In the midst of a blizzard, Jeff Lewis, the gay man who's chief of staff to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, found a career path that led to his dream job.
"I grew up in Hamburg, N.Y. -- the same town where now-Gov. Hochul began her political career," Lewis tells The Advocate. "We graduated from the same high school, so we share a similar upbringing. The first time we met was on Main Street of our village in the middle of a blizzard: I was leading a protest against the Iraq War, and Gov. Hochul, who at that point was serving as Erie County clerk, pulled over in her car to ask me my name -- and then asked me to come work with her. I was incredibly impressed with her drive to connect directly with her constituents, her commitment to public service, and her passion for creating kind and respectful dialogue in the political arena."
Lewis became an intern in the county clerk's office in 2009, then helped build Hochul's campaign finance operation when she ran for Congress in a special election in 2011. She won, and Lewis went to work for her in Washington, D.C., handling correspondence with constituents. She lost a bid for reelection in 2012, but two years later she was elected New York's lieutenant governor, and Lewis was again on her staff, first as director of external affairs, then as chief of staff. When Hochul, a Democrat, moved up to governor upon Andrew Cuomo's resignation this year, Lewis became chief of staff in the governor's office.
"Learning from Kathy Hochul at such an early age was an inspiration for me to pursue a career in public service, and she has always been an incredible mentor to me," he says. "I spent some time working for various Democratic political campaigns and elected officials, and have always had an incredible relationship with Kathy. That's why I was thrilled to rejoin Team Hochul after she was elected lieutenant governor. .... It was the greatest honor of my career when Gov. Hochul asked me to join her new administration as chief of staff earlier this summer. I knew she was making it a priority to restore the public's faith in state government and to ensure public servants felt appreciated and respected -- and she entrusted me to create a culture in state government that reflects those values, while valuing diversity and inclusion at every step."
Lewis became interested in politics at a young age. "I've always rooted for the underdog and fought for fairness and equality. From my time as student government president in high school until today, I firmly believe the promise of America is maximized with a level playing field for all. That commitment strengthened when I got to college: I was a freshman at [New York University] in 2008 and will never forget the night Barack Obama was elected, when this incredible feeling of joy and unity pulsed through the city. One leader -- President Obama -- provided hope to millions of people across the world, an incredible power and responsibility. I wanted to make sure I did my part to ensure the best candidates, folks who shared my values, were able to make it to the highest levels of government, and that's why I continued working on campaigns and in government."
As the governor's chief of staff, Lewis's job "is to keep things running in the executive chamber and make sure our state government is working seamlessly to serve the people of New York and accomplish Gov. Hochul's bold, progressive agenda." New York has one of the largest state governments in the U.S., he notes, with a budget of more than $200 billion and hundreds of thousands of employees.
"And while it might be a bit cheesy to say, I mean this sincerely: The best part of my job is helping Gov. Hochul deliver results for New Yorkers," Lewis says. "Already, in her first weeks in office, we've been able to accomplish so much, from jump-starting the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that helps struggling tenants stay in their homes to raising New York's statewide vaccination rate to an incredible 85 percent among all adults. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to play a role helping Gov. Hochul achieve all that -- and I know there's much more to do."
Hochul came into office at a challenging time, and not just because of the sexual harassment scandal that led to Cuomo's resignation. "Gov. Hochul took office in the middle of multiple crises -- the Delta variant of [the pandemic] was spreading, Hurricane Henri and Hurricane Ida had devastated much of New York City and surrounding areas, and our state government was dysfunctional and plagued with scandal," Lewis says. "I'm so impressed with how Gov. Hochul and our entire team have sprung into action to address each of these crises: getting aid to struggling renters and excluded workers, securing [Federal Emergency Management Administration] funding to help New Yorkers hit hardest by extreme weather, and implementing new ethics and transparency policies to turn the page on the broken culture that had existed for far too long in state government. She wants to restore faith and trust in elected officials and government, and we'll get that done by avoiding distractions and delivering help for those who need it most."
"As for LGBTQ+ New Yorkers," he adds, "I'm proud to be working for an elected official who has been such a staunch ally for our community during her career. We continue to view every policy with an equity lens, so everything on our agenda is helping ensure New York is a welcoming, safe, and accepting place for every LGBTQ+ person who wants to build a life here and thrive."
He has learned from Hochul "that politics is about getting results for real people," he says. "That's the goal that guides our work in the executive chamber, and it's what keeps me interested as I show up to work every morning."
Any plans to run for office himself? "Being chief of staff to Gov. Hochul is my dream job," he says, "and I have no plans to leave any time soon."