F.A.Q.: What would it take for Andrew Cuomo to declare war?

Andrew Cuomo speaks to the Empire State Pride Agenda. ()
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A conversation with Times Union political reporter Jimmy Vielkind about the status of Andrew Cuomo's unrealized Albany agenda items.

Josh Benson: There's lots of high-stakes stuff related to the Cuomo agenda that's going on in Albany at the moment, most of which has been eclipsed this week by bin Laden. But even today, there appears to be action related to same-sex marriage, ethics reform and that property-tax cap that everyone pretends they want.

Who's winning?

Jimmy Vielkind: It's a bit early to say, and it depends on the issue. There's LOTS of momentum behind the same-sex marriage bill (or issue, I should say, because they haven't actually introduced the bill yet).

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The advertisements have started, Chelsea Clinton is phonebanking, and there's a big legislative rally Monday. And senators who voted "no" are now publicly hedged in their position.

Josh: Is the absence of a bill a mere technicality? Or is this an instance of public support outstripping legislative wherewithal?

Jimmy: Technicality, but one that illustrates how Cuomo seems to be a driving force with the advocates and that the legislative allies are, well, not.

Josh: Can you explain, please?

Jimmy: Well, let's rewind a bit. During the campaign there were a few questions raised about just how committed to same-sex marriage and the gay community Cuomo was. Then Cuomo became very, very conspicuous in his support of the issue.

Now fast-forward. Cuomo just passed a budget that cut education, health care and some social programs. If you're a liberal from New York City, you're at best swallowing hard and at worst outright pissed. So, in a classic case of triangulation, Cuomo is pushing something that doesn't cost money but that will delight the same liberals. Which means, he needs CREDIT for same-sex marriage.

If it passes, the openly gay legislators who have rolled the rock uphill all this time will be delighted. They will be heroes to those who know they've been rolling that rock since long before doing so became cool. Cuomo, though, won't get such automatic glory.

He's tasked his top aide, Steve Cohen, with coordinating with advocacy groups. He held a meeting with them at the Capitol. It was a publicly announced private meeting. (Hmmm.) And then the groups all formed one umbrella coalition.

The legislative allies on this issue were not the driving forces. And the fact that they're waiting for Cuomo to release a gubernatorial program bill—again, CUOMO gives the bill—shows that.

Josh: So what's the hold-up? If the advocates and Cuomo are on the same page, and the legislature is waiting to take its cue from Cuomo, why is there no bill? Is it just a question of PR, given that any announcements of progress on such a bill won't be treated as major news in a week when the president is fresh off killing Osama bin Laden?

Jimmy: No, I don't think that's it. My guess is they still need to secure a handful more votes. And we haven't even seen the campaign get to fever pitch. There's only been one TV ad and the big rally is May 9. My spider sense tells me that's when the bill will be introduced. And then sometime later this month or early June—not quite the end of session, but toward the end of session—is when I'd predict action.

Josh: So what are you keeping your eye on in the meantime? Where's the action right now?

Jimmy: Property tax cap, rent control and ethics. I dug into ethics yesterday, and actually found that it's not quite at the kumbaya stage.

Josh: What stage is it at, exactly?

Jimmy: In negotiations. Senate Republicans alleged Cuomo tried to stack the panel that will eventually police them (a Cuomonian power grab? No ...) and, well, if you're close to a resolution you just shut up. So, it doesn't seem we're there yet.

I think the Assembly has calculated that the Senate is going to play the bad guy here. Speaker Sheldon Silver says he has an agreement with Cuomo. That is, he has sided with the light side. Cuomo isn't yet bashing anyone—though there are some shots coming from well-placed state government sources in Fred Dicker's Monday column. But if he starts, it doesn't bode well for a swift resolution.

Remember, the governor has a very compelling case here. A guy on the streets of Tupper Lake doesn't care about attorney-client privilege issues. He just cares that legislators keep getting indicted, that Cuomo was not long ago the one doing the indicting and, damn it, something needs to change. So Cuomo will go on this statewide tour.

Josh: How the dynamic shaping up between Cuomo, Silver and Skelos? Lots of us figured Skelos would hew super-close to Cuomo, at least as long as the governor was in his initial cost-cutting-conservative phase, and that Silver would be in the position of holding the line against both of them on spending issues.

Jimmy: That was budget season. Now it's more complex.

Josh: It seems the Senate is actually getting pincered pretty painfully here.

Jimmy: Exactly. Cuomo will be with Silver on rent control. And the Senate is dangerously close to becoming the public bad guy on ethics.

With rent control, Shelly has the advantage. He's closer to Cuomo ideologically, and Cuomo will be a good Democrat at the end of the day. Smart people note this is an issue on which you can wedge developers and landlords. This ought to be Cuomo's bread and butter.

Ethics is trickier. Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos are united in fear, and a desire to protect the legislative prerogative. I really don't know how that will turn out.

Josh: Isn't the Senate already cast as the bad guy on at least part of that whole ethics-good-government agenda? Neither party or house looks particularly good on the personal disclosure stuff. But redistricting, to the extent that the public can be made to care about it, could get very ugly.

Jimmy: Yes! Redistricting. They like the old process, where they can gerrymander districts.

Josh: Right.

Jimmy: I spoke yesterday to Sen. Andrew Lanza, who said that people really aren't focused on ethics. And it's true. Beyond the hyper-active fringe, they're not. Taxes. The ability to smoke in a bar. These are the important things.

But it can become important if the big bad governor rolls into town and says that your local representative is standing up to protect the criminal class of state government.

I mean, I wouldn't want that to happen.

Josh: I bet you wouldn't! So how far off are we from that state of war, actually?

Jimmy: Well the thing to keep in mind is that Cuomo has a big stick. It's his back-up plan. If negotiations don't go as he pleases, he has said he will convene a commission under the Moreland Act (Subpoena power! Testimony under oath!) to just look at, you know, the legislature. Think of all the things we would learn if he did that—how much Dean Skelos makes as an attorney, who his clients are, how many hours he works on their behalf to justify his compensation. Etc.

Josh: Now are you going to tell me you don't want that to happen?

Jimmy: That WOULD be a state of war. So far, no sign Cuomo's moving forward.

I would enjoy it, though. Unfortunately, the governor hasn't (to this point) consulted me for political strategy.