The governor’s lobby: Business leaders (and others) form a committee to save Cuomo

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Kathryn Wylde. (Partnership for New York City, via flickr)
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ALBANY—The seeds of the pro-Cuomo lobbying giant known as the Committee to Save New York were sewn in 2009.

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City—a coalition of major Manhattan business interests—lassoed the always-influential Real Estate Board and some upstate business groups for a breakfast forum at J.P. Morgan’s Park Avenue headquarters. She wanted to distill their message in budget season a simple, pro-business message.

"We want to be constructively anti-tax,” she said at the time.

The committee's strength is its breadth: Felix Rohatyn is its honorary chairman, and Rob Speyer sits on its board. There’s Time Warner’s Dick Parsons, too, and H. Carl McCall, the Democratic comptroller and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building Trades Council and an early Cuomo endorser, is the only labor leader involved, fueling talk of efforts to split the larger labor movement.

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In Cuomo, this group sees a vehicle to break the power of public unions that have dominated New York’s Democrat-leaning political scene for a generation, and they and the governor are remarkably in sync. During his campaign, Cuomo told the Times Union’s editorial board that business interests had “walked off the field.” He promised to balance the budget without raising any new taxes; limit the amount school districts and local governments can raise property taxes and “right-size” the state’s bureaucratic machinery.

The first advertisement speaks generally of the need to “repair Albany’s broken finances, create jobs and grow our economy.” It features footage of Cuomo at the State of the State and lauds “a new governor who’s ready to fix Albany.”

Cuomo and the coalition insist that there’s no coordination.

"On the issue of the budget, they are supportive of my position and they are advocating my position," Cuomo said last week. "I don't know that they are supporting all my positions—in fact I don't believe they will."

“We’re monitoring. To say ‘coordinating,’ I think that’s a strong word,” said Cunningham. “It’s filtered in there, but there’s not a direct hit around the table with people in the administration.”

The ties are well documented. Rohatyn, who chairs the committee, also sits on Cuomo’s council of economic advisers. Kenneth Adams of the Business Council led his organization to make an unprecedented endorsement of Cuomo over the summer. (It was overshadowed by other news.)

But Cunningham and Cuomo go back dozens of years: they worked together in 1983 during the administration of Cuomo 52. Cunningham now works at DKC, a firm founded by Andrew’s friend Dan Klores. It’s now run by John Marino, who chaired the Democratic State Committee when Mario was governor.

And given this mind meld, as one longtime political hand noted, “This is not a plot or a script that necessarily needs to be written out in long-hand.” Bat phone or no, they are a powerful Cuomo ally, as the Times notes at length here. (The ties between the group and the governor have now drawn the attention of at least one prominent good-government group: The "unique relationship," as NYPIRG's Blair Horner called it Tuesday morning, is potentially problematic from an ethics standpoint and should be officially disclosed.)

The governor has previously bemoaned the power of the “special interests,” which he defines as PEF, CSEA, NYSUT and the health care workers union 1199/SEIU. (The interests represented by the coalition, presumably, are special in an entirely different way.)

For the last decade, the unions have never hesitated to launch blistering ad campaigns designed to crush sitting governors and back them away from budget cuts they don’t like. The Committee to Save New York will give Cuomo air cover. In that context, then, the ad the committee last month looks quite a lot like a warning shot, fired as much as anything to show that the group will have plenty more ammunition when there’s actually something to fight about.

“I hope it doesn’t become that the unions spend millions of dollars and this group spends millions, and we end up nowhere,” said McCall, who defeated Cuomo in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor. “This will be an interesting test. We’ve come together because we do have a common interest in bringing about a change in support of the governor’s agenda and trying to bring about a change in how things operate in Albany.” He also said, "I’m clear about the fact that I will do whatever I can to prevent this from becoming a clash and something to bash unions...I take this as a model from what happened in the 70s when there was a fiscal crisis in New York City.”

Given the prevailing public sentiment at the moment about the magnitude of the budget problems in Albany and the governor's state plan to handle them, this line is not at all a stretch. There is strong support, in theory, for unusually harsh fiscal discipline, and for Cuomo’s distinctly un-Democratic-sounding message.

Already, there are efforts among the committee’s potential adversaries to reckon with its strength. Labor leaders gathered over chicken and cheese cubes at the Crowne Plaza Hotel the night before Cuomo’s speech. (Unlike the committee members I found in a bar down the street, they were unsure whether or how they would get tickets to the speech.)

“Everybody understands that we’re in a tough economic situation, but we wanted to start creating a dialogue not just about the budget, but about New York’s future,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told me afterward. “We’re very disturbed right now that New York’s income disparity is the greatest of any state … Everything seems to be about removing needed services for working class, middle-class and those challenged in these tough times.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a regular ally of the union, floated a balloon last week by suggesting that Cuomo’s beloved property tax cap be linked with the renewal of rent control laws.

The concept of rent regulation is the very same, that is to give people certainty when they are renters, to give them the ability to only pay reasonable increases as they go forward,” he said. (Cuomo quickly expressed his displeasure with the idea.)

Both items happen to be ones that Cuomo supports, but the linkage of the two might split the Committee: The Real Estate Board could no more be expected to back an extension of rent control than Carl McCall could be expected to support repeal.

“This will be an interesting test,” McCall said. “We’ve come together because we do have a common interest in bringing about a change in support of the governor’s agenda and trying to bring about a change in how things operate in Albany.”

Cunningham, speaking for the entire committee, said they wouldn’t engage.

“That’s not an issue that we’re dealing with,” he said.

The governor, a famous message disciplinarian, couldn’t have scripted it better himself.

Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Albany Times Union and the principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog.