8:20 am Sep. 14, 2010
ALBANY—The purple "SEIU 1199 for Cuomo" shirts appeared shortly after the candidate arrived at the Democratic State Convention in June, an opening event in his campaign to change New York by becoming governor.
"That was quick," I said to Jennifer Cunningham, the union’s former political director and current lobbyist. “I think those are left over from last time,” she replied, referring to Cuomo’s 2006 run for attorney general, which she managed.
Updated shirts haven’t been printed, maybe, and a formal endorsement hasn’t been made. Yet. But as Andrew Cuomo runs a campaign blasting those ethereal and un-named special interests so effectively mucking things up in Albany, he has dealt gingerly with 1199, which represents thousands of employees at hospitals and nursing homes and screams bloody murder when state officials mention tweaks to the state’s health care budget. Health costs are the fastest-growing part of the budget.
They’re the ally he’s happy to have but doesn’t advertise, certainly one he would think twice before crossing. And now that he’s secured the backing of the Working Families Party, remade in his image, with the help of 1199, maybe he doesn't need to trumpet his relationship with them. The political ideal, as Cuomo goes about his war on other special interests and entitlements, is for him and 1199 to co-exist with a minimum of fuss.
“I don’t think they want to have a public fight with 1199 like Spitzer did,” a prominent Democrat told me. “It doesn’t serve either of them.”
Cuomo’s campaign theme last week was, as he described in a radio interview, “to put together a coalition that can get an agenda passed by the legislature and overcome the institutional opposition that has stymied this state for a decade.”
He made the same case in the pages of the Daily News and in a post on the Huffington Post, challenging labor unions to step up and sacrifice on order to help him restore fiscal balance to the state. He didn’t name names on the radio; he mentioned 1199 in both articles. He also mentioned that other classic ‘special interest,’ New York State United Teachers.
Generally, Cuomo has been more aggressive toward the state teachers union—which in the current climate is not nearly as strong, politically, as 1199—and has fired several shots across NYSUT’s bow. His campaign platform calls for a cap on property taxes that NYSUT has lobbied against, and Cuomo has called for immediate legislative action and chose the topic as the theme of his first statewide television ad campaign.
In the cap, NYSUT sees a threat to the steadiest source of funding for teachers and school districts. The last time this issue came up in any serious way, they paid for billboards showing cute toddlers in black graduation caps, “the right kind of cap.”
Since Cuomo began pushing for the tax cap, they fired their own warning shot back, declining to endorse his candidacy. (Of course, they didn’t go so far as to oppose him.)
“The property tax cap doesn’t pick on NYSUT, it picks on New York state’s children, and we will be out there making real arguments for why it doesn’t provide property tax relieve,” NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi told me last week.
“I’m sure we will be able to work with whoever is the next governor, and I’m sure it will be Andrew Cuomo,” he said, but “we’re not part of his campaign coalition, we’re not signing onto his campaign pledge.”
Cuomo is banking on NYSUT having lost some stature in the court of public opinion over the past few years. Charter-school advocates have assailed the union, albeit indirectly, and won some important concessions. This year, despite the objections and maneuvering of legislators including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a NYSUT ally, education funding was cut $1.4 billion.
Cuomo's proposals to reduce the burgeoning costs of health care, compared to his push for the tax cap, have been far less specifically threatening to the health care workers union. Cuomo is on record saying government needs to "Make Medicaid More Efficient," in pages 46-49 of the first installment of his campaign book. He spends time elucidating the problem and then lays out five broad strokes—none of which have dollar amounts attached to them, or resemble a hard cap on resources.
His ideas include having the state take over Medicaid administration from individual counties, to "do a much better job of controlling over-utilization of Medicaid services." He also proposes that the rates by which hospitals are reimbursed be set in a non-political way, not "micromanaged" by legislators, that the state "control costs through programs that identify those individuals whose complex needs utilize many expensive resources and more carefully manage and coordinate their services," working to consolidate where possible with the federal Medicare program and negotiating to buy pharmaceuticals in bulk.
Paterson cut $385 million from the health care budget, with an additional $300 million booked in savings from reducing Medicaid fraud, that most popular and elusive of Medicaid promises. The state spent about $12 billion on Medicaid this fiscal year, which was up from the year before but grew at a lower-than-expected rate. The state spent about $22.3 billion on education and higher education.
1199, however, remains potent. The union aired brutal ads against Gov. Eliot Spitzer after he called them out during a PowerPoint presentation. In 2009, they repeated the trick against Gov. David Paterson.
So what is 1199’s posture toward Cuomo?
“We have a good relationship with Andrew Cuomo. We certainly hope and expect that would continue,” explained 1199 spokeswoman Leah Gonzalez. “We don’t typically endorse candidates for the general election until after the primary. We’re very focused on the primary right now with Eric Schneiderman and Gustavo Rivera.”
But the union has its ties to Cuomo, too. In the four years since the 2006 partnership, 1199 has donated $55,000 to Cuomo, including $23,000 this June. (NYSUT has given $22,500; its contributions tapered off last year.)
Cunningham and her lobbying partner John Cordo each gave Cuomo $1,000 last summer, but worked through the winter to coordinate Cuomo’s fund-raising efforts in Albany, in the days when he was waging stealth war against Paterson.
“It’s one of those marriages of inconvenience,” said one person familiar with the Albany fund-raising circuit. “It feels good, but you don’t talk about it over Sunday dinner with your mother.”
So, is there any favoritism?
No, Cuomo argues. Everyone is invited to come together, in what Cuomo said was the “big-tent theory of this campaign.” In other words, just because you’re not explicitly with Cuomo doesn’t mean you’re against him.
Right. Iannuzzi says he sees it the same way, more or less.
“In my personal dealings with Andrew Cuomo we’ve been very careful to not set the stage for labor wars or, public verse private sector...discourse,” he said. “It’s been about the need to work together when the time comes to do so. So whether SEIU  is being treated in a special fashion, only SEIU could answer that. I could answer for NYSUT and say that I’m not uncomfortable with the way we are being treated by Andrew Cuomo. It’s respectful, and it’s from a position of disagreeing on what strategy works.”
Gonzalez, the 1199 spokeswoman, declined to answer the question.
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