Harriman Hall on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus is the kind of place Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo favors for his many visits to the area.
Stately, historic, impressive – the kind of setting that befits the governor of the Empire State.
So when Cuomo summoned supporters last weekend to his Monday appearance at Harriman, all went according to script. Hundreds of loyal locals dutifully followed applause prompts at key points in the governor’s speech, while Democratic legislators and other cheerleaders sung his praise.
“If I listed all the accomplishments of this governor I would be here all day,” said Howard Zemsky, one of Cuomo’s top Buffalo confidants.
And cognizant of the Moreland Commission controversy now swirling around Cuomo, Zemsky pointedly added this: “There is really one person responsible for the dramatic transformation of Western New York. He is the best friend Western New York has ever had – period – end of discussion.”
Why wouldn’t Zemsky heap such praise on his friend from Albany? Cuomo had just announced 659 new jobs for Buffalo; that his “Buffalo Billion” was on track to create even more jobs, and that he was responsible for solving a long period of inactivity at the Peace Bridge.
The Canadians with whom he sparred last year will argue that Cuomo “started a fire to put it out” at the Peace Bridge, but the governor still made his point. In this election year, he will point out that his frequent assemblies like the one in Harriman Hall center around good news (jobs).
Indeed, Cuomo has concentrated on Western New York after it rejected his candidacy in 2010, because he recognized the perception that Albany had long ago forgotten the region.
Ironically, however, Harriman Hall on Monday also provided the stage for the most crucial juncture of Cuomo’s career. He was forced to stand before dozens of notebooks and cameras at a downstairs press conference to deny serious allegations of political interference in the Moreland Commission he created to probe corruption in state government.
The governor of New York had to endure questions of whether he had been subpoenaed by a U.S. attorney investigating the Moreland Commission; if he or any of his aides had quashed Moreland subpoenas; if he had corrupted the corruption commission he had created.
Cuomo would rather have stayed upstairs to talk about good things and follow the script. He is not used to such searing questions, or for that matter, “Morning Joe’s” Chuck Todd labeling him a “bull in a china shop.”
Nobody has yet pronounced the governor politically endangered as a result of his Moreland difficulties. But that doesn’t mean that New York’s Republicans and Cuomo challenger Rob Astorino won’t try.
State GOP Chairman Ed Cox insists the controversy spawned by an extensive New York Times article has “legs.” He cites the credibility of the reporters and the reputation of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara – now asking what happened.
“This is about not being able to trust the governor,” Cox said. “After he said he would restore public trust, this goes right to the heart of New York government and the way the governor conducts himself.”
Now Cox says Astorino’s campaign is re-energized. He pointed to reporters suddenly hounding his candidate for Moreland reaction, and a $500,000 spike in Astorino donations since the Times story broke. Cuomo may have $35 million in his campaign coffers, Cox said, but Astorino will now get the $15 million he needs to “get his message out.”
Cuomo obviously takes another view. When asked on Monday in Harriman Hall if Moreland will cause him difficulties at the polls, his answer proved Cuomo-esque.
“I don’t think any reasonable person will see any other possible outcome,” he said, referring to his claims of commission “independence.”
Come November, reasonable persons around New York will say exactly what they think.