ALBANY – In his first two years as governor, he sought to portray New York as business-friendly, controlling state expenses, pushing through a middle-class income tax cut, battling the rising health and education bills, and emphasizing the fight against crime.
So went the opening of former Gov. George E. Pataki’s administration in the mid-1990s, which to any follower of Albany sounds a lot like Andrew M. Cuomo’s first two years as governor,
Cuomo today gives his annual State of the State message to start his third year in office, and an obvious question arises: Will Cuomo, as Pataki did in his third year, pivot to the left in an attempt to appease more moderate and left-of-center voters?
And will he use the coming months to try to undo some of the self-inflicted damage with liberal elements of the Democratic Party – a faction he will need to woo if he is serious about running in a 2016 Democratic primary for president.
The test will come early for Cuomo as he pushes two proposals in today’s State of the State address: raising the state’s minimum wage and toughening gun laws, including bans on assault-style weapons.
Before the new legislative session starts, already signs are showing of frayed relations between the Democratic governor and Senate Republicans, who return to partial power thanks to an unusual coalition with the help of five breakaway Democrats.
“Certainly, the governor has an agenda that he’d like to get done, and I know the Democrats call it a progressive agenda. Our Republican conference, our agenda, may not be as progressive as theirs, but at the end of the day, what we want to do is what’s right for the people of this state,” said Sen. Thomas Libous of Binghamton, the GOP conference’s deputy leader.
While Senate Republicans during the past two years seldom had anything remotely negative to say about Cuomo, Libous selected interesting words in a Tuesday interview at the Capitol.
“We’re open to listen to things,” he said, referring to Cuomo’s agenda, “but there are things we’re not going to support, and we believe that the public needs somebody to stand up and be a loyal opposition. We’re going to do that.”
If Cuomo relied heavily on Senate Republicans to mold his conservative-to-moderate credentials, now he will go to the downstate-dominated Assembly Democratic conference to help him shift left.
For much of last year’s legislative session, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and his Assembly Democrats were alone in arguing for raising the minimum wage while Cuomo sat largely on the sidelines. Cuomo eventually joined the minimum wage bandwagon and is now labeling it as one of his “litmus test” items for lawmakers to pass this session.
Assembly Democrats, too, led the push the past number of years for tighter gun control laws, including bans on assault weapons.
Now, in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre, Cuomo is joining them and will outline his plans in today’s speech before an audience that includes some skeptical Senate Republicans who so far have been more interested in cracking down on the use of illegal weapons than in restricting the kinds of guns or expanding gun registration requirements.
And it was Assembly Democrats who for years pushed for public campaign finance laws, an issue Cuomo says he will push heavily this year.
But several Capitol insiders believe that those looking for Cuomo to use today’s speech to morph in any significant way will be disappointed.
With his poll numbers still riding high, the insiders say, Cuomo is unlikely to abandon the image he tries to sell – moderate to conservative on fiscal issues and left-leaning on social issues – as Pataki began to do during his third year in office.
Cuomo is in a far different place than Pataki was in the mid-1990s, according to one Democratic Party insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. For starters, the Republican Party continues to lose influence in New York, and the gap between Democratic and Republican registered voters continues to grow in numbers favoring Democrats such as Cuomo.
“Pataki had to go to the center because that’s where the state was,” the party activist said.
“With Cuomo, there’s no need for him to veer either way. There’s no one coming from the left to challenge him. There’s no one coming from the right. He thinks he’s in the middle of the road, and he’s just going to keep driving straight ahead.”
Liberal groups who have battled with Cuomo the past two years over fiscal issues are holding out hope that Cuomo will take a page from Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father and once-liberal icon for some Democrats around the country.
They point to a Cuomo-created tax policy commission that they believe will help him shape a more progressive income tax system in New York.
But after his first two years in office, these advocates acknowledge that Cuomo is unlikely to alter a formula he believes is working.
“I think our hope is we see a leftward turn, but we’ve seen so much zigzagging the past two years we never know which way he will go,” said Ronald Deutsch, executive director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, an advocacy group for higher social services spending and various union-backed measures.
Deutsch said the effects of Cuomo’s two years of fiscal policies are starting to be felt, noting that the state’s property tax cap is straining the budgets of local governments and school districts.
“We’re hoping the governor may pay more attention to some other issues that are pressing and important for low-income New Yorkers during this coming budget session,” he said.
If he keeps to the path he has taken during his first two years, Cuomo in 2013 will again propose no new tax hikes in his upcoming budget plan.
But with the state’s economy still lackluster and New York revenues continuing to suffer from Superstorm Sandy, even Cuomo does not yet know how bad the deficit for the fiscal year beginning April 1 will really be.
As he gives his State of the State address in a government convention center across the street from the Capitol at 1:30 this afternoon, presidential watchers will be looking for any code words or clues or clever phrases that they can use as evidence that Cuomo is truly interested in a 2016 run for president.
Such a verbal road map by Cuomo would be a mistake, according to some experts.
“At this point, I don’t think he needs to position himself with regard to major national issues,” said Robert Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University.
“I think he needs to convey that he’s been a capable and effective governor, and I think it’s basically a matter of how New Yorkers and the nation evaluate him in terms of his performance as someone in the role as a chief executive.”
But as someone who has alienated many in the important liberal faction of the Democratic Party, particularly among public employee unions and left-of-center fiscal proponents, Cuomo knows that Democratic primary voters in many states will not be thrilled with some of the fights he has picked in his own party.
Shapiro said Cuomo does not have to make some bold leftward shift now.
“I think he may have to, but he basically has plenty of time right now,” he said. “It’s a question of voters’ memories, and a key thing is what have you done lately? If he’s alienating certain key supporters or groups, what matters less is what they think of him now but what they think of him 2½ years from now.”
But, as Cuomo has often said, voters should judge him first on one thing: job creation.
And business groups say that task is far from complete.
“I’m looking for the governor to profoundly announce that the focus is going to return on efforts to open New York for business,” said Mike Durant, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
That means, he said, not just “nibbling at the edges” by relying on the state’s property tax cap but enacting meaningful relief from state-imposed mandates on local governments and school districts that drive up property taxes and strain county and city budgets across New York.
And Cuomo can’t sell the theme that New York is open for business to small and large companies if he pushes a minimum wage hike without at the same time reducing other state-mandated costs on businesses operating in the state, he said.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg in what needs to be done ... so he’s got a big job for small business in his State of the State,” Durant said.