience unsatisfying, and eventually went to work on Capitol Hill — first for Representative John J. LaFalce, Democrat of New York, and then for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also a Democrat from New York.
Mr. Moynihan had a profound impact on her, friends and family said. After she gave birth to her first child, Ms. Hochul took Mr. Moynihan aside and told him that she was conflicted about working while having a newborn baby at home.
“He said to her: ‘In 30 years, you won’t remember the days you spent here in the office, but you will remember the days you spent with your children,’ ” recalled Ms. Heinze, her sister.
In 1991, Kathy and William Hochul returned to western New York, where they raised two children and eventually became something of a local power couple.
While Mr. Hochul went to work at the United States attorney’s office in Buffalo (where he rose from prosecutor to the top post of United States attorney), Ms. Hochul entered politics.
In 1994, Ms. Hochul won a seat on the Hamburg Town Board. Then, about a decade later, the Erie County clerk, David J. Swarts, appointed her as his deputy clerk. In 2007, after Mr. Swarts resigned to become state motor vehicles commissioner, Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed Ms. Hochul to replace Mr. Swarts.
But even as she pursued her political career, Ms. Hochul remained involved in the service efforts her family undertook.
A few years ago, her mother, concerned about the rate of domestic violence in the area, decided she wanted to open a transitional house for abused women and their children. Ms. Hochul drew up the paperwork to help her mother establish the home, and then later even helped baby-sit the children of the women living there, so that they could attend counseling and other programs.
“It became a big family project,” said Joan Kesner, who served on the Hamburg Town Board with Ms. Hochul. “That’s just the type of family Kathy is from.”
Reached this week, Mrs. Courtney seemed delighted that her daughter would soon be serving in Congress.
“There’s a saying that says, ‘Go out in the world and do well, but more importantly, go out in the world and do good,’ ” she said. “I wanted my children to grow up and be happy and successful. But more importantly, I wanted them to give back to others.”
Michael D. Regan contributed reporting from Buffalo, N.Y.