ALBANY – It seems like an obvious television advertisement script for any opponent of Andrew Cuomo, if Cuomo runs for president in 2016:
“Gov. Cuomo wants to be leader of the free world, but he can’t even get along with Canada?”
In Cuomo’s first major venture trying to resolve an international border disagreement – the worsening Peace Bridge situation – the governor and his team have unleashed a hardball strategy that has infuriated Canadians and aroused the concerns of federal officials in Ottawa and Washington.
It is hardly out of character that Cuomo would employ grenade diplomacy, as he has done by demanding the Canadian head of the bridge authority be ousted while his political allies in the State Legislature call for dissolving the authority. His stated goal is to get started the long-delayed plaza improvements on the Buffalo side of the bridge.
As governor, Cuomo has often turned to public rebukes and threats of political retaliation against reluctant lawmakers, special interest groups or union leaders to get his way.
But in this fight, the governor’s target is a nation that happens to be New York’s largest trading partner, one of America’s strongest allies and a key component of the Western New York economy.
The situation is so bad that Chris Johnston, executive director of the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, a group that promotes cross-border trade, suggested Ottawa and Washington may want to step in with a mediation-type panel to resolve the matter.
“You have close to $100 million of commerce that cross that bridge every day, not including passenger cars,” he said. “We sit on the doorstep of one of the fastest-growing regions in North America, and we can’t even engage in civil debate on the matter.”
The Cuomo administration says lines of communication are fully open with the Canadians and that no disrespect was intended by recent comments or letters from Cuomo advisers.
But government officials and business executives on both sides of the border say the Cuomo administration’s negotiating style with the Canadians has lacked an understanding that international diplomacy is different from negotiating with legislative leaders in Albany.
Additionally, the binational bridge agency is not like the Thruway Authority that he commands.
“When you are dealing with your own political issues internally, obviously, you have a right to approach it whichever way you want. There’s obviously a different level when dealing with international political relations,” said Arlene White, a Canadian who heads the Buffalo-based Binational Economic & Tourism Alliance, a group that promotes economic ties across the border. “To be controversial about this and make it a big media issue, I don’t think serves anyone well, and it puts people’s backs up for those working to benefit the cross-border region.”
That Cuomo last week said he has not personally reached out to any Canadian officials about the Peace Bridge situation was telling in itself, his critics say.
In an attempt to improve matters, Cuomo sent one of his top aides, Howard Glaser, to meet Friday in Manhattan with John Prato, Canada’s consul general in New York. Prato’s office did not return calls to comment.
There are worrisome possible ramifications if the dispute does not soon end.
For one, the feud could worsen to the point that it delays a much-anticipated pre-inspection process on the Ontario side for truck traffic coming into the United States, a pilot program approved by Ottawa and Washington and scheduled to begin later this year. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer used his clout and pushed hard for the preclearance arrangement, and sources say he is upset about the border dispute.
In a statement, Schumer did not rush to defend Cuomo or the Canadians, but instead urged cooperation.
“When it comes to the Peace Bridge, the watchword has to be cooperation,” the senator’s statement said.
“But we will not accomplish anything on the Peace Bridge unless the U.S. and Canada work together. So, without pointing any fingers of blame, I plead to both sides to cooperate with one another, because we have a unique opportunity to make real progress here.”
Canadian point of view
Canadian officials say that some of the improvements that Cuomo wants at the bridge could force an environmental review process to begin all over again, delaying a previously approved plan to re-deck the span for the first time since it was built in 1927.
The blunt April 24 letter that Cuomo aide Glaser sent to Denis Lebel, Canada’s minister of transport, blaming the Canadians for the delay in Buffalo improvements, ruffled feathers. The situation escalated when the Cuomo administration demanded the removal of Ron Reinas as general manager of the bridge, and then last week Cuomo administration sources released information about a complaint filed against the Canadian authority chairman after the chairman referred to a New York project manager as “the governor’s concubine” because she was doing Cuomo’s bidding at the bridge.
During the past week, the growing dispute has been discussed among members of the Canadian Parliament and U.S. Congress; in a brief discussion in Ottawa between Anthony Annunziata, the Canadian authority chairman, and David Jacobson, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada; and in business trade groups on both sides of the border.
“I can assure you this is at the highest levels of government,” Annunziata told The Buffalo News.
“The concern is you have New York State wanting to disband an authority that’s existed since 1927 on a bridge that is one of the major trade corridors.”
Annunziata repeated his earlier demand in the dispute: Sam Hoyt, Cuomo’s New York chairman appointee to the bridge authority, must go.
“I can’t work, and I refuse to work, with the existing administration,” Annunziata said of Hoyt, who battled with the bridge authority for years when he was an assemblyman representing Buffalo. “So unless he makes changes with people, there will be no more progress.”
The Cuomo administration has declined to publicly address the Canadian complaints about Hoyt.
Annunziata said he raised his concerns in a face-to-face meeting Thursday with Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy but that no resolutions came from the meeting.
Duffy described his 90-minute meeting with Annunziata in Niagara Falls, N.Y., as productive and, in an interview, repeatedly stressed that the Cuomo administration seeks solid relations with Canada.
“Our goal on this is to take the high road and get things done,” he said.
Cuomo is eager to get projects moving, but he fully realizes that the bridge authority is not an entity he can control, the lieutenant governor said.
“He’s not flexing muscles to get things done,” Duffy said. “Like any issue, there is going to be some finger-pointing.”
But efforts are under way to “put personalities aside and put things back on track,” Duffy added.
“The administration looks upon Canada as a tremendous friend and ally with, quite frankly, a large economic pipeline to the U.S. and New York,” Duffy said.
And what about the recent fight?
“It is our expectation that it will tone down,” he said. “While there is some back and forth that is not unusual in any government organizations, the governor wants everybody working and back to the table. Let’s work through the differences.”
Officially, the federal government in Ottawa, as well as the Canadian Embassy in Washington and the Consul General’s office in Manhattan, have taken a restrained approach, at least publicly.
But Lebel, the Canadian transport minister, broke Ottawa’s silence this weekend.
While some New York officials look to disband the 10-member bridge authority, Lebel said, “Canada is committed to continuing with the collaborative business model, which has worked well for decades, to ensure smooth functioning of this important crossing.”
Three state legislators – Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Sens. Mark Grisanti and George Maziarz – recently said they would introduce legislation to dissolve the authority because it does not serve the interests of Western New Yorkers.
Lebel noted that the Peace Bridge is “neither Canadian nor American,” but owned by the bridge authority, an entity he said approved several renovation projects in April. He said he expects the bridge to go ahead with the re-decking as well as with the truck pre-inspection program that the Americans want.
“Canadians know that Buffalo is the City of Good Neighbors, and I am confident that this spirit of good will can continue to be demonstrated through international cooperation in the management of the Peace Bridge,” he said in a statement to The News.
Rob Nicholson, a Canadian member of Parliament who represents the Niagara Falls area, including Fort Erie, was an example of Canadian diplomacy.
“We are pleased that significant progress was achieved recently when the Peace Bridge board of directors approved four new projects. Our government is committed to working cooperatively with our U.S. partners to ensure the smooth functioning of this important crossing,” said a spokeswoman for Nicholson, who is also Canada’s minster of justice and attorney general.
Other members of Parliament declined to comment.
The Ontario Premier’s office in Toronto referred calls to the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs, whose duties include working with New York State. Andre Ghione, a ministry spokesman, called the issue a federal matter but offered this statement: “We urge the parties to get around the table and resolve the dispute.”
Support for governor
Cuomo has shown little patience for infrastructure delays, whether in his push to build a new, $5 billion bridge across the lower Hudson River near New York City or in his efforts to rebuild roads and buildings downstate after Superstorm Sandy.
In his 2010 campaign, he cited the improvement delays at the Peace Bridge as an example of government dysfunction. And New York officials complain that $100 million in improvements have been made on the Canadian side of the bridge over the past 20 years, compared with $20 million in improvements on the New York side.
On Friday, a delegation of top elected, business and labor leaders from New York sent a letter to Cuomo to show their “solidarity and full support of your efforts” to upgrade the Peace Bridge plaza while also noting that they “share your frustration” with decades of improvement delays.
Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said the governor’s battle with Canadian officials over the bridge shows the deep frustration with the authority.
“I, for one, am very happy the governor is taking a very strong approach to this,” he said.
But some business leaders worry about the ramifications.
“It’s not as if people are blaming the governor or the Canadian board members. They’re blaming everyone. The bottom line is a fear that this is going to adversely affect what people believe is our region’s strongest opportunity, and that is cross-border trade,” said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Rudnick echoed the fear that the dispute could delay the truck pre-inspection program.
“Rise above whatever has caused the problem and get this done,” Rudnick said.
Duffy, dispatched by Cuomo on Thursday to meet with bridge officials, insisted Friday that the recent bad feelings on both sides are being eased.
“There’s been some disagreements and maybe some bad feelings on both sides, but it’s time to put that aside,” he said. “I’m confident this situation is going to get back on track.”