When will Andrew Cuomo’s abandonment of the Senate Democrats get awkward?

Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, via flickr)
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A conversation with Times-Union political correspondent Jimmy Vielkind about the governor's non-participation in Democratic efforts to take control of the State Senate.

Josh: What's the cost-benefit analysis, for Andrew Cuomo, of getting involved in the State Senate situation?

Jimmy: All cost, minimal benefit either way.

And he knows this. He knows that he can't fully predict what's going to happen, and therefore, he can't throw his weight behind a predetermined winner.   

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Cuomo is very risk averse, and a big believer in the old maxim about being sure you're going to kill a bear before you fire a shot at it.

Since it's unclear which side will emerge victorious—a count in the southern and western edge of the Capital Region is still going on, and could still break either way—there's no clear benefit to being involved.   

So I don't expect we'll see anything from Cuomo other than post-game credit grabbing, whichever way things go.

Josh: Well, it's true that the votes haven't all been counted, and if the remaining outstanding result goes to Amadore and the Republicans, Cuomo will be able to claim that the people had spoken and that was that. (I mean, ignore the gerrymander and the Felder defection and the fact that most people voted for Democratic senators and all that.)

But if the Democrats pick up that seat, and would in theory be able to pick up the majority if they got the Independents back into the fold—would that make Cuomo's calculation any more difficult?

Jimmy: I don't think so. Granted, he didn't do the Dems any favors, and worked very hard to avoid giving them a blanket endorsement—something that drew damnation from liberals like Chris Hayes.

But what are they going to do? Get into power and then attack the leader, in fact if not in title, of their party?   

Attack a governor whose approval rating is around 70 percent?   

They'll quickly find some common ground to focus on and start pushing it.   

It will be a reconciliation that both sides want.

I don't think it will be that difficult — I mean, look at how easily Cuomo and Shelly Silver found a working relationship.

Josh: But isn't the key there that Sheldon Silver is unassailable?

He has a supermajority and, related, control of his members. I think the whole point with the Senate Democrats is that Cuomo knows they don't have their act together and he isn't willing to use his influence to change that.

So sure, Cuomo's probably not too worried for now when liberals complain about the fact that he's keeping the Republicans in power in the Senate.

But doesn't it get a little awkward at some point? I mean, the more of a stretch the Republican majority is, the less plausible Cuomo's hands-off posture looks. Like, if the Republicans continue to control the Senate thanks to a Cuomo-approved gerrymander plus five defections that the governor was perfectly OK with, and then over the course of the next couple of years their conference blocks campaign finance reform and drug reform and a hike of the minimum wage, doesn't it become somewhat more difficult for Cuomo to explain to Democratic primary voters why he didn't just do something about it? Does anyone believe it would be at all difficult for him to get the defectors back in line if he wanted to?

Jimmy: I think it becomes less difficult as time goes on, because I think the Democratic conference continues to refresh itself.

Democrats now are quick to point out they have 14 new members in their conference.   

And, a bit more quietly self-effacingly, they acknowledge that the 2008 team was definitely a B-Team.   

Frankly, not much was expected of minority state senators and when the expectations were raised, people kind of freaked.   

Their biggest experience was repression at the hands of the Republicans, something they worked hard to make right.

The new crop of legislators is different, as Michael Kink, a former Senate Democratic staffer who now lobbies for labor unions, told me.   

Several are veterans of the Assembly majority. Others have served in local legislators.   

They're coming to make laws, not to have a good time. And theoretically, they learned that playing on a team and subordinating your own desires is sometimes the most effective way to represent the people who elected you.

(Asterisk: Simcha Felder.)

Josh: Well so what does that mean, Cuomo-wise? To the extent that the Senate Democrats are a more formidable and grown-up-looking team than the one that was repeatedly outsmarted by the geniuses known as The Four Amigos, doesn't it become that much harder to use "chaos" as an excuse for keeping them out of power?

Jimmy: Yes, it does.   

That's a function of (1) how grown-up-looking the team is and (2) what outside validators have to say about it.

You'll start to see a change in Cuomo's tune when major, core, New York-based Democratic constituency groups—think 1199—start calling him out.

They matter in ways that Chris Hayes does not, and they're slowly starting to engage. The Working Families Party is about to host a rally featuring Assemblyman Karim Camara, chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.

Josh: So when you say there's minimal benefit for Cuomo in getting involved, what you really mean is there's little benefit in him doing so right now, but that his calculus is going to change as soon as the Democrats and their allies get their act together?

Jimmy: Precisely, but I would change "as soon as" to "if."   

I think there's a good shot that all of this becomes moot very quickly if George Amedore finishes ahead of Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk.

Josh: What's your sense there?

Jimmy: It's difficult math for the Democrats.   

At the start of Tuesday, they were down about 700 votes with about 2,500 ballots left unopened.

Not impossible, but not an easy task.

Republicans are sounding and acting pretty confident. They boast about their absentee ballot program and note that Tkaczyk got a boost from late advertising—which likely hit after many ballots were sent.  

Josh: How much of Cuomo's unease about getting involved has to do with race? John Sampson was the leader in the bad old days, and the conference's supposed makeover will never be entirely convincing if he's even putatively in charge. But I imagine it would be problematic for Cuomo to be seen playing any role in jettisoning the only state-level Democratic leader of color, after he headed up that all-white ticket in 2010.

Jimmy: I think that's about right.   

Again: there's a lot of risk here for Cuomo. Senate Democrats have broken down along racial lines in many instances and personal lines and whatever lines you can imagine. If there is an old-fashioned leadership struggle, and Cuomo were to be involved, it would seem inevitable that he'd have to pick a winner and a loser.

And again, if the Republicans can hold on, these problems can all be relegated to the back burner. That's probably preferable for a governor who is, as he constantly reminds us, trying to get shit done. 

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