Syracuse alum makes history as New York’s first female governor

SU alum makes history as NY’s first female governor

Kathy Courtney Hochul, a former Student Association vice president, was well respected during her time at SU.
Published: August 24, 2021
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking at the state Excelsior Conservation Corps announcement in 2015.
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, shown here speaking at a 2015 Excelsior Conservation Corps announcement, was sworn in as governor on Tuesday.

Before Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York, before she served as Lt. Gov. under Andrew Cuomo, and Representative for the 26th congressional district of New York, she was a student at Syracuse University. An active member of Student Association (SA) throughout her undergraduate career, Gov. Hochul, known then as Kathy Courtney, earned the respect of her colleagues on SA, chasing initiatives like a boycott on the bookstore to naming the newly erected Dome after alumni Ernie Davis.

Jim Naughton, former editor-in-chief of The Daily Orange, first got to know Hochul as a journalist covering SA. When his tenure at the student-run newspaper ended, he became involved in student government himself. His impression of Hochul remained consistent throughout his college career — she was a well respected hard worker, who was serious about improving quality of life for students and less interested in showboating.

“Kathy was very much a workhorse,” Naughton said. “It’s not that she couldn’t make a good presentation and couldn’t get people’s attention and all that, but she wasn’t in it to show how clever she was.”

Naughton worked with Hochul on both the bookstore boycott and initiative to name the dome after Ernie Davis.

“It was tied to the activism of black football players. And, in that Ernie Davis, particularly because he died such a young man, was particularly kind of worthy of honoring” Naughton said.

Naming the Dome after Davis was an uphill battle. The Carrier Corporation made a multi-million dollar donation to Syracuse for the naming rights.

“The university, quite honestly, needed the money in order to be able to build the stadium, so they weren’t going to budge on that,” said Frank Slazer, former SA president who worked with Hochul.

Before naming was even a possibility, Hochul played a role in making the Dome a reality. Arnie Wolsky, another former SA president who worked with Hochul, recalls when the two of them “lobbied the governor with the chancellor and toured the old stadium and supported the university’s efforts to get the dome built.”

“Of course, after that, we wanted to have it named after somebody that we thought was more representative of the school than the Carrier Dome. But I guess we can’t deny the economic forces that were at play there,” Wolsky said.

Another focus of Hochul’s was the bookstore. Larry Beer, who served on SA with the Governor, recalls “a widespread feeling among the student body that the bookstore was overpriced, was suspicious of students in that they required you to always, check your backpack at the door because they were afraid of shoplifting.” Students would have things stolen from their unlocked cubbies at the front of the store. Slazer also recalls a push for the bookstore to cash checks so students could access funds after banks closed on the weekend. Hochul and SA staged a boycott of the store to pressure policy changes.

“I think they dropped prices by like five or seven percent on many items, that kind of thing. So it was modest, they gave modestly on the prices, but they did give some on the prices and they installed the lockers and they installed a check cashing policy” said Slazer.

Hochul’s ascent into the governorship has been marred by Cuomo’s legacy, and her groundbreaking title as the first female Governor of New York is tricky to celebrate. Still, Hochul’s ability to navigate the strong personalities of New York’s predominately male political class is less than shocking in light of her background and history.

“Even at 21, she had the ability to say to authority figures that other folks might be afraid of: ‘Look, this is what we want and we are going to press you for it’” said Naughton.

Naughton also told a more personal story, not about Gov. Hochul, but about Kathy Courtney, the young woman from Buffalo. Naughton recalls a year where both he and Hochul were stuck in Syracuse for Easter.

“We were both sad that we weren’t going to get home for Easter, but her family had friends in the area, like Fayetteville, maybe. And so she was going to go there for dinner” Naughton recalled. “So she invited me to go to mass with her.”

It was a small gesture, but Naughton took her up on the offer. “I had an Easter year because of her,” he said.

Jerry Zremski, Washington Bureau Chief for The Buffalo News and DO writer during Hochul’s time at Syracuse knew the Governor then and now. His first ever interview for The Daily Orange was with Kathy Courtney.

“She was then, as she is now, just very engaging, very kind and very easy to talk with,” said Zremski. The two reconnected later when their paths crossed professionally. Kathy Courtney was then Kathy Hochul, and the student leader who’d impressed Zremski back in college remained laudable. She has a strong sense of community and ability to connect with voters personally, he said.

“The first time I ever saw her as a retail politician was in 2011 when she ran for Congress…what I saw at that time is what people in New York State, I think, will see in the coming months, which is a politician who is just absolutely natural in campaigning” said Zremski.