Democrat Hochul Wins NY Election, Now Focuses On Jobs

Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul while talking with supporters in Depew, N.Y., Wednesday, May 25, 2011.  Hochul  defeated Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin on Tuesday night. i i

Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul while talking with supporters in Depew, N.Y., Wednesday, May 25, 2011. Hochul defeated Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin on Tuesday night. David Duprey/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

itoggle caption David Duprey/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul while talking with supporters in Depew, N.Y., Wednesday, May 25, 2011.  Hochul  defeated Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin on Tuesday night.

Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul while talking with supporters in Depew, N.Y., Wednesday, May 25, 2011. Hochul defeated Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin on Tuesday night.

David Duprey/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In an upset victory on Tuesday, Democrat Kathy Hochul won a congressional seat in N.Y.'s 26th district, which has 30,000 more Republicans than Democrats. Hochul beat Republican Jane Corwin after framing the vote as a referendum on the GOP's Medicare reform plan. Host Michel Martin speaks with Hochul about her victory and what she hopes to accomplish upon taking office.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Medicare has been the hot issue this week. The Republican plan to overhaul Medicare failed in the Senate, giving the Democrats a new issue to campaign on in 2012. We'll talk with Mary Agnes Carey, a senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, about the fate of Medicare and how that could affect the political landscape that's coming up. But first, a conversation with the newly elected congresswoman from Western New York who's victory Tuesday in a special election has become a flashpoint in the national debate about the future of Medicare and perhaps a potential barometer for the 2012 election cycle.

Democrat Kathy Hochul began her campaign for New York's 26th congressional district as a distinct underdog but she defeated the Republican front runner by campaigning almost exclusively against the House Republican plan to overhaul Medicare. The race drew more than $2 million in political advertising from outside organizations on both sides of the aisle and Democratic leaders are hoping that Hochul's victory in a heavily Republican district signals a shift in voter attitudes back to the center.

KATHY HOCHUL: I have the confidence and the faith of Republicans, Democrats, and independents who listened to our message loud and clear. We're going to protect seniors, we're going to protect the middle class and small businesses.

MARTIN: That was Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul talking to reporters following her victory this week and she's with us now on the phone from New York. Welcome to the program. Congratulations.

HOCHUL: Thank you very much for the invitation. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Do you agree with my characterization of the race that it was in fact a referendum on the Republican Medicare overhaul proposal?

HOCHUL: You know, there are many factors at play but we certainly did use the Ryan budget as an opportunity to show the very clear-cut differences between the candidates, and the Ryan budget gave us an opportunity to, you know, talk about Medicare but also the other priorities in that budget such as tax breaks that continue for the very wealthiest people in this country. So we weren't afraid to really open up that budget and show people the difference, and when my opponent said had she been in Congress she would have voted for it, again, it just gave us an opportunity to say, you know what, we wouldn't have done that and here's why. So that resonated very much with people in this district and regardless of party label they embrace this message.

MARTIN: Now, initially a lot of people didn't give you much of a chance in the race because Republican voters outnumbered Democrats in the district by three to one. Why did you enter the race to begin with? I mean, obviously at the beginning many people were thinking of you as a sacrificial lamb .

HOCHUL: Well, I entered the race because I really knew that this district needs a representative very quickly. The seat had been vacant since February 9th, and I've never been one to shirk away from any challenge. It was an uphill battle but I also felt that, you know, I had already represented a third of the district as Erie County clerk and had done a, you know, good job for the people, working very much (unintelligible) oriented, looking out for my area, my district, and I think people knew me in part of the district but my challenge was to get better known in the much more rural outlying areas where they never heard of me before.

So I knew if I could just take my message on the road, and I spent a tremendous amount of time literally pulling up to little businesses on the main streets and walking in, introducing myself, stopping in diners wherever I saw three or more cars, I really tried to have a personal touch to the race as well, because we were so outspent on television. I was running against two multi-millionaires, so I needed to break it down at the grass roots level.

So a lot of people had to go out on a limb. There were many, many people who said I was the very first Democrat they ever voted for. But I think the issues, those resonate in this area (unintelligible) for the small business people, a lot of issues we had and we certainly used them.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about two things. You mentioned that you'd had two, in fact, opponents in the race and both of them were wealthy individuals. One of them, a former Democrat, ran on a Tea Party line, and I'm just identifying two of the responses that Republicans have had to your win. One is that in a three way race anything can happen so this isn't dispositive of anything, that in fact the third candidate, Jack Davis, was sort of a spoiler and but for him the Republican would have won.

What do you say about that?

HOCHUL: Well, I think the Buffalo News Today very much clarified that and they said that was what Republicans would want to say and there was a time in the polls when Jack was taking, you know, 20, 22 percent of the vote, but when Jack Davis started losing votes, they were coming my way. They were not going to Jane Corwin as they expected. All I know is I won because I got more votes and everyone else can interpret what they will, but it's real simple to me that a lot of people put their faith in me.

I take that very, very seriously and I know I'm representing, you know, a majority Republican district now.

MARTIN: Hold on a second. Just to clarify for folks, there were two late polls that did indicate that the votes that were moving away from Jack Davis were moving to you. That is true. I just want to clarify that.

HOCHUL: Yeah, initially the early polls showed that Jack was pulling a lot of votes from me, because he had run as a Democrat and people were - he had much higher name recognition. He had been known in this area, so - and even, you know, the Tea Party people, one day the Republicans are saying he wasn't a true Tea Partier, that he was a, you know, a pawn of the Democrats. So the Republicans are trying to have it both ways here, but the bottom line is that a lot of Republicans, independents and conservatives joined Democrats in a crossover vote for me.

MARTIN: Let me just ask you one more question about that, that some of the national Republican figures like Paul Ryan in interviews after the election were saying that the reason that you won is that you, your campaign, national Democrats campaigning on your behalf, were dishonest about the proposal. They're saying that in fact their proposal to overhaul Medicare was mischaracterized and that that was at the root of your win. And I'd like to ask you to respond to that.

HOCHUL: I'd be happy to respond to that. If you look at the ads that my campaign put out, the only references we made to the Ryan budget or Medicare were actual quotes from news organizations like The Wall Street Journal, like The Chicago Tribune, and other organizations. So we are very careful that it was not our words. It was the words of independent sources that were used in our television ads, so they can say what they want as far as, you know, they'd have to take on the Wall Street Journal then as far as the description that they gave...

MARTIN: Okay.

HOCHUL: ...of Medicare, as ending Medicare as we know it, the Ryan budget. So you know, everyone's going to have fun speculating on this, but the bottom line is I'm heading off to Washington very shortly and I will be working with both sides of the aisle. We have to roll up our sleeves, work together and get the job done, because the people in this district also don't want us to continue the fighting.

MARTIN: Okay. Before we let you go, and it's not long before you'll have to start preparing for the 2012 race where you'll have to defend your seat - what are your goals for this time that you have when you come to Washington, which you will be coming soon?

HOCHUL: Well, the people in this district said to me very loudly they want me to go fight for jobs. I've spent so much time talking to our small businesses, the unfairness of our tax code where businesses on Main Street are paying in more taxes than the GE's of the world. That's got to change. But also I will be the one protecting our seniors with Medicare. Let's get the underlying cost of health care under control. I do support entitlement reform and I also think we should be looking at the revenue side because the voters up here want us to work together to get our debt under control.

MARTIN: Kathy Hochul won a special election Tuesday to represent New York's 26th congressional district. She replaces Republican Chris Lee, who resigned earlier this year ,and she joined us on the phone from her office. Thank you so much for joining us, Congresswoman-elect. Congratulations.

HOCHUL: Thank you, my pleasure, bye-bye.

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