ALBANY – For more than four years, Senate Democrats have all but begged – and some have even gone that far – for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to help them take control of the State Senate from Republicans.
But Cuomo did the opposite, helping Republicans re-shape district lines, praising them in dozens of instances and shaking their hands in front of photographers and TV cameras on budgetary and other matters. It was all part of his mantra that the Democratic governor could work well with GOP lawmakers.
On Saturday night, however, the governor – in dramatic fashion – pivoted to the way of Senate Democrats.
Cuomo, intent on getting the endorsement of the left-leaning Working Families Party for his re-election bid, said he will do all he can this fall to oust the Republicans and the band of five independent Democrats that control the chamber in a coalition-style government.
Beyond policy implications, the governor’s words and deeds – sources say he will help the effort to spend $10 million to oust Republicans – will shift the delicate balance of geographic power in Albany that already tips in the direction of the Democratic Party.
Consider that 1.5 million Western New Yorkers – represented by one of five state senators from the area who is a Republican – could on Jan. 1 find themselves no longer represented by a member of the political majority in the upper chamber. In a Capitol where majority rules, the impact could be felt on everything from how much state aid local schools get to whether some Western New York village or town gets a law passed in Albany.
If the governor gets his way, it would mean the offices that wield the power in Albany on legislative and fiscal matters – the governor, Assembly and Senate – would be dominated by Democrats with downstate home addresses.
So, too, if Cuomo’s stated views come true and Democratic Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli get re-elected. The only upstater, if his statewide ticket wins, would be Erie County’s Kathy Hochul, who is running with Cuomo as his lieutenant governor, a job whose sole legal responsibility is presiding over State Senate sessions at the Capitol.
If all incumbents from the region are returned to Albany in the fall and Democrats retake the Senate, it would give Western New York one person in the majority in the Senate: Sen. Timothy Kennedy of Buffalo.
But Democrats argue that Cuomo also has been a forceful voice for the Buffalo area, steering attention, jobs and state money to build new facilities and infrastructure. He has cut deals to keep the Buffalo Bills in town for at least the next six years, gotten new development in downtown Buffalo moving and pledged to spend $1 billion in state funds on local economic development initiative. That, Democrats say, will continue no matter who controls the Senate.
Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican who Democrats believe could be vulnerable to a challenge this year, said he is surprised by Cuomo’s announcement to try to end GOP Senate control and that upstate could pay a price.
“I think you wouldn’t have had a balanced budget four years in a row and getting rid of a $10 billion deficit without our conference,” he said Sunday.
Grisanti said he doesn’t take Cuomo’s threat personally, but said if the governor’s plan happens and the GOP is out of power, upstate will be deeply affected.
“Downstate doesn’t care about upstate New York and 90 percent of the Senate Democrats live downstate. Upstate is going to be forgotten about,” he said.
If Cuomo’s sudden interest in ousting Republicans seems out-of-the-blue, it is because it is out-of-the-blue and doesn’t fit the image he is portraying in his first and only campaign ad so far that touts his ability to work with Republicans.
It is a situation the state Republican Party, which is running Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino for governor, quickly seized upon soon after Saturday night’s Working Families Party backing of Cuomo.
Ed Cox, the state GOP chairman, cited the promises Cuomo made to the party ostensibly founded and run by union interests. He said Cuomo had “sold his soul” to the “radical New York City left” – notably in the form of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a self-described liberal – that helped the governor beat back a challenge from a relative unknown lawyer to get the party’s backing.
In New York City this morning, Cuomo took four questions from reporters about the Working Families Party situation.
“I’m very happy to have their support,” he said, adding, “At the end of the day I won the endorsement and that’s what’s really relevant.”
On the one policy issue he was asked about, Cuomo said he would allow localities to have different minimum-wage rates in different areas of the state if they are approved in advance as part of a state formula.
Saturday’s Working Families Party gathering wasn’t pretty, and Cuomo opponents were loud and angry enough that the governor did not even show up to accept the party’s nomination. Forty-one percent of the party’s delegates voted against Cuomo, with liberals shouting and booing as a taped video message from the governor streamed into a ballroom at a suburban Albany hotel.
Many longtime party members, who included Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore speaking against Cuomo to delegates Saturday night, have complained that they cannot trust Cuomo after he has helped Republicans for four years and cut policy and fiscal deals they say represent positions far from their views.
When it was certain Cuomo would pull off the Working Families Party backing late Saturday, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins called for disgruntled liberals to join his effort. “We feel their pain over the Cuomo nomination,” he said.
For a couple years, Cuomo would bristle at the mention that he was turning to the political left. After his actions and words Saturday night to get the Working Families Party backing, he can now be called an unabashed liberal, Democrats and Republicans were saying.
To get the backing of the tiny party line, Cuomo made promises that went beyond just which party label should control the Senate. Over the objections of business groups, he called for a big – and annual – hike in the minimum wage. Over the objection of Catholic and other church leaders, he called for the expansion of abortion rights in New York.
In addition, when he helps return the Senate to Democratic control, Cuomo said he will get a statewide plan in place to have taxpayers fund political campaigns and will give state college aid to the children of illegal immigrants.
That Cuomo won the Working Families Party line, which he ran on in 2010 as well, was not the surprise. It was the extent he went to – after four years of insisting to voters that he is a moderate who can effectively work with both Democrats and Republicans – to secure their support.
It was, for instance, only 60 days after he praised the work of Senate Republicans and the small group of breakaway Democrats in passing another on-time state budget. His government website even has, for now, a photo of him signing the budget with a Senate Republican and a leader of the Democratic group smiling at his side.
That happy talk was all gone Saturday night, with Cuomo saying Republicans today are not what they were in the past. He called today’s GOP in the Senate “ultra cons.”
The sharp rebuke, and his call for their ouster, did not sit well with the Senate lawmakers he has relied on to pass his agenda since taking office in 2011.
Republicans say Cuomo’s very public way of cozying up to the Working Families Party, which they say has a long public history of pushing for higher taxes and more state spending, only helps to make Astorino’s case against Cuomo.
Sunday, Astorino was not hiding his glee and did not disagree that his job wooing moderate voters just got easier, especially upstate, where he has said voter turnout could decide the 2014 race.
“(Cuomo) is a far left radical … He can have no pretense to being the moderate. The mask is off now,” Astorino told The Buffalo News.
Astorino said upstate residents should be concerned if the Senate joins the Assembly in being controlled by downstate Democrats.
“It has tremendous implications. When I said the ‘Buffalo Billion’ cannot be counted on by politicians, this is what I meant. New York City, Working Families, far-left radicals are now going to circulate more money away from Buffalo and upstate New York into New York City,” he said.
An administration official countered late Sunday, saying: “No thinking Buffalo resident would want to go back to an Albany administration that basically abandoned Western New York for decades after they have seen how much of a positive difference state government has made during the past four years.”
Cuomo certainly did not need the 155,000 votes he got on the WFP line to win in 2010. But this year, he faces a less fractured Republican Party and Astorino has government credentials and political skills that Carl Paladino did not possess in his 2010 loss to Cuomo.
Moreover, some Cuomo loyalists talk of the 2016 scenario that envisions him, if Hillary Clinton does not run, seeking a presidential bid. Such a move would be assisted if he could have a landslide victory this year in New York, and Democrats theorize the more lines he amasses – he is now on the Democratic, Independence and Working Families lines – the better his chances.
But some Democrats privately were wondering whether Cuomo just dramatically hurt his ability to reach moderate voters, especially upstate, with his call to oust Republicans from the Senate and take away upstate’s sole power base in Albany. In a 63-member chamber, only five senators in the main Democratic conference are from upstate; 19 Republican senators are from upstate.
Cuomo’s targets were not taking his hits lightly.
Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said he has “grave concerns” that Cuomo is moving away from lawmakers with whom he has created programs to create jobs and cut taxes “for a leftist agenda supported by the ultra-liberal Working Families Party.”
Cuomo Saturday said that the Independent Democratic Caucus either ceases its coalition with Senate Republicans to run the body and rejoins the main Democratic conference, or he will help run primaries against them to oust them in favor of new Democrats.
Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat and one of five members of the IDC, said Cuomo’s courting of the Working Families Party amounted to “desperately trying to seek support of a fringe third party so (he’s) saying whatever he has to say.”
Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who runs the IDC and co-leads the Senate with Skelos, touted his lifelong Democratic Party embrace and “progressive accomplishments” – with Cuomo – that included legalizing gay marriage rights and the New York SAFE Act.
Klein, through a spokeswoman, said he “looks forward to the remaining legislative session and will focus on governing and not be distracted by nefarious political deals.”
With the exception of Grisanti, several Western New York Republican senators were not answering their cellphones Sunday.
Governing the next three weeks – the 2014 legislative session is due to end June 19 – will be, at best, a challenge. What motivation is there for the Senate Republicans and IDC to go along with any Cuomo initiatives when he has publicly declared his intention to politically eliminate them from power?
There are issues the Senate GOP is pushing to bolster penalties for certain crimes, as well as efforts to target auto insurance fraud and increase treatment for a growing heroin and opioid addiction problem in the state.
Economic development officials are desperate before June 19 to get a deal to keep some sort of state incentives for developers to turn abandoned industrial sites, known as brownfields, into new uses. Sources, though, insist lawmakers were going to punt on that issue until next year long before Cuomo made his remove-the-Republicans vow Saturday.
Then there is the medical marijuana push. Until Saturday night’s political eruption, that effort had been as close as it ever had to getting approval in the Senate. It is backed by a growing number of Republicans and health groups that have joined with longtime advocates, including Democrats, cancer patients, people with chronic pain and parents of children who suffer from rare seizure disorders.
Karen Scharff, WFP co-chair, disputed worries that upstate will get short shrift if downstate-led Democrats take the Senate.
“All of New York’s statewide elected officials, including statewide unions, and the WFP just declared their commitment to lifting wages for working families and preventing wealthy donors from buying our politicians. That will help ordinary New Yorkers all across upstate New York,” she said.