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Nasal Juggernaut: The Andrew Cuomo Listening Experience

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 29th, 2010

Andrew Cuomo

An embarassing admission: I had never really heard Andrew Cuomo’s voice until earlier this week. I had seen some speeches, caught some campaign ads, but my knowledge of him is second-hand—it comes from press reports, transcripts, official interviews with other New York politicos. The picture drawn is familiar: the prince of darkness, a master political operator, gruff and ruthless if thin-skinned, willing to be as pragmatic as necessary and not prone to his father’s neurotic intellectualism or Eliot Spitzer’s Ivy smugness.

His low profile let people’s imagination filled in the blanks, and the tales of him badgering reporters that I heard confirmed my bias. Even his critics, who considered his crusades as Attorney General too blunt and populist, made him seem like what the former Governor Spitzer would call a “f**king steamroller.”

The rare interview he gave to the Times that was published on Sunday night fit the stereotype. His eyes in the picture looked heavy-lidded, his jaw drooped with craggly intent, and he seemed intent on driving home the theme that he would get tough on the unions (“Cuomo Vows Offensive Against Labor Unions.”) Then I heard his voice — the Times had put the audio of the wide-ranging interview online. Go to the article and listen to it.  ”If you’re looking for an abberation over the past ten ye-ahs, it is the increasing power and influence of the special interests, which has increased exponentially. If you go to an old-timah like me…” His voice was nasal, it had a hint of neurotic annoyance, with the Shecky Greene precision of a old-school CUNY (Queens, maybe Baruch?) professor.

It made sense, of course — he’s not a classic politician of the wards, so much as he is a political staffer, an operator, who became an office-holder. A trivial confession: He may defeat Paladino with ease, but just listening for two minutes to his voice oscillate and riff like a friend of my grandfather’s sanded off his aura of invincibility for me. Andrew Cuomo can work the press, it seems, because he can speak like us.

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Nan Hayworth’s Paladino Problem: Boehner to the Rescue?

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Rep. John Boehner

For some people, the rent may still be too damn high, but for Carl Paladino and his campaign, the gubernatorial debate was a wash. Jimmy McMillan became the face of New York gone wild, and the only thing that the press wanted to talk about. (What? After that event did you really think everyone would suddenly start obsessing over pension guarantees?) Once again, a New York Republican was left grasping at straws. But, at least this time, he wasn’t also the butt of all the jokes.

The potency of strange third parties are usually not in dispute — a mix a political expectations and savvy leadership can go a long way, as the experience of the Working Families Party in New York has shown. Unfortunately for Republicans, the WFP does not provide a good example of what to with do an extremely embarrassing candidate, with serious baggage, who can’t win and threatens to bring down the rest of the party’s chances. With Paladino, the hope now is that people won’t care.

It’s created a strange situation where Paladino keeps on going after Cuomo, with full vigor, as the press cares less and less. We know what’s he’s do so far. As one Buffalo resident put it to the Times, “then he’s making gay slurs, he’s threatening to beat up that guy on camera, and people see all that. You don’t want a mobster as governor.” It’s not easy for a candidate to straddle the line of respectability so clearly, especially while making accusations about how the other guy spends his money and Paladino hasn’t been able to do it. Nan Hayworth, the retired ophthalmologist running for a seat in the northern suburbs of New York  as a Tea partier, has had to play hide and go-seek with Paladino’s support — the voters may be mad as hell, but they’ve also realized that a man angrier than them might not be the safest choice for the state. While Hayworth plays coy about Paladino, she has been able to rack up support from a more powerful place: The future Speaker of the House. Next week, Rep. John Boehner, the Republican minority leader will be coming to town to raise money for Hayworth. Even if someone’s ashamed by Paladino, it’s not a problem so big that a few Republican donors can’t fix.

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Why New York’s Other Races Are More Fun Than the Paladino Trainwreck

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dr. Nan Hayworth

Carl Paladino has no shot of beating Andrew Cuomo. He is a staple of both the national cable networks and the local news. There are at least five New York Congressional Democrats running for re-election in swing districts facing an array of Republican challengers trying to harness voter dissatifaction into political change. How many of those races have you seen covered wall-to-wall in the tabloids? (And, no, the guy from Ohio who likes Nazi re-enacting does not count.)

It was always expected that Cuomo’s opponent would politically suffocate under a pile of opposition research, but Paladino’s decision to explode — this week, it was his comments about gays – have obscured the fact that even the non-extreme parts of the American polity are leaning Republican this year. In New York, a generally Democratic state with a limping Republican party apparatus, Paladino’s combusting engine of a campaign has fired up the base but possibly blocked the situation’s progress. Forget Pataki, forget Giuliani; the image of the GOP in this state right now is embodied by a man who has condemned gay marriage and allegedly forwarded lots and lots of porn, some displaying pictures of a kind of relationship that he would consider deeply unnatural.

The hubbub has caused headaches for Republican prospectives. At a debate Wednesday night, a retired opthamologist with a Tea party bent who is taking on Rep. John Hall of District 19 (Westchester County, Rockland County, Orange County), was forced to answer whether she’d accept Paladino’s support. She said yes, as long as he could make sure people would be able to comfortably pursue their personal life. Hall, who was elected in 2006 and is basically tied, was asked a similar question about Charlie Rangel, a man who is barely in the news.

This funny dance, where a crazy-sounding gadfly both distracts from and destroys surging Republican support, is a dynamic to watch: Paladino has joined the likes of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware as a national target for Democrats, whether it’s because they are easy foils that make it seem like disaster is not impending or because they are just compelling bogeymen (and bogeywomen). But maybe it’s time we should turn our eyes away from the trainwreck and focus on the Hall-Hayworth race, or Tim Bishop’s surprising durability in the 1st district on the East End of Long Island , or the fact that Bill Owens is somehow still leading in the 23rd district by five points even though it should be an obvious Republican pickup.

All of these seats are the ones that matter, the type of small races that can swing Congress, change the shape of the healthcare system or the national debt. The arc of those races are the ones to watch for the next 18 days — polls are just snapshots, and nothing is set in stone. Except for the fact that Carl Paladino will probably lose.

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Political Pros and Their Foes

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 8th, 2010

Rep. Eric Schneiderman

The Democratic candidates for the three big statewide positions in New York are professional politicians, in the most formal sense of the word. Would-be Governor Andrew Cuomo has been running all sorts of campaigns since he engineered his father’s rise three decades ago; would-be Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was the architect of the successful push in recent election years to take control of the State Senate; and, the incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli served as an Assemblyman for more than two decades.

This basic fact is part of the reason why Carl Paladino has told voters, “I’m a builder, not a politician.” (He said this in the middle of a rambling three-minute video where he also made a strange reference to Andrew Cuomo’s “prowess.”)

There’s a fine line between proving your amateur bona fides, and coming across as amateurish, and New York Republicans have had trouble walking it, despite statewide dissatisfaction with the economy and the Democratic Party.

Harry Wilson, the Republican candidate for comptroller, says that “fortunately, I’m not a politician; I’m a fiscal expert, I fix broken companies.”  He comes across better than Paladino — but he’s a hedge fund manager who worked for both Blackstone and Goldman Sachs, and also worked on the White House Auto Task Force (read: bailouts).

Then, there’s Dan Donovan, the rather dry Republican D.A. from Staten Island who kicked off his web campaign with an odd, long video that had two political pros in shock — shock! — that Donovan had pledged to delay any run for higher office if he won the race to be Attorney General. They did not understand how he could use the office “as a stepping stone for governor when you’re taking yourself out of the race for governor.” (The anti-politician persona has been helped by Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement.)

It’s another clear, obvious tack — Eliot Spitzer and Cuomo have turned the A.G. spot into a waystation on the track to the Governor’s mansion, and Donovan wants to show he’s something different. But with all three major Republican candidates down in the polls by at least ten points, it’s pretty clear that four years from now they won’t be attacked for being “Albany insiders,” because they’ll still be on the outside, looking in.

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The Paladino Meltdown: Not Deadly, Just A Waste of Precious Time

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 1st, 2010

So that’s why they call Andrew Cuomo the Prince of Darkness. It probably over-estimates the political prowess of the Attorney General—and underplays the wackiness of Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino—to give him credit for the events of the past week, but it once again shows that effectively corralling the support of the establishment has real political benefits.

Let’s recap. Ever since Paladino rendered the Republican establishment ineffectual and State Senator Eric Schneiderman knocked out Cuomo’s preferred candidates in the Democratic primary election for Attorney General, Cuomo has looked weaker than expected, unable to hold down his left flank or rouse up enthusiastic support. Polls were even showing Paladino within less than ten points, about twenty points higher than expected.

Then came the deluge. The Post reminded everyone that Paladino had a daughter out-of-wedlock (she’s now ten), hurting him even more with women voters. The Times pulled public records on Paladino’s aides, and the results weren’t pretty, with personal baggage strewn all over the news pages. Then it all culminated with Paladino picking a fight with Post Albany bureau chief on tape and implying that Cuomo had affairs of his own.

Part of this new scrutiny is par for the course—Paladino is untested, new, and a guy who is running as the guy who is “mad as hell.” But there’s another element, and it points to why the Post is going hard on Paladino, a fellow conservative. Cuomo knows how to work the political press, and the tabloid press, like no one else—not in terms of public speaking, but in terms of taking down an opponent or preserving political capital. It goes back a while—one nice example of this is that, in famed New York political columnist Jack Newfield’s memoir, Andrew Cuomo appears only twice, and never as a political adversary. In one case, he’s the guy who was tasked with (successfully) keeping a David Dinkins affair out of the tabloids in the days leading up the 1989 Mayoral election. In the second case, he’s the guy whose close connections with the neoconservative Post editorial page editor Eric Breindel got Newfield a writing gig. It’s a backroom game he’s played a while.

The only issue with this kind of power is that, in the year of the Tea Party, the year of rampant unemployment, the year of populist anger, it takes more than a couple well-delivered shots to take down an opponent. Cuomo only needs to run down the clock to election day, but Paladino may stay a nuisance longer than anyone would have predicted two weeks ago.

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Defining Paladino: Will New York Dems Rely on the Rove Playbook?

By Avi Zenilman
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010
Carl Paladino

Carl Paladino

It’s not good news for Andrew Cuomo that the most recent Quinnipiac poll had him leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino by only six points. (Yes, that Paladino is the same “Crazy Carl” who, until his surprising nomination victory, was mostly known for his history of forwarding insane, racially problematic emails. While Cuomo has found himself in a much closer race than he’d like, an examination of the dynamics driving the poll results reveals why Paladino is probably peaking — and, more interestingly, sheds light on why Congressional Democrats might not be as doomed as previously thought.

The conventional wisdom right now is that, while the Cuomo juggernaut is insulated, upstate Congressional Democrats will have a tough time fighting the Republican, anti-incumbent wave. When someone like Paladino, who built his insurgent primary campaign on the backs of Tea Party sympathizers, becomes the nominee and creeps to within striking distance of the Governor’s mansion, it seems like further confirmation that moderates like Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-24) or Rep. Scott Murphy (D-20) should start packing their bags. But a new Siena poll shows Arcuri, whose district includes Utica, up by eight against Richard Hanna, the businessman who he barely defeated two years ago. Another Siena poll shows Murphy, who was 700 votes away from losing the special election that catapulted him into office in 2009, leading his rural distract by 17 points.

Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse.

What do two overachieving moderate Congressman and one underachieving would-be Governor have in common? Undefined opponents. In each of the polls, the Democrat is a much better known commodity than the Republican. According to Quinnipiac, only 15 percent of likely voters don’t have an opinion of Cuomo, while 31 percent don’t know enough to have a view of Paladino. Arcuri has a similar name advantage: 21 percent don’t have an opinion of him, compared to 44 percent for Hanna. And with Murphy, the advantage is even more striking: only 17 percent have no solid views, while nearly four times as many respondents have no opinion of Colin Gibson, his opponent.

For Cuomo, the advantage is obvious: He has about $30 million dollars, along with endorsements from the likes of Mayor Bloomberg, to sway those who don’t know about every bad thing Paladino has ever done or bcc’d. The other Democrats, tarred and feathered and identified with an unpopular party, are known quantities that still are holding onto a lead. A combination of decent fundraising and some hardball politicking — be prepared for every Republican candidate in the state to be forced to parry questions about whether they support something outrageous that Paladino said — might be enough to hold off the wave.

In 2004, George W. Bush, faced with flagging approval ratings and an electorate angry about a war, kept his grip on the White House by making the election more than just a referendum on his performance; he made it a choice between himself and the shifty Massachusetts senator whose views were consistently called into question. Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse. (MoveOn now warns, “Stop the Takeover.”) Andrew Cuomo’s courting of former county chairs and old pols like Ed Koch might seem like a weird sop to the establishment in a year when everyone wants to storm the barracks, but it’s also the groundwork for the kind of political dynamic that Karl Rove mastered six years ago. The implicit slogan is simple: more of the same versus terrifying change.

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New York City Liberals Stare Down Cuomo

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

State Senator Eric Schneiderman

“I’m glad you all stayed up,” State Senator Eric Schneiderman told the cheering crowd at the Grand Hyatt. It was 1 a.m., the platters of cheese and curiously crunchy honeydew were no more, and all of his opponents in the five-way Democratic primary contest for Attorney General had finally conceded.

The ballroom was filled with some of the most powerful liberals in New York City. Naral Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conklin introduced Schneiderman, Rep. Jerry Nadler and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had been working the cameras for hours, and the crowd was filled with people wearing the purple t-shirts of SEIU 1199 — the most powerful union in the state. They all chanted “GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO!” when they found out that Gustavo Rivera had defeated State Senate Majority Leader, Pedro Espada, Jr.  They had all endorsed Schneiderman over Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the former frontrunner and the presumed favorite of Andrew Cuomo. None of them were intimidated by the presumptive Governor, the so-called prince of darkness.

Schneiderman, however, had only praise for Cuomo, which he delivered after he complimented gay rights activists, the labor movement, reproductive rights organizations, the Dominicans in his district, Citizens Action, and a few other groups. The outspoken liberal said that “voters are looking for someone who will stand up to Wall Street,” and he pointed to Cuomo’s “unprecedent work” on that front. In the general election against Staten Island D.A. Dan Donovan, the promise to fight for the little guy — along with locking down the woman vote by painting him as anti-abortion as possible — will be much more salient than straightforward appeals to labor or gay rights.

It’s worth remembering, however, that Cuomo and Schneiderman are not close at all, and that Schneiderman built a incredibly potent progressive coalition that has pre-emptively expressed its disappointment with the soon-to-be Governor’s centrism and recent aversion to hard positions. The base is restless, and in the affable, savvy, Harvard-educated Schneiderman, they have their golden boy. Cuomo, obviously, knows how a press savvy Attorney General can use their subpeona power to push an agenda or hold rivals accountable, which is why he likely would have preferred Rice or trial lawyer Sean Coffey, moderates without their own power base in Albany.

Yet, as Schneiderman said, if he won the general election he would be ready to “step in on day one and continue the same aggressive progressive approach of Andrew Cuomo.”

It sounded like unequivocal support, but it was also a warning. “Everyone has to play by the same set of rules,” he said. No one, not even the governor, would be exempt from the long reach of the Attorney General’s office. In other words, Eric Scheiderman would continue the work of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by making life difficult for Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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The Money Trails at Park51

By Avi Zenilman
Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

As the fight over the Cordoba Initiative’s project blocks away from Ground Zero continues to drag into the New York primary season, it’s worth dodging the political footballs flying around and asking the basic question: Will the thing actually get built?

It’s still unclear where the funding for the estimated $100 million community project will come from. Sharif El-Gamal, the 38-year-old developer behind the plan, bought the 17-storey building (which used to hold a Burlington Coat Factory) in July 2009 for less than $5 million (a price that some are now saying was weirdly cheap) from the family that owned the place.

El-Gamal has not sketched out clear programming plans for Park51, nor has he released a design for the community center, nor has he released any feasibility studies. The plan was to raise the first $70 million by selling tax-exempt bonds and the final $30 million through a board filled with local corporate and cultural luminaries. Russell Simmons has already signed on. While the fires of controversy flared up in August when the Park51 spokesman intimated that they’d accept money from Iranian and Saudi sources, it’s been made clear that the project will not accept money from donors with “un-American” values.

But given that local Muslim groups have wondered if the money would be better spent on other projects, and only 35% of New Yorkers actually favor building the center, raising money looks like it will be a constant slog. Anyone, public or private, bank or individual, who finances the project will come under intense scrutiny, especially now that opposition has become a Republican article of faith. It won’t just be a political statement; it will be a political statement with costs in time, money, and investigations.

Tracking the money—a Saudi prince (who is also a major investor in Fox News) helping the Imam who is the de facto spiritual leader of the project, a super-hawkish conservative think tank in D.C. linked to defense contractors that is helping to organize anti-mosque protests — has become the new undercard fight of this political battle, but the amount of money in question is nothing compared to the amount needed to push the project into existence.

The bright glare of interest is bad for any complicated real estate project. Now that opposition for the mosque has become a point of political pride among every Republican candidate in New York (much less the rest of the country), a strange dynamic has taken hold: defenders of the first amendment must articulate their support for the mosque, but it’s hard to see any of them funding it. Like any slow-moving real estate story, the facts on the ground become secondary when they are charred by the white heat of a political campaign. For the time being, the question isn’t who is funding the mosque, but more straight-forward politics: who is funding the Republican political campaigns this fall, and which Democratic donors are making their bets based on support for the mosque?

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Bloomberg’s Worst Enemy

By Avi Zenilman
Monday, August 30th, 2010

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

The fight over Park51 has, for the most part, divided along partisan lines. Republicans have almost unanimously lined up against the plan, while most of the plan’s supporters are Democrats. But the endless media scrum doesn’t capture the ideological split at the heart of the mess: ward politics versus technocratic planning, expedience versus idealism, defensive pride versus elite aspiration. In other words, the best way to look at fight over the “Ground Zero Mosque” is to see it as another clash in the worldviews of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Silver is a career politician, the personification of Albany. He has served in the Assembly since 1976, and his openly parochial concerns have stymied Mayor Bloomberg’s grander designs. The congestion tax, a wonky and high-minded attempt by Bloomberg to use the cutting-edge logic of urban systems to reduce emissions and traffic, was killed by Silver. He drew a line in the sand, framing Bloomberg as an opponent of commuters and a lackey for snobby cosmopolitan hipsters before letting the bill die in the legislature. Mayoral control? He looked askance at that, too, until he realized that Bloomberg, while still an anti-politician, had harnessed economic concerns and anti-teachers’ union sentiment into a viable coalition.

Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both pursestrings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape.

Now there’s the mosque. Silver, who lives downtown and represents a district that covers a wide swath of lower Manhattan, is on the side of the grumbling populists. “In the spirit of living with others, they should be cognizant of the feelings of others and try to find a location that doesn’t engender the deep feelings the currently exist about this site,” he said last week, at a press conference with Governor Paterson. “I think the sponsors should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”

The anodyne, incremental suggestions do not resemble Bloomberg’s stirring rhetoric — on Tuesday he called the fight over the cultural center a “test of our commitment to American values” — but that’s besides the point. Unlike Paterson, unlike Sarah Palin, Silver controls both purse strings and votes in Albany, and he still has the strength of a political boss; he can easily make sure that the construction of the center is bogged down by red tape. All politics is local, and it’s now clear that Bloomberg is operating on Silver’s turf.

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The Farce of Charlie Rangel’s Last Hurrah Continues… and Continues

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Rep. Charlie Rangel

When Charlie Rangel said he wouldn’t back down from ethics violations charges and calls to step down from his seat in Congress, he really meant it.

At a debate on Monday night with his primary opponents, all of them a couple decades younger than him,  he mocked President Obama for saying that the 20-term Democrat from Harlem should “retire with dignity.”

“Frankly, he has not been around long enough to determine what my dignity is,” Rangel said about the president. “For the next two years, I will be more likely to protect his dignity.”

The fall of a leader may be a tragedy for Harlem, but national (and local) Democrats have reduced Charlie to a footnote — at open, empty war with the president, he does not sound like a threat to any Democrats’ electoral hopes except for his opponents. Despite the pro forma celebration of his birthday a few weeks back — attended by Senator Schumer, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson — his decision to fight for his political life seems more of a nuisance than an obstacle in the way of national Democratic hopes. (For obstacles, turn to Fox News and wait five minutes or less for the next mention of the words “Ground Zero Mosque.”)

But oh, what a nuisance. His strongest opponent, Adam Clayton Powell IV, has now taken off whatever gloves he was wearing beforehand, last week holding a big press conference on the street named after his father (who was himself an aging congressman stumbling in a fog of corruption when Rangel defeated him in 1971). He was supported by Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and drove home the point that Rangel was too corrupt to do well by Harlem.

However, Powell IV may not be the best man to call for a restoration of dignity, given his drunk driving record and other legal troubles. He’s aware of that problem now. “My mistake was one night of having maybe one too many, if you will, so to speak. His mistake has been a pattern of years and years and years of abuse of disrespect for the laws, of thinking that he’s above it all,” he said at the press conference. It’s a sign of the absurdity of this race that the reformist candidate’s strongest card is the one where he points out that his crime was less problematic.

Powell has added in a wrinkle to his attacks in recent days, saying that Rangel intends to actually step down upon re-election, which would open up the race to a hand-picked heir apparent like Assemblyman Keith Wright. While Rangel dismisses these accusations as crazy-talk, it also is becoming clear that Harlem voters might really need it to be true. Despite what Powell says, the only way they can really have a choice, after all, is if Charlie gives them one.

But he probably won’t. And the slow march until the September 14 continues, sounding like a circus, feeling like a tragedy. The morning after the election, no matter what happens, there is little chance it will feel any different.

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