‘It’s bizarre’: A liberal crusader gives up on Andrew Cuomo

Samuels. (Facebook)
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For the better part of a decade, Bill Samuels, an idealistically liberal businessman and longtime state-level activist, has waged an often-lonely fight to install a Democratic majority in the State Senate.

It's a crusade that has, almost by definition, verged on the eccentric, first because the Democrats were given no chance of succeeding, and later because, after they finally did get into the majority, they made such a hash of it that many of their would-be allies (including, most prominently, Andrew Cuomo) walked away in disgust, and have yet to return.  

Despite a good election result for putative Democratic Senate candidates, it now looks as if Samuels' dream will once again be deferred, with news that a four-member breakaway faction of Democrats intends to join with Republicans in a sort of coalition majority.

Samuels doesn't so much blame the breakaway Democrats, who he once praised, as he does the Democratic governor, who has provided critical help to the G.O.P. in hanging on, by signing off on a gerrymandered district map, regularly praising the incumbent Senate Republicans and countenancing (if not openly approving) the decisions of what looks to be a total of five Democratic senators to join the opposition.

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Cuomo has dismissed such criticism as "hyperpartisan," saying that he simply wants a Senate that functions, and that it is up to the members of both parties to work out the leadership issue for themselves.

"What's most important to me is an elected official's position on the issues, and how do you support my policies, as opposed to their politics and their political agendas," Cuomo said today, at a press conference upstate. "Let them do their politics, I'm not interested in it."

Samuels disagrees.

"It's a total lack of leadership," said Samuels. "And it's bizarre, because I can't figure out why. He wants to run for president. He is losing. He can't get progressives across the country just because he was a leader on gay marriage. It's not enough. It's just not enough."

Though progressive commentators have called out Cuomo for frustrating his party's efforts to control the Senate, New York Democrats, including the Senate Democrats themselves, have been reluctant to make any public criticism of the popular (and famously ruthless) governor. 

Samuels, who is independently wealthy and has no plans to run for anything, is an exception.

Samuels criticized Cuomo earlier in the year for not committing more strongly to follow through on campaign finance reform. The Senate situation has intensified his displeasure.

"He has consistently been in bed with the Republicans," he said. "What he should have done is be a leader."

Samuels expressed his own frustration with the Democratic performance in the two-year term after the 2008 elections, working to oust the renegade members who crippled the already-weak conference leadership, and excusing the Democrats who left the conference in protest of its dysfunctionality.

He wishes the governor had taken a similar level of interest in fixing the problem.

"Assuming you're a Democratic leader who wants to run for president, what he had to do is intervene," Samuels said. "He had skyrocketing—and still does—influence and public support. Reshape the leadership of the State Senate. I mean if anyone could have done it, it was him."

Cuomo has deflected questions about which party he would prefer to control the Senate, saying he will withhold judgment until all the ballots are counted, presumably referring to the ongoing count of paper ballots taking place in an upstate senate district.

But Samuels is exercised about that too, since the newly created district was a product of an agreement Cuomo signed off on in violation of a longstanding reform pledge, allowing Senate Republicans to draw lines to maximum advantage and to add a new district based on a 19th-century formula for determining the number of seats. 

Cuomo declined to endorse in the new district, even after his new allies on campaign finance reform spent heavily to back the Democratic candidate, and local officials pleaded with him to tilt the close race.

"Those guys put a half a million in, are within a few votes with a woman who was opposed because of her support for campaign finance reform, and Cuomo didn't endorse," he said. "I'm wondering what they think, someone ought to ask them. I would think they'd be absolutely appalled ... A half a million dollars ain't chicken feed. And he doesn't endorse? That's just bizarre. It's just bizarre, I don't get it."

Samuels, whose reform-minded causes include campaign finance reform, said he had no idea "which Cuomo is going to show up" on that issue.

"Will it be the Cuomo who really lobbied and worked hard to get marriage equality passed?" he said. "Or will it be the Cuomo that showed up on redistricting, that put in a faux bill, called it 'historic,' and there's nothing there? Which one is going to show up?"

For him and other activists, Cuomo's decision not to help Democrats win control on the Senate was "the straw that broke the camel's back."

"As far as I'm concerned it's a major scar on his reputation," Samuels said. "And at some point, he's going to pay a price for it, because people like myself would never support him for president. Wouldn't even enter my mind."

"I'll tell you what, it seems to me the only rationale that I really can come to is that Andrew really isn't ever going to run for president," he added. "Because this is not a presidential Democratic primary strategy. It just isn't. His father never ran. It's a general election strategy, you know, in the state. But look, I don't know how he thinks—I just know it's not coming across in a way that makes sense to anyone except [Dean] Skelos."