F.A.Q.: Will things work now that Cuomo is almost governor and the Senate is almost Republican?

Dean Skelos (New York NOW, via flickr)
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A conversation with Times Union political reporter Jimmy Vielkind about regime change in Albany.

Josh Benson: Are things feeling more orderly up there yet, now that the Senate is settling?

Jimmy Vielkind: Not quite.

Jimmy: I think for a few weeks now everyone has known that the G.O.P. would be back in charge. Suzi Oppenheimer beating Bob Cohen was expected, but Craig Johnson on Long Island has trailed since Election Day. And Mark Grisanti surged ahead of Antoine Thompson within days, and never fell back behind. So the writing has been on the wall.

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Jimmy: At the Capitol, the G.O.P. has started to act the part a bit. They hired a new communications director. I saw a Republican skulking around the building; he admitted he was in to interview for his old job back. Some of the operatives I know are speculating about who's going to be running things. (Mostly internal promotions, it's expected. Such is the nature of mature patronage mills. They can afford to promote from within.) And Angelo Aponte, the Democrat-appointed Senate secretary (sometimes referred to, jokingly or disgustedly, as the 63rd senator) retired. So yes, change is in the air. Even some Democrats admitted as much, under their breath, during last week's "special" session.

Josh: So the Republicans will be getting their goodies back.

Jimmy: Right. Expect to hear Democrats complaining about that soon.

Josh: But in slightly bigger-picture terms: Will they be able to make the trains run on time? I suppose the Democrats have at least done them the favor of setting expectations somewhat low there.

Jimmy: Indeed!

Jimmy: It's too soon to tell, though. It took the Democrats about five minutes to figure out that with a 32-30 majority, it's just the prisoner's dilemma on a grand scale. Anyone can defect and gum up the works, denunciations be damned. And some of the new Republicans are already signalling that they're going to follow the trick. Grisanti in particular knows that being a lock-step G.O.P. voter is not going to help him. I was just looking at the enrollment in that district, which covers parts of Erie and Niagara counties. It's like 80-20 Dem-Republican. Grisanti himself was a Democrat; he's just playing a Republican on TV and in the Senate. He's already said he'll hold out for the best interests of Western New York, which means refusing to sign off on legislation that really screws your constituents.

Jimmy: The Republicans in the last two years did a great job keeping all their guys in lockstep. The reason has to do with their collective makeup: they are, generally, a conference of old white men. (They now have three women, up from two.) Contrast that with the Democrats, who have all races and colors, ages, agendas and diagnosed neuroses under the sun. The Republicans may have had the same problems—we saw a tiny bit of it (the late Sen. Tom Morahan got a bill to a floor vote by simply sitting there, out of conference, making it clear where he was going to vote and giving Democrats quorum to start session one day.) But this is rare. We'll see how they do with 32 votes, and with this new guy Greg Ball.

Josh: Among the people rooting for them to succeed in holding things together, presumably, will be Andrew Cuomo. Right? Aren't we being told that they're going to enjoy a harmonious relationship with the Democratic governor? Aren't we also being told, by extension, that Sheldon Silver will be the odd man out in this new order?

Jimmy: Yup. That's the conventional wisdom. Cuomo got to office with a fiscally conservative platform as the head of the "New Democratic Party." Cuomo wants to cap property taxes and cut the public payroll, "re-design" government and, once he does, lower taxes. Republican-type stuff. Silver is a bit more ... conscious, we shall say, of the support he and his members receive from some of the state's big unions, like New York State United Teachers, the Public Employees Federation, the Civil Service Employees Assocation. so yeah, it looks like it will be two against one, especially if Cuomo has an eye on the long game, in which cutting spending and working on a bi-partisan basis, whatever the political motive, sound very good in Ames and Des Moines.

Josh: Why should Andrew Cuomo be worried about what things sound like in Ames and ... OK, never mind.

Jimmy: Yeah. Never mind.

Josh: So I guess the question, which is probably not answerable right now, is whether Cuomo has actually got his reliable interlocutor now—whether Skelos will be able to deliver his conference on command, once he's the leader of a (very narrow) majority.

Jimmy: Yup.

Josh: Or?

Jimmy: Or whether we go back to, as Rahm Emanuel so eloquently described the state of affairs in Congress, Fucknutsville. If the individual Republicans look at something and have streaks of ideological purity, or hear the loud voices of the deep-pocketed, then we're in trouble.

Josh: What do you suppose the Assembly's aspect will be on all this?

Jimmy: Well, my suspicion is that Silver has a "this, too, shall pass" attitude toward Cuomo.

Josh: I suppose it's child's play at this point, the balancing act the Sheldon Silver will presumably have to do between appearing not to obstruct every single thing the others are trying to do and not actually allowing much or any of it to happen.

Jimmy: Right.

Josh: So how will that play out?

Jimmy: One pretty connected guy in Albany predicted to me that Shelly will give Cuomo three big victories this year. Probably the property tax cap, some major stuff in the budget and something else. Then next year, he'll give Cuomo one big thing. And then he'll never give him anything else. It's like Dana wrote, Silver is accountable to two groups of people, only: the 95-or-so Democrats in the Assembly, and the good people of lower Manhattan, who elect him diligently every two years to pursue truth, justice, and more butter for their bread.

Jimmy: Spitzer campaigned in legislators' districts. Cuomo says he'll be different, because he'll have "the people" do it. Cuomo won't be pushing back, it will be "the people." Cuomo will just help the people see the light instead of the butter. But I'm not really convinced that this will work. It never has before. So I think Cuomo will try to build a base of allies in the Assembly, which would enable him to wage a Cold War against Silver. Remember those days? [ed note: Jimmy was born in 1985.] We never launched the ICBMs, but just happened to take a major interest in slivers of jungle in Asia and workers-rights movements in Poland. Same thing here.

Jimmy: There were murmurs of a coup, but there's really no one available to take out Silver, who, from what the Assembly members tell me, listens to their concerns and is wise enough not to cross them. In short, from their perspective, things ain't broken. And watching the Senate go to Fucknutsville for two years has probably reinforced the idea in their heads that things ain't broken. And, as such, the repair man is going to have to be VERY good looking for them to invite him to look around.

Josh: Ha. Well let's suppose he is! Even then, where does he find these "allies," and what does he have to offer them that Brezhnev/Silver doesn't?

Jimmy: Well, all of a sudden, your bill gets mentioned in the State of the State. Andrew Cuomo, the single most powerful man in New York, travels to your district for a fund-raiser. He's backing you. He wraps you up in his warm blanket representing the will of "the people," and then you, too, are with "the people," not the other—the "special interests." Then Silver is just the guy who can take away your parking spot, office supplies

Josh: Office.

Jimmy: and men's room key (if there were a men's room key).

Josh: Discretionary money, Assembly campaign money, ability to pass legislation.

Jimmy: And it might allow some people to decide that they are accountable only to their "people." And in some segments of Upstate America, like, say, the 109th district where I grew up, being able to stand on a stage and say "I'm with Andrew Cuomo fighting Shelly Silver" is a vote-getter, while the converse is not. (Not to suggest anything about the seat's occupant, who won a narrow re-election. Hi, Bob!)

Josh: So the tradeoff would be you carry Clifton Park in a landslide, but you've basically taken a vow of poverty for as long as you're in the Assembly, at least until such time as the successful Silver-challenger, who does not currently exist, materializes from within the conference. Is that about it?

Jimmy: Yes, Archbishop Benson. You've got it.

Josh: Oof.