ALBANY – Since taking office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has mastered the art of coalescing allies and marginalizing opposition. He can count a long line of interests – from the Legislature to unions to business groups – that have learned a lesson that it’s better to get along with Cuomo.
Then there’s the Seneca Nation.
Unlike any other group, Seneca Nation leaders have not only done battle with the governor, but they have held their own, and been largely unmoved by rhetorical barbs coming from the Cuomo administration.
“We’re the only people that the governor may ever have to deal with regarding state business who he has no direct power over,” said Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter.
“Everyone else is somehow tied to his power. We stand as a separate, sovereign nation,” the Seneca leader said last week.
That feeling – that they are not some labor union seeking to curry favor or a legislator looking for some crucial local bill – is what the Senecas say is their leverage in the ever-growing range of disputes with the Cuomo administration.
The Cuomo administration offered a different perspective. “This administration has taken unprecedented steps to work with the Seneca, as well as the other tribes, to resolve disputes and reach agreements to advance key projects and initiatives. There are several issues that remain unresolved, and we hope that this positive collaboration and cooperation will continue,” said Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto.
“However,” he added, “in the end, this administration is accountable to and charged with protecting the interests of the people and the taxpayers of the state of New York.”
It is, as one state official said privately, an especially sensitive time in relations between the Seneca Nation and the governor.
A road dispute threatened to scuttle crucial work on the tattered Southern Tier Expressway after state officials, at first, declined to pay a tribe-imposed administrative fee for highway work done on Indian lands. The dispute was settled last week, with the Senecas getting most of the nearly $1 million they originally wanted.
Still unresolved is the more than $400 million the Seneca Nation has refused to pay the state in revenue-sharing payments from its three casinos in Western New York. The Senecas stopped the payments a few years ago because, they insist, the state broke the terms of its decade-old compact by allowing expanded forms of gambling into the tribe’s regional casino exclusivity zone.
On Friday, a new one surfaced, with Cuomo officials blasting a Seneca plan to build a convenience store and tax-free gas station on the grounds of their Niagara Falls casino – thereby undercutting nearby non-Native American retailers. The response, in essence, from the Senecas to Cuomo: Mind your own business.
The longest running feud – Seneca sales of tax-free cigarettes – still rages unresolved, with the American Indian businesses now selling highly profitable cigarettes made on Seneca territories to bypass a state law.
It is not uncommon for an American Indian tribe to butt heads with Albany. Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father, had run-ins with tribes including the St. Regis Mohawks. His successor, Gov. George E. Pataki, had to retreat from his tax-collection efforts on Indian cigarette sales after Senecas and others shut down the Thruway in a tire-burning demonstration punctuated by violent clashes with state troopers.
And Pataki’s successors, Eliot L. Spitzer and David A. Paterson, both had their own tobacco tax wars with the Senecas.
But Seneca leaders today say they are seeing what they call a new disrespect by the current governor: Cuomo has declined requests to meet with leaders one-on-one, unlike past governors.
“That, itself, is an unprecedented disrespect to our nations,” Porter said.
For the Senecas, who have become a financial and political powerhouse in Western New York with their tobacco and casino interests, Cuomo is insulting them by not personally meeting with their leaders. They say they have also been told by other New York tribes that no such leader-to-leader meetings have occurred.
“I guess I could say that Gov. Cuomo is the most uncommunicative governor we’ve never met,” said Richard Nephew, chairman of the ruling Seneca Council.
Seneca leaders note the contrasts. Last week, a delegation of Senecas, including Porter and Nephew, traveled to Harrisburg for a personal meeting with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. No major deals were made, but talks include the tribe’s possible interest in business dealings in Pennsylvania near its Allegany reservation.
And Porter has traveled to the White House and met President Obama, including at a holiday dinner last year.
In New York, though, the rhetoric has been high for both Cuomo and the Seneca leaders as the number of disputes seem only to grow. Why are relations so bad between the two sides?
“I think you have to ask the governor to get the true answer. The evidence suggests that he believes the best way to do business with a sovereign government is pressure and intimidation,” Porter said.
A year ago in May, things looked different, Porter said, when Cuomo dispatched Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy to Salamanca to meet with Seneca leaders. Porter and Duffy stayed in touch in the subsequent weeks, and it was Duffy who would go on to publicly say that the state would not, at least for the time being, impose taxes on Indian-made cigarettes. Duffy, and several top Cuomo advisors, met again with Seneca leaders last August at the Allegany reservation.
Indeed, the Cuomo administration said top officials – from leaders of the parks and transportation departments to the State Police – have met often with Seneca leaders on a host of matters since Cuomo took office 20 months ago. And Seneca leaders, and their lobbyists, have the cell and home numbers for Howard Glaser, Cuomo’s state operations director, who has had dozens of communications with Seneca officials.
They say it was the Senecas, not Cuomo, who walked away from talks to resolve the casino payments dispute; the Senecas disagree. The administration noted that the Senecas last year declined to let Thruway inspectors check a bridge on the Cattaraugus reservation. That dispute led to a July letter from Cuomo to Porter asking for a quick resolution; the matter was later resolved.
“As leaders, I am confident that we can work together, respectful of sovereignty of your nation and our state, to address the complex issues that face us,” Cuomo wrote in his letter to Porter, adding that he looked forward to meeting Porter “in the near future” for further dialogue. That meeting never happened.
That was a year ago, and Seneca leaders say Cuomo’s approach since has been to strike out at them and that the governor has a fundamental misunderstanding of how to deal with the tribe. “You cannot bully us. It makes us more stubborn and makes it more difficult to resolve problems,” said Porter, who claimed Cuomo has shown the Senecas “nothing but the back of his hand.”
Nephew called the Seneca meeting with the Pennsylvania governor last week “a breath of fresh air.”
For Nephew, relations with the Cuomo administration are important, he said, because there are many areas where the two sides need to cooperate, whether on environmental and economic development to law enforcement matters.
Nephew said the Seneca Nation is not like special-interest groups the governor often deals with that think in the present.
“We also have a responsibility to the past, [and to] all the people that came before us and protected our way of life from outside intrusion these many years,” Nephew said. “This generation has the same responsibility, so there are some things we just can’t back down on, and we won’t.”
The sour relations between Cuomo and the Seneca Nation have caused a bit of duck-and-cover.
Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican who chairs a new Senate committee on Indian relations, declined to comment; he is tight with both Cuomo and the Seneca leaders.