There are a few high-profile jobs around New York State these days that, on the face of things, should rank as “officially cool.”
One is coach of the Buffalo Sabres. You get your face in the newspapers and on TV a lot, and about 19,000 people show up at your workplace a few times a week to cheer you on.
But no matter who stands behind the Sabres bench lately, the team still loses. Then everyone calls you a bum.
Another is chairman of the New York Republican Party. You get to travel around the state and raise lots of money in tony country clubs. But in recent years, it's proven tough to win statewide offices like governor, comptroller and attorney general. The party can no longer even claim total control of the State Senate.
State GOP Chairman Ed Cox doesn't get booed by 19,000 people every week. But it's a tough job.
Still, Cox displayed at least a particle of optimism as he breezed through Buffalo a few days ago. For the first time, public opinion polls reveal a chink or two in the armor of the great and powerful Andrew Cuomo – governor of New York.
For the first time, the chairman hinted at serious efforts for offices like comptroller and attorney general. And for the first time, Cox is at least dreaming about next year's gubernatorial election.
“A lot of things he's done is talk – big talk,” Cox said of Cuomo, especially on the economy. “Yes, New York City is growing, but upstate is suffering.”
One of Cox's favorite pastimes is to hammer the governor on his position – or lack of position – on fracking. Cox has consistently claimed in recent months that Albany's delay in approving the natural gas recovery process may have nixed the state's chance to reap its economic benefits. And he's a savvy enough observer to recognize a political pickle for “Hamlet on the Hudson II.”
“He's in a bind,” Cox said. “The minute he comes out with regulations, you'll find a whole bunch of [still unsatisfied] environmentalists who will jump on him.
“Then do you know what will happen? Nothing,” he added. “The infrastructure is not in place like in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.”
New polls are part of Cox's optimism. Last week's Quinnipiac University survey showed Cuomo's approval rating at 55 percent, down 19 points from a high of 74 percent in the same December poll. Cox jumped all over the numbers.
“Andrew Cuomo has talked big, delivered little and favored his own ambitions over spending his political capital on what's good for New York,” he said in his official statement.
Cox mentions a pair of county executives – Chautauqua's Greg Edwards and Westchester's Rob Astorino – as the kind of opponent he'd like to see warming up against Cuomo a year from now. They are well-respected, but so was former Rep. Rick Lazio in 2010. His problem was a tea party favorite named Carl Paladino, who came charging out of right field to rile up the ones who vote in a GOP primary.
What's to prevent such a scenario again? What justifies any optimism if a wealthy ultra-conservative dominates another primary, only to face Cuomo in ultra-Democratic New York?
This is where Cox carefully chooses his words.
“I can understand people who say, 'Let's blow up this thing,' ” he said. “And we stand for the things Carl stands for. The question is: How do you get there?”
These thoughts are important in Western New York – the one part of the state where Paladino made his case and Cuomo did not. But even as the governor takes a step back from gun control policies unpopular in some upstate locales, and even as he slips a bit in the polls, Cox realizes it's still a heavy lift for the state GOP.
So far, Paladino appears content with competing for the South District on the Buffalo Board of Education rather than launching another run for governor. But similar people have burst onto the scene before, and might do it again in 2014.
That remains Cox's dilemma – in his words – “How do you get there?”