ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been asked, in a variety of ways, a fairly simple question over the past several months: Would he rather see Republicans or Democrats control the State Senate?
But in a variety of ways, the governor has not offered a direct answer. Nonetheless, through both his actions and some of his own words, the Democratic governor appears to have made clear that the last thing he wants is Democrats running the State Senate.
This is a matter-of-fact view that many Republicans and Democrats – and some political observers – in Albany share.
“I think he needs the Senate Republicans. He needs them for his policy agenda, assuming the Republican Senate acts as a check on the more free-spending, interest group-dominated Democratic Assembly,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.
In the GOP, Cuomo has found allies willing to help him stay to the right of the Democratic-led Assembly, particularly on fiscal matters. Even on some major social matters, they have helped him – or did not stand in his way – when he picked off four Senate Republicans to help pass last year’s gay marriage rights law.
There is a reason Albany has not featured the chaos it saw a couple of years ago, and it is not just because Cuomo is governor.
The stars have aligned so that Democrats and Republicans realize it is better to get along. Impasse, in the end, hurts incumbents in power – as Democrats saw when they lost the Senate two years ago.
“I believe the governor likes the working relationship we have. I think he wants us in control. He sees that the last two years, we’ve partnered with him on probably 80 percent of what we think is important to move the state forward,” said Sen. Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican and head of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
Chaos and governing do not go hand-in-hand, as witnessed by the previous two gubernatorial administrations. Gone the past two years have been the legislative gridlock and dysfunction, political coups and their aftermath, and the steady and long lines of lawmakers facing corruption charges.
Some Democrats say Cuomo is agnostic when it comes to Senate partisan control. He wants what will help him achieve his political and governmental goals. And if that means cutting Democrats out of key, sensitive budget talks the past two years, few were surprised.
If it meant cozying up to vulnerable Republicans facing re-election, like Buffalo’s Sen. Mark Grisanti, few were surprised by that, either. And if it meant approving new GOP-friendly district lines for the November elections, chalk it up to a desire to keep a framework in place for a governing system that seems to be working.
For Cuomo, it’s been the best of both worlds. The Assembly, led by a contingent of New York City-based Democrats, keeps him tied to his party’s roots on some issues, like hiking taxes on millionaires.
And the Senate Republicans have been reliable partners in helping him appear moderate to even right-of-moderate on everything from state finances to criminal-justice matters.
It only takes a memory stretching back two years for Albany to recall the problems during the one term when Democrats held control of the Senate. “Democrats in the Senate proved to be particularly ineffective and incompetent, and in a sense untrustworthy on several levels. You don’t necessarily want them as allies,” said Muzzio.
Few Democrats in the Senate, fearful of the consequences of taking on the Cuomo machine in their own party, have stepped out of line to criticize the governor – even when he broke a campaign promise and ended up approving new legislative district lines that critics called an exercise in gerrymandering to help GOP Senate incumbents.
One regular critic, though, has been Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat. His latest missive questioning Cuomo’s Democratic Party credentials came last week after Cuomo endorsed a Hudson Valley Republican in a Senate re-election contest.
“So [what] about Governor Cuomo – the Big Cheese – who is New York state’s Democratic Party leader? Doesn’t he have a responsibility to be true to the Democratic Party in New York State? Doesn’t he have a responsibility to support Democrats?” Diaz wrote in an email sent around to reporters and lawmakers last week.
Diaz noted that the top leadership of New York State is all white male. He said a Democratic takeover of the Senate could change that and help an African-American or Latino get elected majority leader of the Senate. To that end, he accused Cuomo of “working against” efforts for Democrats to retake the Senate and to put a minority in a position of power.
Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who runs the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said Republicans were at their most cooperative with Cuomo up until this spring, when he approved new legislative district lines, boundaries that largely favor the GOP in next month’s elections.
Since then, Gianaris said, GOP senators have blocked efforts, backed by Cuomo, to hike the state’s minimum wage or to get talks going on changing incumbent-friendly campaign finance laws or on gun-control initiatives.
“Only a Democratic majority in the Senate is going to give him the accomplishments he is seeking on those issues,” Gianaris said.
Cuomo does not want the Senate elections to shape an image as a partisan-first governor.
“I don’t want to tell a person in any district that you should elect a Democrat and you should elect a Republican,” he said last week.
Cuomo, without being asked, did go out of his way to criticize Democrats who don’t agree with him on issues.
“I’m not going to support bringing in a legislator who I know is trying to undo what we just spent two years doing. I don’t care if you call them a Democrat, or Republican, or whatever,” Cuomo said.
The governor did not elaborate, but his aides have made clear, for instance, that he will not back Democrat Mike Amodeo over Grisanti because Amodeo criticized his property tax cap and government pension-reduction measures.