Gov. Kathy Hochul stands with Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado after...

Gov. Kathy Hochul stands with Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado after they were elected governor and Lt. Gov. of New York at her campaign headquarters Tuesday in Manhattan. Credit: Craig Ruttle

ALBANY — It was one small line in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s victory speech on election night, a thanks to organized labor for helping her “bring it home.”

Though understated, it was a clue to the vital role unions played in the final months and weeks of her gubernatorial campaign against fast-closing Republican Lee Zeldin.

Hochul received plenty of help from big-name Democrats who flocked to New York, progressive advocacy groups and the liberal Working Families Party. But unions provided the "turnout muscle" that helped put her over the top in a way that county political organizations can no longer do, political strategist Bruce Gyory said Wednesday.

Here's how:

Some 60 “labor walks” coordinated by the AFL-CIO in which union members went door-to-door on Saturdays and Sundays from Buffalo to Long Island, knocking on 120,000 union households to tout Hochul.

Nearly 70,000 phone calls on the final weekend of the campaign by 1199/SEIU, the influential health care workers’ union to its New York City members alone — to go with the 500,000 leaflets distributed at transit stations and shopping centers.

Some 57,000 handwritten postcards mailed by the New York State United Teachers to its members. More importantly, the union sent $1 million to an independent political-action committee boosting Hochul and held regional “leaders’ meetings” in the final months to stress the importance of ensuring a Hochul victory.

Add to it hundreds of thousands of telephone calls from “phone bank” operations of various unions and hundreds of thousands of text messages.

Many of the operations had been planned months in advance. But some leaders said Wednesday they ratcheted up activity in the final weeks when Hochul’s lead in the polls slipped to single digits from 17 points in September.

“I think she’s right in thanking labor. In the last couple of weeks, when people saw what was going on in the polls, we knew we had to kick it into gear even more,” Andy Pallotta, teachers’ union president, told Newsday Wednesday, the day after Hochul posted a narrow win of 5 percentage points in New York’s closest gubernatorial election in 28 years.

Pallotta noted NYSUT had not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate since 2006. The union jumped in with both feet this time in part because Hochul delivered a 7% increase in state aid to schools earlier this year as part of the state budget.

NYSUT leaders stressed that in a series of leaders’ meetings in the homestretch.

“We spoke to our members about how important it was to put a pro-education governor in office and not to get distracted by all the other narratives out there,” Pallotta said.

Similarly, Mario Cilento, president of the New York State chapter of the AFL-CIO, cited a particular issue that motivated members: Zeldin’s vote in Congress against a federal infrastructure spending bill.

“Once you educate the members and tell them, ‘This guy voted against that,’ it really wasn’t difficult to motivate members to go out for the governor,” Cilento said.

Cilento said the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for a number of unions, really kick-started its efforts after Labor Day with the “labor walks,” calls and mail.

“You do that for several months and it begins to resonate with members,” Cilento said. “And I certainly think that made the difference in a race like this, with this margin.”

With about 95% of districts reporting, Hochul had 52.8% of the vote to Zeldin’s 47.2%.

George Gresham, president of 1199/SEIU, appeared with Hochul at a last weekend rally to pump up NYC turnout. In a statement Wednesday, Gresham said: “As a comfortable polling lead for Gov. Hochul narrowed in recent weeks, we knew that we needed to redouble our efforts to ensure her victory.”

Months ago, Democrats might not have expected such a tight race and, to be sure, Hochul had a wide circle of help in the homestretch.

When her lead dipped, Democratic big names flocked to New York to help a suddenly struggling candidate — President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, ex-President Bill Clinton and ex-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic State Committee had door-to-door canvassers and people sending texts and making phone calls.

The Working Families Party, the progressive party that’s sometimes at odds with Democrats, did calls, mail and texts. And it also had members at polling sites in New York City to try to pull in pedestrians to vote or encourage those leaving a polling site to get friends and family to cast a ballot.

The WFP had self-preservation motivation too — needing to get 130,000 votes to maintain its ballot status, which it easily garnered. But the party also wanted to block Zeldin, whom it saw as far too conservative for New Yorkers.

“Absolutely, we did scale up,” Sochie Nnaemeka, WFP state director, told Newsday. “We had a series of emergency, all-hands-on-deck meetings with volunteers and elected officials who were feeling quite panicked. … The polls absolutely activated people in a different kind of way.”

Gyory said the progressive WFP helped keep a Democratic moderate in office.

“Even though they don’t like Hochul, they went into overdrive as if Kathy Hochul were Bernie Sanders,” Gyory said, referring to the Vermont senator. It was an urgency felt by many party members and Democrat-friendly advocacy groups.

“The perception that this was a dead heat woke up the Democrats,” Gyory said. “So in the end, it was closer than expected, but still a solid Democratic win.”

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