Cuomo won, but did he clean up Albany?

Andrew Cuomo. ()
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ALBANY—We had been standing at attention for more than an hour last Friday, waiting for someone to emerge from the second-floor conference room where Governor Andrew Cuomo was taking meetings. The legislative session was building to a noisy end, with the possibility that New York would become the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage; national television networks had sent correspondents to join the more weathered wretches of the Capitol press corps.

“I never knew reporting in this place involved staring at closed doors for so long,” one of the newcomers said, sounding actually surprised.

Eventually, Cuomo invited the public into the ceremonial Red Room at 11:15 p.m. to announce “a period of historic progress on all fronts” including passage of a property-tax cap, a slightly strengthened renewal of New York City rent regulations, the same-sex-marriage bill and a reassurance that “you can make this thing called government work.”

There is no question that Cuomo won the Albany game. He passed enough of his agenda to be able to show allies he had delivered for them, and he did so with no ill effects on his popularity, by coopting or marginalizing his opponents before they could gain any purchase.

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But while his political skill is affirmed as never before—Lt. Gov Bob Duffy said working with Cuomo “is like taking a painting class from Picasso”—the question of whether he has actually fulfilled his promise to “clean up Albany” is far from settled. Does this victory change the way business will be conducted there for the rest of his term and beyond? Or did he just play the same old game better than we’ve seen in a while?

“What he’s proven and shown is he has the ability to bring more conservative, liberal elements together,” said Assemblyman Pete Lopez, a Republican from Schoharie County. “The agenda this session has been his agenda. The legislature has not staked out leadership. The big question is, will he now be able to shift gears into the more complicated task of making government sustainable?”

The approximate answer to that last question may be approximately formulated like this: Cuomo’s ability to impose order on Albany is as sustainable as his extraordinarily high approval ratings. (A Quinnipiac poll taken after the end of the session showed 64 percent of voters approving of Cuomo's first six months, with only 19 percent disapproving.)

The source of the governor’s strength, in other words, is in his bully pulpit, as measured by polls and the aura of strength they create, and by the amount of effort, resources and creative thinking Cuomo has put into curating his image.

Before any of the big, foreseeable public debates ever got underway, Cuomo and his deepest-pocketed supporters had seen to it that his potential opponents would be outgunned and shouted down: the Committee to Save New York, a coalition of private-sector unions and business groups whose creation Cuomo nudged along before taking office, spent over $7 million in support of his efforts to reduce suspending limit taxes.

He also picked off individual, powerful special-interest groups from among the special-interest blocs likeliest to cause him trouble. For example, through consultation and a series of significant trade-offs, Cuomo guaranteed support for his Medicaid-reform plan from SEIU/1199 and the Greater New York Hospital Association, a longtime, tacit Cuomo ally which spent $6 million on an advertising blitz supporting the budget. In the past, the organization’s ads have crippled governors.

“Politically, he figured out where the opposition to everything is, and headed it off in advance,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Cuomo argues his strong standing is the result of his ability to govern in a manner consistent with his campaign message, and of his ability to continue to deliver that message in statewide tours designed to take his case beyond the Capitol halls to “the people.”

There are also the paid ads, though, which Cuomo doesn’t usually mention. They are, as longtime lobbyist Arthur Malkin puts it, the “perception creator,” and an important factor in pushing his poll numbers upward and keeping them there. 

The ad campaigns—in particular Cuomo’s untold capacity to launch and sustain more of them—represent something else, too: an implicit threat that Cuomo could, at any time, go nuclear

Related: Cuomo has the ability to cover them in glory, by mere association. So on Thursday, when the deal-announcement was imminent, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican, praised Cuomo’s “leadership skills” on statewide television. His Democratic counterpart, John Sampson, said voters saw “the same old Albany” fixed “because we had a new Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.” So along with the threats, it was this carrot, combined with some careful balancing of priorities for the legislative leaders, that led Cuomo to success. 

But again, that’s the political-tactical part of it. What about the substance of what Cuomo achieved? And what impact will any of it have on the way the process will work in the future?

Cuomo’s biggest step toward permanent change came in the omnibus ethics bill he announced at the beginning of June. Dubbed the “Clean Up Albany Act” before legislators insisted on a different name, the bill would create an independent entity to watch over the legislative and executive branches and force much greater disclosure by lawmakers. It has its flaws: in order to get the sign-off of reluctant Senate Republicans, Cuomo ceded the ability to appoint the majority of people to the new watchdog’s board. It later emerged that Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats will hold pocket-veto power over investigations into their own members, in perpetuity. Ethics groups had already blessed the bill, before the public saw that paragraph of bill language.

(Another Cuomo trick: announce agreements, poetically, and hope they never read the prose. In early June, as ethics details trickled in and a property-tax cap was announced but not yet passed, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb complained, “The sands seem to shift with every passing hour, and so, until I see it — I don’t believe anything around here until it’s more cast in concrete.”)

But the same bill did contain strong disclosure provisions, requiring legislators to line out their income up to $10 million. It would require most legislators, even lawyers, to disclose it if they have any clients with business before the state. At least one legislator I spoke to about the bill argued that this requirement was the key, and that it was less important if the enforcement body turns out to be flawed or even impotent. Fraud and bribery are already illegal, the thinking goes, and the best judges of the transgressions of sitting officials are voters.

“Just disclose it,” the legislator said. “Disclosure is the key to everything.”

We’ll be able to see whether that’s true the bill takes effect in 2013—after the next legislature is elected.

More real, somewhat, is an innovative clause in the bill to force outside lobbying groups (like the Committee to Save New York!) to disclose their donors. Good-government advocates expect the sunlight will make donors more reluctant, and reduce the shadowy outlets for money in politics. (CSNY spokesman Bill Cunningham said, “We always will comply with the law.”)

But even there, the victory over the pernicious influence of fatcats is somewhat less than definitive, in the larger context of what the administration is doing: Cuomo has continued in the tradition of previous governors by quietly appointing donors and allies to state boards for which their primary qualification seems to be the fact that they are donors and allies. Of particular note was the appointment of Howard Milstein, a major real estate developer, to chair the Thruway Authority.

(Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for the governor, emailed to dispute this notion: "The Governor's appointees have impeccable qualifications and represent a diverse set of a new talent that the Governor is attracting to state government, particularly Mr. Milstein who, as head of an international bank, will bring world renowned finance experience to an authority that needed to raise billions to pay for major infrastructure projects.")

The most that can be said for Cuomo—and it is not a small thing—is that he utterly shattered a set of assumptions that had taken hold in Albany in recent years about what can and can’t be accomplished, for better or worse, in a relatively short period of time.

“He had one thing outside of his power going for him: he became governor after two disastrous governors, in terms of actually getting things done," said Abe Lackman, a scholar in residence at Albany Law School who also lobbies and, in an earlier life, was a top aide to the Senate majority leader, Joe Bruno. "I think New York State has been adrift, governmentally, for almost a decade. One thing that worked for the governor was the expectations were so low.”

“I was a reluctant voter for Andrew Cuomo, and at the end of the day I voted for him because Paladino was so awful," Lackman said. "But he has exceeded my expectations. We’re almost at a place when we can say we’re proud to be New Yorkers.”