New York's First Female Governor-to-Be on Leading After Cuomo and 'Allowing Women to Feel Safe'

"I didn't expect to ever run for office," Kathy Hochul tells PEOPLE. "I suffered from something many women, young and older, do as well, and that's a lack of confidence. So I always thought I was destined to be the staffer making the guys look good"

Kathy Hochul
Kathy Hochul. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty

Three days after Kathy Hochul will make history when she becomes the governor of New York next week, she hopes to spend her 63rd birthday with her husband, William.

But the couple will be celebrating "quietly, not a big fuss."

"It seems like an eternity away," Hochul, currently New York's lieutenant governor and as of Aug. 24 the first woman to lead the state, says in an interview with PEOPLE. "I sincerely hope I'm able to be with my husband that day. If we're together, we'll go to my favorite hot dog stand, Red Top Hots, and he'll take me out for a hot fudge sundae afterward."

Red Top Hot Dogs is a small eatery near the shore of Lake Erie in Hamburg, New York, where Hochul grew up. She's been a loyal customer since she was a child, and her low-key birthday plans reflect a politician without the profile — or baggage — of her predecessor Andrew Cuomo, who is resigning in the wake of a damning report about sexual harassment.

(Unlike his successor, the outgoing governor spent his past few birthdays combining a celebration with a fundraiser, including a virtual "Birthday & Holiday Reception" last December with ticket prices as high as $10,000.)

Hochul occupies an unusual role after seven years as Cuomo's No. 2: Now stepping in to replace him amid a national scandal, she promises that her administration will have a "1,000 percent culture change" from what an investigation by the New York Attorney General's Office determined was a "hostile" work environment created by Cuomo.

Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo. Cindy Ord/Getty

Among the accounts of 11 women whom investigators found were harassed was a state trooper in Cuomo's protective detail who said he touched her down her back and across her stomach and asked to kiss her.

"I felt completely violated," the trooper said. (Cuomo denied intentionally acting inappropriately around the women.)

In her administration, Hochul tells PEOPLE, "I will encourage and expect anybody to come forward if they see anything that could be construed as inappropriate. I'll make sure people are well familiar with the laws we have in place, because we do have some of the toughest sexual harassment laws in the nation."

"But it's about enforcing them. It's about allowing women to feel safe and welcome in the workplace so they can excel," she says.

To that end, Hochul says she plans to "appoint a number of high-profile women in the next few weeks."

"We'll be there showing that's there a difference. People will be convinced that it's changed — because look who's in office now," she says.

Hochul first held public office when she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Hamburg Town Board in 1994. In 2011, she won a special election to replace a Republican congressman, Chris Lee, who resigned after he sent shirtless pictures of himself to a women he met on Craigslist, although he was married with a young child at the time.

She lost her re-election when her district was redrawn and then joined Cuomo's gubernatorial ticket in 2014.

Kathy Hochul swearing-in ceremony for Hamburg Town Board after winning re-election
Kathy Hochul's 1996 swearing-in ceremony for the Hamburg Town Board in New York after winning re-election. Courtesy Kathy Hochul
Early Hochul family photo in Hamburg, NY
The Hochul family. Courtesy Kathy Hochul

Looking back at her career, Hochul says, "I didn't expect to ever run for office. I suffered from something many women, young and older, do as well, and that's a lack of confidence. So I always thought I was destined to be the staffer making the guys look good."

Before becoming a candidate herself, Hochul was an attorney and aide to legendary New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1980s.

"When I was 13, my dream job was to be a staffer on Capitol Hill in the Senate. I thought that was as high as I ever could go," Hochul says.

She is taking over New York's top job after months of mounting criticism of Cuomo — over the accounts of harassment from multiple women as well as scrutiny over how his administration handled coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.

Cuomo, the scion of one of the country's best-known political families — his late father, Mario Cuomo, was governor of New York for three terms, and his brother Chris is a news anchor on CNN — for months defied his critics and signaled he would not easily give up his job.

But his position crumbled in the days after New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report on her investigation that concluded Cuomo had indeed sexually harassed multiple women and, in so doing, violated federal and state law.

James explained during a press conference earlier this month that the investigation determined Cuomo engaged in "unwanted groping, kisses, hugging, and making inappropriate comments" with both current and former New York state employees. She added that his actions "created a hostile work environment for women."

Cuomo apologized for what he called inadvertent behavior, which he suggested was the result of changing social norms.

One of the women in the report, a former Cuomo assistant named Brittany Commisso, said last week that "what he did to me was a crime."

Following the attorney general's report, the calls for Cuomo's resignation grew louder and more numerous, with even President Joe Biden weighing in on the situation.

"He should resign," Biden told reporters at the White House on the same day the report was released.

In a statement Hochul tweeted soon after the resignation was announced, she said:

"I agree with Governor Cuomo's decision to step down. It is the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers. As someone who has served at all levels of government and is next in the line of succession, I am prepared to lead as New York State's 57th Governor."

2015 Inauguration family photo - KH, Bill Hochul (husband), Will (son – right), Katie (left - daughter), Matt (Katie’s now-husband)
Kathy Hochul (second from right) with her family: son-in-law Matt, daughter Katie, husband William and son Will. Courtesy Kathy Hochul

Cuomo promised a "seamless" transition and called Hochul "smart and competent." Hochul says waiting 14 days for the office to change hands was not her idea and that she's eager to get started. She's already said she supports a mask mandate for schoolchildren to protect against COVID-19.

There is plenty more work to do. Hochul spent part of her first weekend as New York's governor-to-be at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, the site of her first speech.

Speaking with PEOPLE, Hochul remembers how "I gave my first public remarks as a 10 year old. I was in 4-H and I had to give a demonstration on healthy foods — and I spoke to an audience, which was probably my mother and a couple of siblings."

On Sunday, decades later, she spoke to the 4-H club again.

"I like to lead by example," she says. "I tell young women who have children about the impact of running for office. Your job is to raise adults, not kids, and seeing a mother who is bold enough to put herself in the public arena and show that much commitment to public service, that's a powerful lesson."

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