Cuomo runs against his party, sometimes

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Cuomo with daughters, Democrats. (Jimmy Vielkind)
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COLONIE—The picnic at Lanthier’s Grove here on Saturday was Andrew Cuomo’s third event of the day, and it was different from the ones that had come before: it was a staunchly Democratic crowd, and he gave a staunchly Democratic speech.

It was the Albany County Democratic Committee’s annual picnic, and Albany County is a Democratic county. Think guys with thick necks sweating lager through cotton tees with their union locals. In the olden days, the party faithful would show up to pay homage to the elected officials who secured their jobs. Not much has changed since the olden days.

So what did Cuomo talk about? Jack McNulty, a favorite son who aged to be a party elder before he passed away last December. Cuomo summed up the lesson of McNulty's life’s work: “You work for the people—you don’t work for the lobbyists, you don’t work for the special interests, corporations, you don’t work for the campaign donors, you work for the people of the state of New York,” he said. “That’s what the Democratic Party has always stood for and always reminded us. You’re with the people. You’re doing it with service, you’re doing it with honor, you’re doing it with integrity.”

The speech lasted four minutes and 47 seconds. Not mentioned: Cuomo’s pledge to cap property taxes, reorganize government and “put New York’s fiscal house in order.” Nor his pledge to “clean up” Democratic-controlled Albany. Standing on a stage beside Assemblymen Jack McEneny, Ron Canestrari and Bob Reilly, Senator Neil Breslin and his brother Mike, the Albany County executive, as well as Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings (an old buddy who Cuomo ribbed as having “a beautiful set of legs”), Cuomo didn’t mention the stated purpose of the statewide Winnebago ride: to gather signatures for his “Reform NY” pledge.

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It’s the latest step along the tight-rope that Cuomo, a second-generation politician, has walked in his second campaign for governor. Cuomo is actively seeking—and receiving—the support of officials and apparatchiks like the ones he addressed in Colonie. But he’s running on a platform of stripping down government and purging the party of the entrenched, and tailoring the message to them is not easy.

“You can’t have it both ways," McEneny said, in a phone interview. "You can’t elevate the career politician like the late Jack McNulty as a role model and not recognize that there are some living role models, too. I think as the campaign goes on, there has to be a recognition of people who have worked very hard, very honestly, to be the best that they could. That message has not gotten across.”

A source in the Cuomo camp said the speech in Colonie was “consistent with the themes we’ve been talking about” and dismissed the idea of any substantive differences in what the candidate has been saying.

“It’s about the product, it’s not about the machinery,” the source said, and the campaign is focusing on a message of effective, streamlined, austere government demanded by the times.

That was more on display earlier that Saturday in Catskill, where, in an art gallery, Cuomo said the state was “at a tipping point,” in need of reduced taxes and spending.

At that event, Cuomo basked in the endorsement of Vincent Seeley, the Republican village mayor, who called Cuomo “the right man to get our state back on track.” It was the third time he had been introduced by a Republican elected official: Putnam County Executive Robert Bondi and Carmel town Supervisor Ken Schmitt launched the opening salvo during an event last week in Mahopac. Cuomo used the "tipping point" line there, too.

There were earlier hints of the new Cuomo. At a speech in Niagara Falls to the Democratic Rural Conference, Cuomo (not yet a declared candidate) said that “this government” has “betrayed” the public, and “in this Democratic Party, there is no place for government corruption, period.”

“You know what my friends? We can’t afford 10,521 governments anymore,” he added. “That’s what it comes down to…It’s not just about balancing a budget. It’s about changing the way we do business, rolling up your sleeves.”

This point is even older. Cuomo pushed the legislature to approve a bill that would give citizens a clearer path to consolidate local governments, and one of the many support-building speeches he gave was to the Conservative Party’s annual conference.

“New York’s government is too big, too many levels of government, and it’s too expensive,” he said in February, 2009. “That’s why we have the highest local tax burden in the country, because we’re paying for too much government.”

The culmination of the new Cuomo came in May, at the Democratic Party’s convention in Rye Brook. Now running as a fiscal conservative against a widely despised Albany infrastructure, Cuomo and his allies papered the hotel with signs proclaiming the “New Democratic Party.”

"When society is in a crisis, it is the Democratic Party that stands up and makes a challenge," he said in his acceptance speech. "My friends, New York state is in a crisis, and it is time that the Democratic Party steps up and makes New York state the Empire State once again."

"Today's approach requires fiscal prudence," Cuomo continued. "It requires competence and performance in government. The government must work once again."

The response was generally polite—the party regulars didn't love it, but almost none of them were willing to criticize a shoo-in next governor with a notoriously long memory. Still, some of them vented. "I'm not a 'new Democrat,' I'm a lifelong Democrat," said Councilman Robert Jackson of Harlem. "I believe in honesty, integrity and straight-forwardness."

In fact, Cuomo’s campaign has very deliberately been as un-Democratic as possible from the very beginning. His first endorsement came from the executive committee of the Independence Party. Between the Saturday he kicked off his campaign and the Thursday that he accepted the nomination, the only elected Democrat Cuomo appeared with was Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, his pick for lieutenant governor. With the exception of former comptroller Bill Thompson, Cuomo’s validators have not been a mighty old guard giving him a blessing, but a new, extra-partisan class professing a willingness to serve.

Regardless of message, Cuomo’s presence at the picnic generated more buzz than all the other visiting candidates combined. Jennings remained a shepherd at Cuomo’s side, as longtime aide Joe Percoco signaled the way forward from a few steps ahead. Cuomo shook hands and signed paraphernalia along the rows of picnic tables, through the beer tent and past the raw bar. All the legislators were standing on stage, their speeches eclipsed by Cuomo’s stroll.

“Are there any Albany County Democrats?” he began, seeking louder whistles. “I can’t hear you! Are there any Albany County Democrats?”