Cuomo’s right-track address

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Andrew Cuomo. (Governor Andrew Cuomo)
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ALBANY—It's morning again in New York.

Or at least, according to Andrew Cuomo, the state's fortunes are much rosier than they were before he took office three years ago.

Cuomo used the first quarter of his 67-minute State of the State address to talk about progress, and the upward trendlines he sees all across the state.

A $10 billion deficit in 2011 has been transformed into an out-year surplus. The state is adding jobs, and as Cuomo proudly boasted, has more private-sector jobs than ever before. All New Yorkers have had their state income taxes trimmed. There are cranes in Buffalo. 

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In contrast to his earlier addresses, Cuomo's rhetoric placed New York's problems squarely in the past. A string of sentences started with clauses like “after 20 years of trying,” “for the first time in 30 years,” and “after decades of conflicts,” before ending with Cuomo accomplishments. That kind of framing has always been a key to Cuomo's political narrative, and will be the core of his re-election argument this year. He said he couldn't over-emphasize his partnership with legislative leaders, and even gave a shout-out to Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat who criticized Cuomo for not doing enough to help financially struggling cities upstate.

“For decades, Albany had become a poster child for gridlock," Cuomo said. "Long before Washington D.C. put gridlock on the front pages, the story of Albany was gridlock. We stopped talking and we started doing, and in three years, my friends, you have reversed decades of decline and made dramatic and undeniable progress.

“We did what we said we would do. And as elected officials, there's no statement that should make you prouder. … We changed the direction of this state for the better,” he continued. “Let us build on that success. Job one is jobs.”

For Cuomo, that means a new suite of tax cuts, aggressive use of last year's START-UP New York program, more events to drum up tourism, and a building program. Upstate, it will be focused on luring foreign businesses—probably in large part from Canada—and downstate, on rebuilding and hardening against future weather events.

(This approach led Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos after the speech to refer to Cuomo, somewhat mischievously, as a “good moderate Republican.”)

Cuomo made specific mention of Buffalo and the North Country, aiming at moderates with an eye toward his election.

“He's a parsimonious progressive," said Larry Levy, executive dean of Hofstra's University Center for Suburban Studies. "There's a lot of things he wants to do and there's many things he has done, but he's trying to do them as cheaply, as cost-effectively, as possible. In a less cynical sense, he's offering a new model for realizing the old model for realizing the liberal dreams of his father's generation. Everything was in the context of economic development and government efficiency, even the progressive agenda.

"This is shrewd if you want to get the moderate middle of populace behind you. It was typical of an election-year State of the State in that he went out of his way to offer something for everyone. He talked specifically about a progressive agenda.”

Cuomo's economic agenda did in fact come with several conspicuous gestures to the liberal Democratic base, including a medicinal marijuana program and a new embrace of a campaign to raise the age at which teenagers are criminally charged as adults.

The governor also tried to thread a needle on the issue of expanding pre-Kindergarten, offering funding for required facilities through a new bond act and a commitment to statewide expansion, even as he continues to duck a direct public debate with Mayor Bill de Blasio over a proposal to fund pre-K with a high-earner tax on city residents.

Cuomo once again called for anti-corruption measures as a response to last year's spate of legislative arrests, but he did so in a fairly gentle way. He mentioned his Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption and embraced the heart of its recommendations, including public campaign finance. But rather than call lawmakers out, he simply said the negative sheen reflected poorly on them all. He used words like “we” and “us.”

“People don't distinguish,” the governor said as the audience grew quiet. “It's just a state politician who works in state government. That's all they hear, that's all they know. … It is a problem for all of us, and it goes to the essence of what we are all trying to do.”

This is how Cuomo ended his speech, and, it was clear he was walking a line. After all, the lingering stink of a corrupt Albany is one of the last threats to his re-election argument. His best hope here was not to shame legislators, but to convince them that it was in all their interests to enact some sort of upgraded ethics package. And then, he promised, the sky was the limit.

“When government has the public trust, government has the capacity to do good work,” Cuomo said. “I do believe in the Legislature, I do believe in this, I do believe in us. … The more trust, the more capacity. This is working. We went through all the stats and all the statistics on the progress of the state. We have done what we said we were going to do. We've turned the state around. We're balancing budgets, we're working together. We have put the politics aside. … I believe it's like fuel for a rocket: if we have the trust of the people and they're watching us perform, and they're seeing this state move, then there's nothing we can't do.”