It appears as if Andrew Cuomo has a liberal problem.
Last month, Chris Hayes, the wonky host of his own morning television show on the liberal MSNBC looked straight at the camera and announced “Democrats cannot count on New York’s supposedly Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo as an ally and every Democratic primary voter in the entire country should know that, too.”
“One would have thought that a Democratic governor would have worked hard to reverse the Tea Party’s 2010 gains in his state,” added Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. “You would hope that a governor with his eyes on the White House would prefer to cooperate with the diverse progressive legislators of the Democratic/Working Families Party majority rather than the all-white, nearly all-male moderate-to-conservative GOP minority.”
The Daily Kos went even further, with head man Markos Moulitsas accusing the governor of New York of acting in way telling the netroots, that “If you’re looking for a successor to Obama who will be a strong Democrat who will fight for Democratic ideals and his or her party, don’t be looking at Cuomo … Cuomo is a worthy successor to the legacy of Joe Lieberman … It should make him persona non grata in a Democratic presidential primary.”
The outrage was sparked after Democrats appeared to have won a majority of seats in the New York State Senate, only to watch, through some backroom deal-making that Cuomo either spearheaded or tacitly supported, as the Republicans persuaded a handful of Democrats to caucus with them, keeping the GOP in the majority.
And it is not just this incident. The left has been suspicious of Cuomo for some time now, fearful that he is too much of calculating operator who prefers to navigate the rocky shoals of clubby Albany rather than steamroll over them, as one of predecessors, Eliot Spitzer, pledged to do. He has had a tepid relationship with organized labor and left-leaning third party the Working Families Party. He has resisted raising taxes, even to help balance the books after Hurricane Sandy, something that his Republican counterpart across the Hudson River, Chris Christie, has suggested he is open to. Cuomo even endorsed GOP lawmakers.
This approach has made the notoriously dysfunctional New York legislature into something resembling a working lawmaking body, and allowed the governor to move his agenda forward, which included progressive wish-list items like a same-sex marriage law, ethics reform, and stronger rent control. But the perception that Cuomo is a centrist could boomerang on him if the governor goes through with the widespread expectation that he will run for president in 2016. The last thing any would-be presidential candidate wants to explain to the hardened Democratic partisans of Iowa and New Hampshire is, “Despite what you may have heard, I am no Joe Lieberman.”
According to friends and allies in Albany, Cuomo has remained non-plussed by all the uproar.
“You don’t get the sense that they are freaked out,” said one lobbyist close to Cuomo. “They have to convince the general public that Chris Hayes and all those guys are wrong. And his attitude is ‘I get paid to do something and all this bullshit about arguing over the partisan lines is just bullshit.’”
“I think people are getting tired of people getting elected and not doing anything. Let’s stop the petty back-and-forth and actually do something for the people.”
Cuomo has said that the reason he supports the GOP’s power grab is that it will help him pass progressive legislation. It was a GOP State Senate, for example, that passed same-sex marriage, while the measure stalled when the chamber was under Democratic control. In an op-ed in the Albany Times Union, Cuomo promised to support any lawmaker who helped him pass his agenda, which included liberal items like an increase in the minimum wage, campaign-finance reform, and a curb of the New York City police practice known as stop-and-frisk.
Cuomo has privately scoffed at the depictions of him as a centrist, mainly because they are made by pundits who don’t know what it would mean if Democrats took control of the body. When they were last in charge in 2008-2010, the legislature was a national laughingstock, even by New York standards. Then, three Democrats instigated a caucus coup and the work of government ground to a halt. Since then, one of those Democrats went to prison for fraud and another is set to join him there. Another Senate Democrat has been indicted for embezzling funds designated for a sham nonprofit, another is under federal investigation for doing the same, and two more were discovered to have been sipping champagne and smoking cigars at a top lobbyist’s house after approving that lobbyist client’s bid to license video slots at a local racetrack. On more than one occasion, literal fights broke out behind closed doors, and the antagonism often fell along racial lines.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said one Cuomo associate. “Those guys don’t understand New York politics. The Senate Democrats are crooks. Crooks, plain and simple.”
The governor then has made a bet that the best way to get what he wants is by getting Republicans to act like Democrats. And with the GOP in control by only the slimmest of margins, and Cuomo facing a 66 percent approval rating among Republicans, there is a good chance that the GOP will sign off on what Cuomo tells them to if only to remain relevant in a deeply Democratic state. And he has made a second bet as well—that if he heads out to Iowa and New Hampshire in four years with same-sex marriage, balanced budgets, campaign-finance reform, and police reform tucked into his portfolio, that activists there won’t care much about how he got there.
And indeed, the fact that so many in New York and in the blogosphere are cursing Cuomo for his apostasies shows in a way how deeply both are in the bubble. To see how all of the Cuomo renunciation by Kos and his ilk was faring in the heartland, The Daily Beast reached out to several of the most partisan Democratic activists and operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire, exactly the kind of people that a presidential candidate needs to start winning over, to get their take on the latest from Albany.
And to a person, none were paying much attention to what happens in the New York State Legislature, and for that matter, weren’t paying much attention to Andrew Cuomo at all.
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Matt Sinovic, the executive director of Progress Iowa. Asked his opinion on Cuomo in general, the activist replied, “pretty much unformed at this point.”
“Really no, I don’t,” added Walt Pregler, the chairman of the Dubuque County Democratic Party, when asked if he had an impression of Cuomo.
Asked then if he would be troubled by backroom negotiations to keep Democrats out of power in the legislature, he said, “Yes I would. I believe in clear, transparent elections. In Dubuque County we had an excellent turnout and a clean sweep and it was all done above-board.”
He added, “There are a lot of people in Dubuque who hope Hillary runs. And Joe Biden is a personal friend of mine.”
“None of it,” responded Jeff Link, an Iowa operative who worked on the Al Gore and Barack Obama primary campaigns, when asked how much he had heard of the latest contretemps out of New York. “Even for a state of insiders, that is too inside. If somebody were running against Governor Cuomo out here, they may want to stir the pot a little, but our own people aren’t going to sort out the politics in New York state.”
Peggy Whitworth, from Cedar Rapids, was a delegate at the Democratic convention this year—as she was in 2008—and noted that unlike other 2016 hopefuls, Cuomo didn’t stop by the Iowa delegation. But she had no opinion of him, and said all she knew about the governor of New York was that he “lives with some silly woman who does cooking on television.”
Asked if a backroom deal to keep Republicans in control of the state legislature would bother her when it comes to caucus time, Whitworth said, “It would not. If someone like you hadn’t posed the question to me, I wouldn’t even have thought about it. I think people are getting tired of people getting elected and not doing anything. Let’s stop the petty back-and-forth and actually do something for the people.”
In New Hampshire, the reaction was pretty much the same. Democratic activists there were aware of Cuomo a little bit more, mainly based on proximity to New York, but hadn’t heard much about the latest from Albany, and wouldn’t care anyway.
“He seems to be a very effective administrator for the state of New York. I have been very impressed,” said Kathleen Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “He seems to have developed a style of governing that permits him to work with a somewhat contentious House and Senate leadership. I am very impressed he was able to move the marriage-equality bill.”
She said that even if Cuomo were a centrist, it wouldn’t much matter in a pragmatic place like New Hampshire.
And even though Sullivan gets The New York Times and picks up New York Daily News occasionally at a local newsstand, she hadn’t heard about any deals to keep the Senate in Republican hands.
“But I do like to follow the news out of New York state, especially because of your state senators—they are always so much fun,” she joked. “I picked up The Daily News the other day and I couldn’t believe it. I said to my husband—look, another state senator is in some kind of trouble.”