Sunday, May 5, 2013

Maestro Cuomo

Looks like libraries are going to need lots of shelf space for Andrew Cuomo.  In just the third year of his first term as New York's Governor, Cuomo's tenure has already spawned book plans from a Vanity Fair editor, Post columnist Fred Dicker and, as of last week, the Governor himself

It's no wonder.  While the Governor is rarely depicted as a political choir boy, the chorus he conducts in Albany is positively harmonious.

Albany earned a reputation for off-key governance long ago.  The current corruption scandals, which shook even the most calloused observers of Capitol life, could lead many veteran lawmakers to call it quits rather than seek re-election next year.  But for those who stick it out, there is a political lifeline:  Governor Cuomo.

If the Governor wasn't running for re-election last year, it was hard to tell.  Regular Democrats, Independent Democrats and Republicans all hung tight to the Governor, featuring him in their ads and tripping over each other to prove their willingness to support Cuomo's fiscally restrained, social progressive agenda.  With minor exceptions, that strategy was sound.

The Governor's approval ratings dipped this year, partially from his controversial but successful push for gun control legislation.  And, like clockwork, the press has swooped in with a breathless narrative of a politically damaged Governor.  Cue hyperventilated stories on Cuomo's hiring, flying and advertising.

In truth, he has little reason to worry.

For starters, Cuomo's poll numbers remain in very solid shape.  It is difficult for even the most skilled pols to sustain positive momentum through an entire term of office.  Cuomo's approval rating of 57% is impressive on its own-- and ten points higher than George Pataki's in the third year of his governorship.  But in the context of the charged issues the Governor has taken on in his stint on the Second Floor, it is nothing short of remarkable.

Cuomo has also steadily and skillfully redrawn the Capitol's ideological map.  He persuaded urban Assembly Democrats to adopt a suburban property tax cap they previously rejected.  He coaxed  Senate Republicans to provide the votes to pass a marriage equality bill that failed when the Democrats were in charge of the chamber. 

Efficient budget negotiations produced on-time fiscal plans that helpfully allow legislators to avoid unpleasant votes to extend expiring taxes in their 2014 election year.  Chronically late budgets embarrassed lawmakers for years.

In confronting these thorny issues Cuomo scored repeated policy wins without becoming the political target of powerful interests.  Business groups didn't like the tax extenders this year- but none ran TV ads against them.  Medicaid reform has been complex and painful to some health care providers, including campaign contributing nursing home operators, but the policy battles have been confined to task forces; there is little public clamor or sustained legislative pushback. 

None of this happens by accident.  Cuomo is a multi-dimensional political thinker who meticulously lays the bricks for his policy parades.  His allies organize around the Governor's priorities, implement a media strategy to build public support for his point of view and privately press legislators and interest groups to sign on.  Tweaks to the proposals provide cover for hesitant partners. 

The press may lament Cuomo's reluctance to open these chess matches with his own detailed bill language, but the results of the Governor's careful legislative strategy are indisputable-- there is less policy rancor in Albany today than anytime in recent memory.  No small feat with a power sharing agreement in the Senate, increasing pressure for state law changes from municipalities and continuing uncertainty over the state's economic future.

Cuomo's triumphs on three leading progressive issues-- a higher minimum wage, gun control and marriage equality-- riled grass roots Republicans and stalled the Governor's efforts to further codify abortion protections.  But the credit the Governor earns for navigating the ragged shores that impede passage of meaningful legislation far outweighs the potential loss of these conservative voters (who would likely abandon the Governor anyway as speculation about his presidential plans increases).

The legislative session is always a politically perilous time for governors.  Lawmakers can easily score press by grilling gubernatorial appointees in hearings or launching investigations.  When I served in the Assembly during the Pataki years, my Democratic colleagues and I received recommended mailers from our central communications staff so we could slam the Governor's proposals to our constituents and bring down his poll numbers before budget negotiations began.  The "sausage making" of legislation attracts legions of lobbyists, politicians and activists to Albany for a six month season of gossip and gamesmanship. 

Cuomo is seven weeks away from the close of his third session.  And though debates rage on hydraulic fracking, a potential casino referendum and the Governor's abortion proposals, a decision on fracking does not appear near, there is talk of postponing the casino referendum until 2014 and Cuomo has stated frankly that the votes are not yet there to pass his women's health agenda. 

A full, but not terribly spicy, political plate.

Most significantly, the Governor retains a powerful upper hand as the Legislature debates various anti-corruption proposals spurred by the wired woes of its members

The conventional wisdom-- generally supported by polling-- is that voters dislike legislative bodies but cheer their own representatives.  No longer.

One-third of the electorate believes it's likely their state senator will be arrested on corruption charges.  Half do not trust their assemblymembers.  In contrast, the Governor's administration has been scandal-free and around 60% of voters believe Cuomo will succeed in passing anti-corruption measures. 

Cuomo has backed public financing of state elections and reform of the Wilson-Pakula law, an electoral oddity that allows minor party chairmen to determine which candidates are permitted to compete in minor party primaries. He also introduced a bill requiring lawmakers to squeal on their crooked deskmates. 

The outlines of an "anti-corruption deal" do not take huge imagination: a pilot public financing program for state Comptroller elections (a pet project of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and a re-election guarantee for his ally Tom DiNapoli), continued high dollar fundraising for party "housekeeping" accounts controlled by legislative leaders in exchange for lower contribution limits for individual campaigns and heightened penalties for bribery without a requirement to collar your colleagues. 

The Wilson-Pakula reform would ice the governor's cake with powerful editorial boards that detest the present law and weaken the state's Conservative and Working Families parties.  Both of those parties, though ideological opposites, have caused Cuomo political heartburn.  The Independent Democratic Conference, which holds the balance of power in the Senate, strongly backs the reform.

With Cuomo defending lawmakers against the 82% of the state's voters that want legislative term limits, his leverage is clear.  Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has not joined the Times editorial page in regularly lambasting the legislature.  He has blasted the indicted bad apples while vowing to work with untainted lawmakers to reform the system.  Legislators hear the Governor's dulcet tone but know the notes can quickly change if they refuse to sing from his hymnal.  Embracing Cuomo's political reform agenda may be the only insulation from voter rebellion in 2014.

Cuomo regularly contrasts his accomplishments in New York with the inert state of policymaking in Washington.  He avoids trips to Capitol Hill like a hypochondriac steers clear of germs.  There is little interest in dancing at anyone else's club.

The result is functional state agencies, meaningful progressive legislation and accumulated political capital at the ready for 2014 and beyond.

Mario Cuomo famously told The New Republic in 1985 that "You campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose."  But anyone listening attentively to Albany's present score hears a consistent chorus of achievement in the current Cuomo's stewardship.

There is no magic in politics, but there is music. 

And Andrew Cuomo is a maestro.