How Albany’s little Occupy movement has given Andrew Cuomo big fits

how-albanys-little-occupy-movement-has-given-andrew-cuomo-big-fits
Occupy Albany demonstrators. (Jimmy Vielkind)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

ALBANY—There are no more than three dozen of them during the day, milling, munching, strumming and holding signs amid the 75 tents they plopped in a park between the Capitol and City Hall.

Occupy Albany isn’t very menacing on its face—it's much smaller and more poorly endowed than its big brother, Occupy Wall Street. But like most things here it has been pulled into the orbit of state government and its guiding star, Andrew Cuomo.

Last Thursday about 90 people marched from “Cuomoville” to the governor’s office across the street, decrying him along the way as “Governor One Percent” for refusing to reauthorize an income-tax surcharge on New Yorkers making more than $200,000 a year.

Make no mistake: Cuomo has faced pressure on his left flank before, from coalitions with far more boots and money than the demonstrators have. They have brought hundreds, at times over 1,000, people to the Capitol halls.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

But the governor, praised for his tactical acumen even by his enemies, has always been able to keep some measure of control by splitting apart coalitions, cajoling allies and picking losers among his would-be opponents. What is particularly problematic about this otherwise unimposing Occupy splinter-movement is the apparent lack of political leverage the governor has been able to exercise over it, and the backlash he now faces for trying.

In what one police official described as an “egregious abuse of power,” Cuomo’s top aide Larry Schwartz “coordinated” with Albany police officials to have an 11 p.m. curfew enforced at the demonstration, in Academy Park, which is controlled in part by the state and partially by the city.

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings agreed, but his police officers resisted, fearing a flurry of trespass citations against otherwise peaceful protesters would hurt community relations. Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares, and lawyers for the city took a second look and decided charges wouldn’t stick and would be a waste of precious time and resources.

Another Cuomo aide, Joe Percoco, chewed out Jennings for non-compliance. ("We've had very candid conversations, and I've said I have to do what I have to do based on my legal advice," Jennings said afterward.)

Without firing a shot, without shedding a tear, the protesters had won the right to exist, and watched Cuomo smear something resembling egg on his face.

“What is he afraid of?” asked Ron Deutsch, executive director of the labor-backed New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness coalition, gleefully. “Why does he want to stifle democracy? When he’s got a 70-plus percent approval rating, why does he need to step on a movement creating a dialogue?”

It’s because order and predictability are the keys to the Cuomo narrative, and the only plausible explanation behind what seems to be statistical contradiction: Cuomo enjoys a 71-percent job-approval rating, but 58 percent of voters in the same survey expressed sympathy for the Occupy demonstrators and, by a 66-26 margin, support continuation of what’s commonly called the millionaires tax.

In radio interviews, Cuomo has said he’s “fine” with Occupy Albany, but again, stressed the need for order.

“We believe in the right to demonstrate; we also believe in the rule of law,” he said, adding that the Occupy demonstrations are “nothing new” compared to protests during the legislative season.

But in normal circumstances these events are largely organized by labor unions, and are an almost predictable part of the budget process. In other words, they haven't been an issue for Cuomo.

So when people marched to the governor’s mansion in February, they were organized by the NYSUT-backed Alliance for Quality Education. The Public Employees Federation can send thousands of members to a rally. You could argue the governor doesn’t have any degree of control over these protests, but each group has a slate of demands, from school aid to pension security to a new contract.

“The governor is extraordinarily skilled at being the governor of the state of New York, and we all have different levels of discourse with the governor,” said Denis Hughes, president of the AFL-CIO. “We want the governor to develop better economic development schemes. We want the governor to do a whole bunch of other things that would benefit us, one of which is the millionaires tax.”

This is part of why the unions were unsuccessful in their push this spring to reinstate the millionaires tax, Hughes said, along with a steeling—encouraged by Cuomo—of the business lobby. For the first time in recent memory, the unions were outspent by a directly opposing interest group, and divided, after Cuomo brought some of their most powerful representatives into his decision-making process.

(“It isn’t like we’re playing golf on this, and it’s us against the course. It’s like we’re playing golf and they’re playing football,” Hughes said.)

But comparing Occupy Albany to a union-backed demonstration is like comparing a nation-state to guerilla army—you won’t find them in the U.N. General Assembly and aren’t sure if they’ll abide by the Geneva Conventions. Some of the people are persistent demonstrators (one described himself as a “freelance civil rights activist”) but they are pushing forward, for now, without the support of larger groups.

This crew sees how the rest of "the left" has been mollified—more than a few pointed to Cuomo’s successful push for same-sex marriage, a move loved by liberals who might otherwise be inclined to hold his fiscal platform against him—even as they struggle to describe how he's done it.

“The governor’s been really good at P.R.,” said Jackie Hayes, 29, a SUNY-Albany graduate student. “He came out of the budget bragging he passed it on time, and not a lot on what his cuts mean.”

“It’s a contradiction. It will lead to some kind of change,” said Joe Lombardo, 63, a retired state worker from suburban Delmar. “The majority support is against him on all the issues.”

A man nearby carried a sign proclaiming, “I vote and so do 99 percent of my friends.”

These people are not going to get their millionaires tax, as Cuomo has made clear. But they have managed to do what the on-their-heels unions couldn't, on their own: They've made Andrew Cuomo swing and miss, and look bad in doing so.

I think Cuomo is a control freak and Larry Schwartz is a martinet,” said Peter LaVenia, co-chair of the Green Party and a PhD candidate at SUNY-Albany. “He doesn’t like that there might be a place for other occupiers to come and put pressure on the legislature on this issue.”

“Mubarak, the dictator ... had a better position on allowing protesters to stay in Tahrir Square than our governor has letting us stay in Academy Park,” said Lombardo.

It’s a charge against which Cuomo hasn’t figured out a good defense, and one that will fester for an undetermined future. His office's official position is that they never pressed the Albany mayor's office to crack down, and that the city backed down on its own.

So going forward, there will be marches here and there, especially if the encampment is still around when the legislature returns in January. But mostly, for the Occupiers, the priority is going to be to find a way to continue their defiant existence. Which could be, in the eyes of the governor, quite enough.

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