Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cuomo '16

Yes, we still have an important election in 2012 (you might have heard about it), so the title is complete hyperbole, but it raises a larger point about the success of Governor Cuomo's first six months in office. On paper his accomplishments are impressive. To recap the major things, Cuomo got the notoriously dysfunctional New York Legislature to pass an on time budget, enact ethics reform, implement a tax cap, renew the state's rent regulations, and most impressively marriage equality. He did all this without raising taxes, and he kept his approval ratings in the stratosphere. That is a seriously impressive feat given the state of the economy.

All of his accomplishments required some seriously heavy lifting. Cuomo has always been known as a relentlessly strategic thinker. Carrots and sticks are his playthings, but to get the right carrots and sticks he required a little help from his friends. The relatively austere budget would have never passed on time were it not for Governor Paterson's innovative use of budget extender bills during the 2010 budget battle. The prospect of even deeper cuts clearly hung over the head of Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and the entire Assembly Democratic caucus while they were negotiating with Senate Republicans and Cuomo. 

Unlike former Governor Spitzer, who went from district to district denouncing legislators who voted against him, Cuomo used his power and his popularity to pass a bill that introduced some transparency into the incredibly opaque world of NY legislators. Perhaps most notably, Cuomo threatened to appoint a Moreland Commission to investigate systemic corruption in the NYS legislature. The reforms are solid but that said, the loopholes in the bill are big enough to fly a 747 through. One party can veto any ethics investigation by the new ethics panel. Hell, one caucus of one house of the legislature can veto an ethics investigation. And most perversely, the parties currently in power of the two houses, Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats, have the power to appoint 3 out of 4 members assigned to the ethics panel from their house, regardless of if they remain in the majority or not, which is completely insane. But for all this, Cuomo can say with a straight face that he passed the toughest ethics reform package ever in New York history on any campaign ad he wants. He used the sticks he had brilliantly to get the budget he wanted, and an ethics package that he was happy to accept.

He also proved adept at using carrots to the best of his ability during the marriage equality fight. The New York Times account of the behind the scenes maneuvering captures the brilliance of Cuomo perfectly. The unified concentrated effort to flip Republican votes to support same-sex marriage will likely be written about for years to come. The combination of public and private pressure, as well as the promise of ample funds to those who support the measure and the wrath of angry donors to those that oppose it proved to be the right mix to get the votes needed. This was an historic lobbying campaign and Nate Silver's post on the topic captures my feelings perfectly.

But what does this all mean for Cuomo's political future? Cuomo has made himself a hero of the LGBT community by overcoming what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, but he also has left progressives in New York extremely dismayed by his stubborn refusal to consider extending the Millionaire's Tax and his very austere budget. He's been very cozy with the business community and has had a somewhat less-then-warm relationship with the unions and the progressive Working Families Party. All this though seems like it will be forgiven with the passage of marriage equality. The Times article explains
 Something else weighed on him, too: the long shadow of his father, Mario, who rose to national prominence as the conscience of the Democratic Party, passionately defending the poor and assailing the death penalty. During his first few months in office, the younger Mr. Cuomo had achieved what seemed like modern-day miracles by the standards of Albany — an austere on-time budget and a deal to cap property taxes. But, as Mr. Cuomo explained by phone to his father a few weeks ago, he did not want those accomplishments to define his first year in office.
“They are operational,” he told his father. Passing same-sex marriage, by contrast, “is at the heart of leadership and progressive government.” 
“I have to do this.”        
Cuomo's constant refrain has been "I'm a broke progressive." I look forward to when the economy improves and even his operational priorities are progressive. But for now Cuomo '16!

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