The Cuomo Conundrum

The Cuomo Conundrum

Can Andrew Cuomo make New York the “progressive capital of the nation”—by empowering Republicans?


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen before he presents his 2013–14 Executive Budget address on Tuesday, Januar. 22, 2013, in Albany, New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Oddly, for a governor whose home state sits at the vortex of both global media and financial capital, New York’s Andrew Cuomo appears to be preparing his bid for the presidency quietly. Since his election in 2010, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and state attorney general—who is ten years younger than Hillary Clinton and fifteen younger than Joe Biden—has demonstrated a remarkable ability not only to get the legendarily dysfunctional New York State Legislature to work effectively, but to earn simultaneous credit from liberals, centrists and conservatives for doing so. Immediately following Cuomo’s shepherding of the state’s tough new gun control laws, his approval rating dropped from a stratospheric 74 percent to a still-pretty-damn-good 59 percent (falling to 55 percent most recently, but with a mere 27 percent expressing disapproval). And he managed, as Capital New York columnist Blake Zeff noted, to spin the story as if “he was merely paying a price for his bold heroism.”

Speaking to a room full of civic-minded business leaders recently at the law firm of Covington & Burling, the governor projected a winning combination of idealism, hardheaded political realism and charming self-effacement. “Change is hard,” he said. “You know… ‘Eat less and you will lose weight.’ Yeah, I get it. But that eating less is a problem.”

Cuomo’s politics elude easy labeling. An admiring profile in The New Republic claims that he “has been leading the charge of American liberals for over two years now,” and Cuomo himself has called New York “a community based on progressive principles.” He has also boldly stated his pride in New York as what he calls the “progressive capital of the nation.”

Cuomo’s progressive portfolio includes not only the post-Newtown gun control measures, but also 2011’s thrilling gay-marriage legalization. He has been at the forefront of strengthening abortion rights, bucking the national tide and introducing legislation that would guarantee women the right to late-term abortions when their health is threatened or the fetus is deemed unviable. He plans a ten-part Women’s Equality Act that would include equal pay and anti-discrimination provisions. And he has won praise from progressives for his role in producing a package of laws tied to the effects of global warming, after having overseen the state’s (considerable, if inadequate) efforts to recover from Hurricane Sandy. Cuomo is also trying, with mixed but potentially meaningful success, to reduce the impact of New York’s draconian drug laws on young people, especially minorities, who become caught up in the criminal justice system owing to small amounts of marijuana, and also appears to have engineered a last-minute rise in the state’s minimum wage.

Regarding taxation, however, Cuomo’s political profile has displayed a decidedly different side. It’s as if the personality of this self-proclaimed leader of the “progressive community” had been exorcised in favor of the soul brother to Grover Norquist. Not for nothing did Cuomo earned the epithet “bulldog for the rich” from New York Times local reporter Michael Powell. Lauded by The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page for his “ruptures with Democratic orthodoxy,” and saluted as a “soul mate” by New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, Cuomo is also admired by National Review pundit Michael Tanner, who touted New York’s “tax-cutting, budget-slashing, fiscally conservative governor” in a piece headlined “Cuomo the Conservative.” Tanner joyfully noted that “Cuomo didn’t just rule out tax increases, he actually called for tax cuts. Already he has pushed through the State Senate a bill establishing one of the nation’s strongest caps on property taxes.” (Cuomo’s 2011 bill, which limits the annual growth of local property taxes that fund public schools to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, is currently the subject of a lawsuit by the state’s teachers union.) In addition, Cuomo announced a freeze on salaries for state workers and forced the expiration of the state’s “millionaire’s tax.”

But it is not only taxes where Cuomo’s economic agenda has proven in sync with current conservative thinking (if that is not too generous a term for what Romney, Ryan and company have wrought). While his budget has increased health care and education spending, Cuomo has also assumed a surprisingly hard line in favor of penalizing New York City schools for failing to meet a deadline to come up with an evaluation system, demanding $260 million in education cuts despite a judge’s ruling that such cuts needed to be delayed until the legal process could play out. (The legislature’s top Democrat, Sheldon Silver, was once again put in the position of having to fight his state party’s leader for what had hitherto been considered a bedrock Democratic priority.)

Most disturbing perhaps, and revealing as well since almost no one was paying attention, was Cuomo’s decision to zero out of the state’s budget all funds for state’s defunding of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. According to Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times report, the program “trained volunteers to give children a voice in legal proceedings, and crucially to provide a holistic picture of the children’s lives that would help judges make more informed decisions about the cases.” Cuomo is planning to cut out all of its $800,000 in state financing for next year, thereby crippling the staff of just two administrators and a small team of social workers (with 120 volunteers) who managed, somehow, to serve roughly 1,500 children during last year alone. This despite the fact that, as Bellafante notes, “according to a 2009 study by the advocacy group, Children’s Rights, New York ranks fortieth among states in how quickly it returns children home and forty-fourth in terms of adoption.” (The Cuomo official with whom I spoke was unaware of this story when I raised it and offered to look into it and respond, which did not take place.)

As the son of Mario Cuomo, the famously introspective and inspirational former New York governor, Andrew Cuomo is frequently asked what qualities he shares with his unapologetically liberal father. Alas, he picked perhaps the worst possible way to claim his father’s mantle. Quizzed about what was then an outright refusal to reconsider his opposition to the millionaire’s tax despite the support it enjoyed from the State Legislature’s union-supported representatives, as well as its black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucuses, the governor replied, “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much,” then cited his father’s lonely opposition to the death penalty despite the strong majority support it enjoyed in the state at the time. “Reporters would say, ‘Well, people want it,’” Cuomo added. “And the point was, you know, we don’t elect—you can’t just have as a governor a big poll-taking machine, right?” The equation of cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires with saving the lives of prisoners on death row is a decidedly odd analogy for a politician deemed to be “leading the charge of American liberals.”

The acronym that one hears applied to Cuomo’s political philosophy is SPEC (“socially progressive economic conservative”). Another pundit terms him a “progractionary,” defined as a “hard progressive on social issues like gay marriage…but [championing] an austerity message on spending and taxes that fits in well with House Republicans.” Infelicitous as these terms may be, one wonders if either of them is fated to replace “New Deal liberal” as the guiding star of successful politicians from the center-left.

Pragmatically speaking, these positions make sense. Liberals are winning the culture wars, and demographic trends portend only increasingly easier victories when it comes to issues that appeal to young voters, women, college graduates and people of color. It’s an irony of American politics that it has become safer for many politicians to advocate gay marriage, a generous immigration policy and a woman’s right to choose—as divisive as these issues may remain at Thanksgiving dinner—than to try to address traditional bread-and-butter issues of economic equity.

Cultural liberalism is not only popular, it is also cheap. And it does not stir the kind of wealthy campaign contributions to adversaries that can draw well-funded opponents into the race, in a primary or a general election. Cuomo calls himself a “progressive who’s broke,” but this conveniently ignores the explosion of wealth that New York’s richest citizens have enjoyed in recent decades, particularly during his administration. (Since 2009, the year before his election, the wealthiest 1 percent of US citizens have secured for themselves 93 percent of all economic gains.) The contrast with previous progressive champions, particularly those from deep-blue New York, could hardly be starker.

Take, for instance, Mario Cuomo. It was the elder Cuomo, after all, who played the key role in rejuvenating the language and the politics of New Deal liberalism in the Reagan era. His words still managed to revive the progressive vision languishing at the time, beneath Reagan’s two landslide electoral victories and endless episodes of intra-liberal bloodletting. Cuomo’s simultaneously erudite and eloquent orations succeeded in honoring (New Left) cultural difference as they embraced the (old left) ethic of team work and economic opportunity for all: a “patch-quilt” nation working together, rather than the “melting pot” of old. Most moving, politically and emotionally, was his 1984 Democratic National Convention keynote address, still engraved in the memory of millions who watched it on TV or heard it on the radio. In that speech, as in many others, Cuomo argued for a liberal philosophy built on a foundation of “family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings.” True, few political lives demonstrate the adage that Cuomo himself coined—politicians “campaign in poetry” but “govern in prose”—more than Cuomo’s own, as his policies were often more conservative than his rhetoric. (New York liberals’ gallows humor at the time included the observation that his administration’s most significant jobs program was prison construction.) Even so, under the first Cuomo administration, the state made a strong commitment to such unfashionable causes as increasing unemployment benefits, exempting low-income workers from the tax rolls, building housing for the homeless, helping seniors pay for prescription medicine and aggressively enforcing the state’s environmental laws. Cuomo also paid close attention to civil liberties when appointing judges and drafting legislation. But if Mario Cuomo represented the pinnacle and perhaps the last gasp of New Deal liberalism, Andrew Cuomo may well turn out to be its undertaker.

Cuomo had justified his hard-line opposition to taxing the wealthy with the argument that New York cannot remain economically competitive if its wealthy residents are asked to pay higher taxes than they would elsewhere. Though he did support President Obama’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy at the federal level—as a top administration official was quick to point out when I raised the issue—Cuomo repeatedly demanded that if taxes were to be raised, this should only be done at a federal, rather than state level. In the course of our discussion of the issue, I pointed out that wealthy people on Wall Street and elsewhere in the state have never had it so good: stock market prices and corporate profits are at their highest points ever recorded, while virtually every serious study of the issue demonstrates that “tax flight” by the wealthy is a myth propagated by anti-tax ideologues. (Indeed, state revenue almost invariably increases when levies at the top are raised, while inspiring little if any so-called migration of the wealthy to neighboring states.) To this, Cuomo’s aide replied that this was simply a philosophical disagreement, and we would have to leave it at that. I asked if the aide could point me to any research that might support the administration’s “philosophy.” None was forthcoming.

What was forthcoming, in secret, however, turned out to be a shocker. Literally on the day the print version of this article went to press, Cuomo, according to press reports, reversed himself on the issue, and helped engineer an extension of what he had previously insisted had been a temporary higher tax bracket for seven-figure incomes in order to fund a cut for middle-income earners. The tax had been set to expire at the end of 2014 (which happens to be an election year). Cuomo had made no mention whatever of extending the tax in his January “State of the State” message, nor did either he or any of his aides bring it up as they travelled around the state to win support for their proposals. (And I heard no hints about it during my back and forth with his aides.) The New York state Democratic Party went so far as to commit itself to a television campaign trumpeting the lack of new taxes of any kind in his budget.

If we rule out the possibility that Cuomo so feared being portrayed as a economic conservative in a lengthy Nation article and so reversed himself on what had been a defining foundational aspect of his administration in order to mess with its author, then one can only conclude that the combination of the ongoing budgetary crisis, Washington’s sequestration melodrama, and the actual fact of the explosion of inequality in New York forced him to reverse himself in plenty of time to remake his image for both the 2014 and the 2016 elections. The surprise factor, moreover, had the effect of catching potential opponents off-guard, which has always been Cuomo’s modus operandi.

The last minute reversal notwithstanding, politically as well as philosophically, the younger Cuomo is a hybrid species, one that pundits have trouble identifying. Cuomo may believe his results speak for themselves, and for many voters, no doubt they do. But the distance Cuomo has created from the party that nominated him—and whose presidential nomination he is expected to seek—is hardly a matter of mere efficiency. It’s also been one of choice—his choice. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cuomo literally brought his own party to the party: he set up a tent outside the convention hall and held his own independent event. He avoided questions from the media scrum and refused to take positions on the party platform—or anything else, for that matter—that might compromise the image of fierce independence he had so assiduously cultivated.

Inside Albany, Cuomo has proven a near miracle of legislative effectiveness. (He likes to point out that he is on track to pass Albany’s third consecutive on-time budget, which hasn’t happened in nearly thirty years—and yes, that includes the three terms served by the previous Governor Cuomo, in case any­one’s interested.) He has done so, however, by downgrading the power of his fellow Democrats in the Legislature and elevating members of the Republican minority to the status of an operational majority in the service of his agenda. Cuomo approved gerrymandering schemes that preserved State Senate seats for right-wing—even Tea Party—Republicans. He then conspired with a group of ideologically flexible members from both parties to turn over the leadership to this ad hoc team—despite the fact that the GOP’s advantages in drawing up the districts did not result in a Republican majority. The net effect has been to create a shifting set of legislators who become relevant to the process only when they engage with an issue on the governor’s terms, regardless of party.

As with the almost overnight reversal on taxing the wealthy, Cuomo’s preferred method in these situations is to sit tight and let public pressure build, then strike fast before the opposition has time to organize. “Some bills, if you don’t pass them quickly,” he explained to the business leaders at Covington & Burling, “you don’t pass them at all.” That’s how he got the gun laws passed in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings: by springing a bill on the Legislature and then deploying his executive powers to suspend a constitutionally mandated three-day waiting period and demand an immediate up-or-down vote. A second tactic was on display in the marriage equality vote, when Cuomo leaned on top-dollar Republican donors to promise contributions to GOP representatives nervous about whether their votes would inspire a far-right primary challenge. To good-government liberals who point out that this is hardly the manner in which democracy was intended to operate, Cuomo scoffs that if “I get 100 percent for transparency, I get zero for results.”

Cuomo also makes no apologies for his aggressive fundraising or lack of disclosure. “I think everybody who’s now in office basically lives within the system,” he told a reporter following his Covington & Burling speech, referring to New York State’s lax campaign finance regulations. “Our point is we want to change the system [because] living with the rules, from my point of view, is very unpleasant.”

Fittingly, perhaps, Cuomo’s single biggest misstep in office can be tied to the power of moneyed interests. After fighting long and hard, the governor was forced to abandon a scheme to build a $4 billion convention center in Queens, as part of a joint venture with the Genting Group, a Malaysian corporation. It was a surprisingly naïve notion from the start—conventioneers don’t choose the Big Apple only to find themselves in Queens—but Cuomo’s inspiration appeared easier to decipher when The New York Times reported that Genting gave Cuomo’s political support group, the Committee to Save New York, a $400,000 contribution, and the New York Gaming Association ponied up another $2 million. (The names of the contributors to this group, which amassed $17 million for the governor’s 2010 campaign, have never been disclosed, but it is widely assumed to be heavily populated by real estate and financial industry donors.)

To take another example with profound symbolic resonance: while Cuomo is not the only Democrat to accept contributions from the Koch brothers, he has received more—by far—than any other. Indeed, in 2010, David Koch and his wife, Julia, ponied up $87,000 for Cuomo’s campaign—more than twice what they gave (in direct donations) to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Though Cuomo’s aides insist they have no idea what the Kochs find so appealing about the governor, it’s really not that hard a call when one surveys the political landscape—particularly if Hillary Clinton should decide not to seek the presidency in 2016, which would leave Andrew Cuomo as its leading aspirant.

Given such ties, together with had been until recently (his unyielding defense of the economic interests of New York’s 1 percent of 1 percent—i.e., its multi-millionaires and billionaires—Andrew Cuomo presents a decidedly risky proposition for liberals and progressives. Ever since Barack Obama won re-election and Karl Rove sustained a string of humiliating defeats in almost all of the campaigns he helped to fund in 2012, many in the media have taken to arguing that the power of money in the post–Citizens United world has been significantly overestimated. But to examine only electoral results is to misunderstand the way money works its way through our politics. A recent Demos report, “Billion Dollar Democracy,” points out that it took just thirty-two wealthy individuals to match the combined donations of 3.7 million Americans who gave $200 or less to Obama or Mitt Romney during the last election cycle. As former FCC commissioner Michael Copps has explained, “The most pernicious influence of campaign spending comes not on Election Day but after…. That’s when the real scandals start. Special-interest donors who contributed six or seven figures are looking for a return on their investment. They’re looking real hard when a special-interest issue comes up before a congressional or statehouse or local committee or subcommittee. Their access is taken for granted.”

Financial power need not be justified merely on the basis of the votes it sways. Rather, it can define potential alternatives, invent arguments and create phony “astroturf” constituent campaigns—the possibilities are endless. And recipients need not embarrass themselves by changing their positions in a public fashion. They can bury bills; they can rewrite the language of bills that are presented or simply fail to show up on the day of a key committee vote; they can confuse the debate; they can bankroll primary opposition. Most lobbying efforts are invisible to the naked eye because they succeed in preventing change from taking place. As the political scientist Frank Baumgartner explains, “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens.… What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs.”

The key to all of the above, as well as the transformation of liberalism from the social democratic vision of Mario Cuomo to the bifurcated one of his son, is the power and influence that Americans have allowed money to assume in our politics. The massive investment by corporations and wealthy individuals since the mid-1960s has successfully remade Congress, many statehouses, much of our mainstream media and the balance of institutions in their own image. Today, with the never-ending spigot of corporate funding for antiunion legislation at the local and national level, unions have had to muster all their strength merely to defend their right to exist, while lacking the resources and, in many cases, the self-confidence to take the offensive. With Democratic politicians increasingly dependent on the largesse of socially liberal multimillionaires, those who sought, in Ted Kennedy’s famous words, “to sail against the wind” often found themselves on the outs not only with funders, but with tough-minded political operatives who knew how difficult it was to win elections without them. (Just ask former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who ran a conspicuously clean campaign that rejected such contributions and lost his 2010 re-election bid.)

Andrew Cuomo understands all this. Indeed, he can be a compelling critic of the evils of the present system. “People…have become disassociated from their government, and they just don’t believe and they don’t trust and they think that government isn’t about them. And that is a killer,” he told the assembled crowd at the luncheon I attended, which had been organized by the Committee for Economic Development and the Brennan Center for Justice to demonstrate support for reform. “Nothing will restore the [public’s] trust more than campaign finance [reform],” Cuomo said. “And until we have [that], nothing else will.”

His aides’ protestations notwithstanding, Cuomo is clearly moving leftward from the early days of his administration, focusing on issues and positions that appear designed to appeal to Democratic primary voters. He did this first with marriage equality, next with gun control and now with his apparent reversal on higher taxes for the wealthy. But it may be the overhaul of New York’s antiquated campaign finance laws that will be the defining issue for his national political profile (and by definition, his political future), since money power lies at the center of almost all political reform.

The reform issue has haunted the state’s political institutions since the creation by Mario Cuomo of the State Commission on Government Integrity in 1987. Eighty-three percent of Americans surveyed say they would like to see the power and influence of corporate money in political campaigns curbed. The problem facing reformers, however, is that while this support is wide, it is rarely deep. As with almost all process-related reforms, it takes a back seat, in terms of media coverage and activist-inspired passion, to the issues that appear to affect voters’ lives more directly. Now add to this the fact that the people whose lives it will affect directly are the legislators who vote on it. And while few of these legislators enjoy all the time they must spend begging rich folk and corporate lobbyists for money, many fear for their livelihoods should the system be changed to their disadvantage. Moreover, the complexity of the issue makes it easy for politicians to portray themselves as supporters of reform and then defang it behind closed doors.

Campaign finance experts generally say they approve of Cuomo’s announced agenda, which includes lowering contribution limits, closing the loopholes that would allow donors to get around them, toughening reporting requirements and implementing a system of publicly financed campaigns. All of these are necessary and significant steps—but as Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, explains, it is the final item in particular that will determine the level of Cuomo’s commitment. “Most people recognize the biggest problem with our political system is that elected officials have the wrong priorities,” he notes, “because they spend so much time raising money from a few special interests whom they need to pay for their elections.” Indeed, a December 2012 survey of 504 New Yorkers conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Public Campaign Action Fund found close to 80 percent support for a reform package that included the public financing of elections. Norden calls public matching funds for small contributions “the game changer” in the current system of legalized corruption. An example of a relatively successful system along these lines can be found in New York City, and the result, as Norden points out, is that “political contributions come from nearly every ZIP code in the city, as opposed to almost exclusively from the three or four wealthiest neighborhoods. That means candidates and elected officials are spending more time with their constituents and less time with a few big-money donors.”

Andrew Cuomo says all the right things about these issues. He endorses the New York City example as a goal—indeed, I’ve rarely heard a more effective argument for publicly financed campaigns than the one he offered to the pro-reform business leaders at Covington & Burling. The trillion-dollar question manifests itself in the uncertainty as to whether Cuomo really means what he says, or whether he is simply saying all the right things to appeal to potential 2016 Democratic primary voters, only to abandon the most important aspects of the reform in some backroom deal once the moment of truth arrives. Cuomo and his staff insist that the Legislature can be brought around only by a campaign of public pressure similar to the one that won the day for marriage equality, which benefited from a privately funded multimillion-dollar campaign.

Activists are hopeful that once the governor passes his budget in early April, he will turn to this issue and put the full power of his office and influence behind it. It is, after all, an off year for legislative elections, and that’s the only time to take a difficult vote. (“The court of morality,” Cuomo ruefully notes, “meets rarely in Albany.”) But they are also worried—as well they should be, because if his first three years as governor have demonstrated anything, it’s that Andrew Cuomo does nothing except on his own terms and in his own way.

Indeed, during the 2012 election, the gods who govern political drama offered Cuomo a near-perfect opportunity to demonstrate his bona fides on campaign finance reform. The victory of Cecilia “Cece” Tkaczyk in her 2012 State Senate race was enough to melt the cynicism of the most jaded observers. Tkaczyk was hardly a likely victor in the race: she found herself running in one of the districts that the Republicans had gerrymandered to their advantage (with no objections from the governor), against a millionaire assemblyman with a much-easier-to-pronounce name, George Amedore. Badly outspent and with little to lose (the polls showed Tkaczyk as much as twelve points behind a month before Election Day), she decided to turn her campaign into a crusade for campaign finance reform. Embraced by good-government groups, she succeeded in turning the race into a referendum on democracy itself. Amedore took the bait and demagogued on what he termed a “Cece tax” that would be needed to pay for elections. But with neighbors and activists going door to door on her behalf, Tkaczyk surged—and even though the Republicans mounted a last-ditch George W. Bush–style attack on the vote counters, attempting to suppress roughly 450 votes, it worked on only about 350 of them. And when the final ninety-nine contested ballots were opened months after the polls closed, Tkaczyk was looking at an eighteen-vote victory.

Alas, New York’s governor—the leader of the state Democrats—didn’t lift a finger to help her campaign. Cuomo’s aides admit this, attributing it to differences with the candidate on “other issues.” But Tkaczyk’s campaign provides a near perfect model of the type of engagement Cuomo insists is necessary not merely to win the campaign finance issue, but to restore the faith of citizens in their government. Will he find a way to make the issue his own, pass it on his own terms and emerge on the national slate in 2016 as the prudent-but-progressive hero his supporters would love to believe he really is?

Campaign finance advocates insist—and Cuomo agrees—that a victory for publicly financed elections in New York State has the potential to be a watershed for the issue nationally. This proved true for marriage equality, and given the state’s center as the nation’s financial capital, the reverberations this time around may prove no less volcanic. Given Cuomo’s acknowledgment that “nothing will restore the [public’s] trust until we have campaign finance” reform, his willingness to make it the next signature issue of his effort to ensure that New York “remains the progressive capital of the nation” will tell us a great deal not only about Andrew Cuomo’s future in 2016 and beyond, but also that of liberalism itself.

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes that freshman New York Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk’s underdog victory on a campaign finance reform platform should stir up the struggle against money in politics—and push Governor Cuomo to take a stance.

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