What Cuomo has to fear in 2014

Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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Andrew Cuomo is running against himself in 2014.

Here's how one Cuomo administration insider described his re-election strategy and prospects to me recently: "He's going to wait as long as possible to announce his re-election. Look at how he ran for governor initially, including his campaign kick-off. That's exactly how he's going to run. His only vulnerability is what's in those 2010 campaign books that he didn't do yet."

In other words, the governor’s people are highly confident in his ability to withstand whatever challenge the Republican Party musters next year. And with good reason.

Cuomo has $30 million in the bank and his statewide poll numbers, while not what they once were, are healthy. His most prominent potential Republican challenger mentioned so far has been the little-known Westchester county executive, Rob Astorino, who has yet to commit to a run. And Cuomo is already demonstrating the rudiments of the Rose Garden strategy he's likely to employ during election year, spending lots of time away from Albany and New York City, making feel-good announcements in areas not usually inclined to vote for downstate Democrats.

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But the question next year is less about whether Cuomo will be returned to office than it is about whether the hyper-image-conscious, nationally ambitious governor will achieve a victory that looks, in the context of his long-term ambitions, more like a defeat.

Quite apart from Cuomo's most obvious impediment to a future national run—Hillary Clinton—he's going to have a hard time meeting expectations that he himself helped set four years ago. Running against the intemperate conservative businessman Carl Paladino in 2010, Cuomo won with 62 percent of the vote, carrying 54 of the state's 62 counties. It was the third-highest percentage of the total vote by any New York gubernatorial candidate, ever.

Other precedent-setters include Mario Cuomo, who won re-election in 1986 with 65 percent of the vote, and Eliot Spitzer (who Cuomo would eventually help bring down with a damning ethics report), who won election in 2006 with a record-breaking 69 percent. Senator Chuck Schumer set an uncomfortably high bar for all future Democratic candidates when he ran for re-election in 2004 and won in 61 counties, while Senator (and erstwhile Cuomo protege) Kirsten Gillibrand won her first full term in 2012 with 74 percent of the vote.

“If he’s running against himself, he also has to get an overwhelming vote,” said veteran assemblyman Denny Farrell Jr., a Democrat from Manhattan. “He can’t take it easy, relax and end up winning a normal 60-40. He’s got to do a Chuck Schumer. He’s got to win every county. That’s what he’s got to do. He’s got to do in New York State what he’s going to do nationwide. That’s always in his head.”

Another issue for Cuomo next year is that unlike in 2010, he'll have a real record to defend, and it has inevitably fallen short in a number of ways of what was once promised.

Cuomo came into office, remember, pledging to do nothing less than overhaul the culture of Albany. And for a time it seemed as if he was actually succeeding. Armed with a robust mandate following the chaotic tenure of David Paterson, Cuomo immediately redefined the relationship between the executive branch and the famously dysfunctional legislature. He announced impressive-sounding steps to make government more transparent. He proceeded to pass three on-time budgets in a row, which hasn’t happened in Albany since his father was governor.

Meanwhile, he helped orchestrate a reordering of the State Senate's leadership, giving control to a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats that he could do business with. And he used his position to achieve some legislative victories, most notably a historic same-sex marriage bill the Legislature, including the Republican-controlled State Senate, and a sweeping (if imperfectly conceived) gun-control package.

But many of what Cuomo was touting as transformative, "historic" victories quickly turned out to be smaller than advertised. He passed a public-ethics bill with great fanfare that effectively gave legislative leaders discretion over the investigative process. He spurned a chance to fix New York's famously partisan legislative redistricting process, agreeing to a watered-down compromise that won't take effect for a decade, in exchange for budgetary concessions. And responding this year to a rash of legislator indictments, Cuomo created the Moreland Commission on Public Ethics, only to undermine its independent standing by having his aides dictate its scope.

Cuomo's attempt to position himself as "absolutely transparent in everything he does," in the words of Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy, turned to mush in fairly short order. While he improved access to some online data, the data was provided selectively. And the administration’s overall relationship with the media has been extraordinarily bad.

Reporters are routinely berated for what’s perceived as unfavorable coverage, while information that was once readily available through state agencies is now funneled exclusively through the executive offices on the Capitol’s second floor, if it’s released at all.

What would normally be public events are often either unlisted or announced without enough advance warning for many reporters to get there, with the governor releasing audio to those same reporters afterward—a workaround that allows him to generate coverage without the part where he has to answer questions.

In October, the Watertown Daily Times decried Cuomo’s management of the flow of information in an extraordinary editorial, writing, "In about 90 percent of the news stories we publish, we’re giving out what should be readily available information that most agencies and departments want to make public. But we have been denied access to either the information, or the people that have the information, time after time. Previously reliable spokesmen and women have been forced to tell us that they’ll have to clear the release of that information before they can provide it.

"When they say clear it, they mean there is a tiny, tightly controlled funnel through which all state information must now squeeze. The directive comes from the state’s Chief Bully, Andy Cuomo, and woe be unto anyone who violates it."

At times, the famously headstrong Cuomo has even looked excruciatingly indecisive.

The governor has dragged his feet for years over whether to allow fracking in the Marcellus Shale, drawing out the process in a way that is clearly political, allowing him to avoid alienating liberal environmentalists while allowing pro-fracking constituencies in economically depressed upstate areas to cling to their hopes that he'll eventually, somehow, come through.

The governor regularly puts off other tough decisions by first entrusting them to temporarily appointed commissions, who work up reports that he is then free to disregard. (In one case, Cuomo appointed a commission to advise the state on tax policy, then effectively layered over that first commission with a second one which was more likely to come to convenient conclusions.)

Cuomo may also find more resistance to his agenda in 2014 than he’s been accustomed to so far, facing a labor movement emboldened by the overwhelming victory of Bill de Blasio in New York City as he pursues a tax-cutting agenda in an election year.

Cuomo will likely employ the same divide-and-conquer strategy with labor that he did in 2010, pitting the more conservative trade unions against the progressives and public sector giants like the teachers, state workers, SEIU 1199 and HTC. But the labor-backed Working Families Party is ascending, as evidenced by de Blasio's win, and will be looking to reassert itself. (One WFP insider I spoke to even suggested the possibility of a primary challenge to Cuomo, if Cuomo fights de Blasio-like pushes for more revenue, or punts on the creation of a public campaign-finance system.)

Then again, people who talk about stepping up to Cuomo often end up backing down. If the governor isn't, as his longtime nemesis Spitzer once said on national TV, the “dirtiest, nastiest political player out there,” he's certainly formidable.

Expect Cuomo will spend the 2014 legislative session dodging questions about the campaign and insisting it’s not yet time for politics. All the while, he will be reaping the benefits of incumbency, flying around the state handing out taxpayer-funded checks for various economic development projects, doing much the same thing for which he lambasted then-governor George Pataki during his ill-fated debut gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

Some Republicans contend, gamely, that the race will be more competitive than the Cuomo people seem to think.

“The conditions are there” said John McArdle, a GOP operative and former spokesman for ex-Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. “People upstate are pretty pissed off. It’s clearly not 1994, but a lot of this is rubbing off on Cuomo. He doesn’t have the numbers he had two years ago.”

So Cuomo might not break his record. But he's still likely to come out comfortably on top.

“He’s got to come close to his 2010 election number,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said. “The truth of the matter is even if he wins 55-41 or 42, it’s still a 13, 14 point victory. That's still a big win.”

For someone content to remain a governor, it would be plenty.

 

Liz Benjamin hosts "Capital Tonight" each weeknight on the YNN stations across upstate New York.