As of this month, there are 648 young people in state-run detention facilities, and 349 of them — more than half — are from New York City. There are still more young people in detention across New York State, mostly in private facilities, and again, the majority of them are from New York City.
For these New York City kids, detention often means living nine, ten hours away from their families. In December 2009, a task force convened by Governor Patterson reported that while “nearly three-quarters of the youth who reside in institutional placement facilities are from the New York City metropolitan area…many of the facilities in which they are placed are located upstate — sometimes hundreds of miles away.”
It is difficult to close these upstate facilities, even as the number of young people being put into detention dwindles and they stand unused. They do provide jobs for upstate communities in need of them, and in 2006, the state passed a law mandating a one-year lead time for any facility’s closure. But in the past month, both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have spoken out about changing of this situation. In his State of the State address, Gov. Cuomo said that this state of affairs “has to end this session.”
“For those of us who are old enough to remember Willowbrook,” the Staten Island school for mentally disabled children, exposed in the 1960s as an overcrowded, filthy facilities, “it brings back very bad memories. When we think about our current juvenile justice facilities, I believe there are echoes of what we dealt with in Willowbrook,” the governor said. And in his State of the City address last week, Mayor Bloomberg promised to work with Albany to “keep more young offenders in supervised, secure programs close to their homes and families instead of hundreds of miles away upstate.”
“We know we can do a better job of helping young offenders turn away from a life of crime, and if Albany will allow us, we will,” the Mayor said.
Neither leader has laid out a specific plan for moving forward, however, and underlying this positive rhetoric, however, is the question of whether the state or the city will have control over the incarceration of New York City’s young people. In December, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference in which he spoke about his proposal; his office has yet to release a written report on its details. The mayor’s overarching agenda, however, is to move New York City juvenile offenders into correctional programs run by the city. Albany is, by all accounts, consumed with budget preparations, and the governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry on what specific steps Gov. Cuomo was considering to move forward on this issue.
For both Cuomo and Bloomberg, however, there are reasons beyond the well-being of the state’s young offenders to move forward on juvenile justice reform. Facilities run by the state Office of Children and Family Services are currently under close monitoring: in August 2009, the Department of Justice released a report on use of excessive force and denial of legal services, in four state-run detention facilities. In a settlement, reached last July, the state promised to modify its use of restraints, provide better mental health care, and improve incident reporting.
The system is also incredibly expensive to run: costs add up to more than $200,000 for each child in detention. Built into that price, however, is the cost of keeping open empty or half-full facilities, as well.
The state passes on a portion of those costs to the localities whose youth end up in the system. But the New York City’s law department is pushing back against the current cost-sharing plan. In November, the law department filed a suit against the state, in an attempt to force the state to recalculate its rates.
“The City should not have to pay millions because of wasteful spending by the State’s juvenile justice system,” Michael A. Cardozo, who heads the law department, said in a press release. “We should not pay for empty beds and idle workers.”
The suit is only in the beginning stages, and the state has yet to respond to the city’s initial filings. But if the city were to win, the state’s system could lose a major portion of its funding, giving the governor an additional incentive to shut down idle facilities.
There is widespread agreement, among policymakers and advocates, that young people in the juvenile justice system should be placed closer to home than they generally are now, and that the system cost too much. But juvenile justice advocates are waiting to see more detailed proposals from the Mayor’s office, before they endorse the city’s proposal. And the City Council’s Juvenile Justice Committee, chaired by Sara Gonzalez, who has been a vocal advocate on this issue, is holding a hearing this coming week on the proposal.
Meredith Wiley, New York state director for Fight Crime Invest in Kids, an organization whose members are drawn from law enforcement, prosecutors, and violence survivors, says that there are more important points at stake than whether the city or the state is responsible for the kids. “The bigger question is: What are you going to do with them?” she said.
Right now, even though the costs of running the system are currently high, detention facilities are not providing enough of the services that could benefit the young people in the detention facilities, like substance abuse and mental health counseling, advocates say. And budget cuts have only accentuated this problem.
“We need to redirect dollars from what we have been doing to what we should be doing. Instead, it’s being drained out of the system,” said Wiley.
In the last session of the state legislature, a bill was included in the Senate budget that would have created a funding stream for alternatives to detention by assuring localities that the state would shoulder some of the costs of community-based programs. It did not make it through the assembly, however, but has been reintroduced in the Senate.
For a group of people generally considered realistic and hard-headed, New Yorkers remain surprisingly optimistic about the state’s politicians, or, at the very least, the state’s top politician, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor weighed in yesterday at 70% in favorability in the latest Siena Institute polls; a plurality of people thought he was doing a “good” or “excellent” job.
“After nearly one month in office, voters’ honeymoon with the new Democratic governor remains strong,” pollster Steve Greenberg said.
Er, scratch that. That’s what Greenberg had to say four years ago, about another Democratic governor who’d stoked the state’s hopes for a new kind of Albany.
And while “Cuomo’s honeymoon is in full swing,” according to Greenberg, the newest white knight of New York politics still can’t quite reach the heights of hope that Eliot Spitzer inspired. In the first January of his term, back in 2007, New Yorkers were even more bullish on their new governor: 75% had a favorable opinion of him.
Where did Spitzer get that extra edge? So far, it turns out, Cuomo’s carefully calibrated centrism has not proven more appealing to Republicans or independently-minded voters than Spitzer’s clean-up campaign did. In 2007, 59% of Republicans had a favorable view of Spitzer; 60% of Republicans feel similarly about Cuomo. Spitzer actually did better with independents, 71% of whom feel in the favorable column; Cuomo has only convinced 65% so far.
Spitzer’s real advantage, however, was with his own party. A whopping 87% of Democrats had a favorable opinion of him in January 2007; Cuomo only commands the same warm feelings from 78% of Dems.
Of course, New Yorkers soured on Spitzer soon enough. His numbers took a hit during the 2007 budget battle, but had begun climbing again, when Troopergate emerged as an issue. Spitzer ended 2007 with only 36% of New Yorkers thinking favorably of him.
Cuomo is unlikely to fall that hard, and as long as he keeps his nose squeaky clean, he can hope against hope that it’ll soon be less fun to compare him to Spitzer. Once his governorship survives more than 14 months, he can finally escape from the steamroller’s shadow.
Instead, Cuomo can start casting his own shadow over Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, given that he now has the job of the state’s last two elected governors, is a new target for speculation. Schneiderman says he’s not interesting in running for governor, of course, but in the Wall Street Journal’s recent story on Schneiderman, the kicker was Alec Baldwin’s comment that “when Mr. Schneiderman visited the governor’s mansion he told a state employee to keep those towels with “E.S. on them,” a nod to the fact that Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Schneiderman share the same initials.”
If Schneiderman does harbor that genre of ambition, though, he’ll have to start making more splashy headlines somewhere along the way. Even though he’s now been elected AG, New Yorkers still don’t know much about him: in the most recent Siena poll, 60% of New Yorkers said they had no opinion of him, favorable or unfavorable.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his first State of the State address Wednesday, and although, as he insisted, it was not a budget proposal and although it included few dollar figures, it was a speech about money, or, more specifically, about the lack thereof.
“The state of New York spends too much money,” Cuomo said. “It is that blunt, and it is that simple.”
In the past three years, New York’s budget problems often have been lumped in with the general fiscal distress brought on by the recession across the country. But the state’s budget crisis, the first challenge that Cuomo must take on, cannot only be blamed on the recession. It is also a product of New York’s spending habits and the quick-fix ideas used to mask them.
In its most barebones formulation, New York’s budget crisis is simple. Averaged out over the past two and half decades, the state’s spending has grown faster than its inhabitants’ incomes. The end result is that the state’s revenues, which primarily come from taxing personal and corporate income, come in below its expenditures.
“The recession just made an underlying structural problem even more obvious and accelerated the trend,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission. “This kind of the gradual multi-decade long build up of expenses exceeding revenues, I think, is unusual. And there’s a relatively widespread acknowledgement that we can’t tax our way our way out of it, which is what we’ve done in the past.”
The projected budget gap for next year is more than $9 billion, perhaps even $10 billion. That’s a lot of money, but for the past decade, New York has dealt with this same problem every single year. The issue now is, in part, that lawmakers have run out of options for closing the gap. In 2001, for instance, they tapped into the small surplus the state had accumulated during the cush years of the 1990s, spending nearly $3.7 billion of a $4.2 billion reserve. In 2003, they instituted a temporary, three-year tax that tapped the highest earners in the state. They began shuffling money around among the government’s myriad accounts, sweeping money raised through a specific fee for a specific program — cigarette taxes meant to fund health programs, for instance — into the general fund. They also relied, increasingly, on one-time fixes that patched up one year’s budget without addressing the underlying disparity.
This past year, for instance, federal stimulus dollars helped shore up the state’s Medicaid budget. But next year, those funds will have disappeared, and New York’s overall fiscal situation will not differ too much from its situation in 2008.
“We never actually cut spending in the past three years, unlike some states,” said the Manhattan Institute’s E.J. McMahon.
Even before other states starting cutting programs to make ends meets, New York had one of the highest per capita spending rates in the entire country: In fiscal year 2007, for instance, it ranked 5th in the nation, at $7,846 per head, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation.
This year, the state’s spending will total more than $137 billion. That total can be roughly divided into three categories. State and federal capital funds — funds intended primary for infrastructure projects — accounted for about 6% of the budget. About a third of the state’s operating funds ($47.6 billion) came from the federal government, in one form or another. The remainder of the budget is made up of state operating funds.
In the State of the State, Cuomo avoided saying explicitly that this year’s budget would require cutting programs; he focused instead on the more vague and purportedly inspiring idea that the solution to the state’s money trouble could be tackled by rethinking government programs more holistically.
But in order for the state’s revenue and expenditures to come in line with each other — without raising taxes — the governor will have to make cuts. And he will have to make cuts to the biggest and most fiscally irrational government programs: school aid, Medicaid, and the state workforce. These programs eat up the biggest chunks of the budget, and over the past ten years, they have also been the fastest growing. The Citizens Budget Commission calls them the “Big 3,” and this year, lawmakers will have to wrangle with them, according to Kellermann.
“There’s no way around that any more. You can’t get your arms around a $10 billion deficit by cutting discretionary programs that don’t have that much money in them,” she said.
For Medicaid, at least, Cuomo has a plan: His Medicaid redesign team will gather stakeholders together and identify Medicaid reforms that make sense for the program but also save money, he said Wednesday.
It’s still not clear, however, how Cuomo will close the deficit this year. “He has said repeatedly that he’s absolutely positively going to close a budget gap without tax increases and borrowing,” McMahon said Wednesday. “I don’t know any more about how he’s going to do that today than I did yesterday.”
The budget process will begin in earnest once Cuomo presents his plan to the legislature. The legislature will then have the opportunity to reduce funding for or eliminate each line of Cuomo’s proposed budget. The legislature can also add spending items. Cuomo has the power to veto any line of the legislature’s version of the budget; a two-thirds majority can override his veto.
New York’s fiscal year begins unusually early, on April 1. The state has a terrible track record for passing budgets on time, however. When in 2005 the budget bill made it across the governor’s desk before the new fiscal year began, it was the first time in 21 years the budget had been finished on schedule.
Like so many reform-minded governors before him, Andrew Cuomo has pledged to eradicate the tangle of ethical problems eating his state’s government from the inside out. And although it’s quite possible that he will “clean up Albany,” as he promised, it will require more than just passing ethics reform laws.
It’s become a trope for governors to sweep into office and push forward ethics reform, either on their own or in partnership with a legislature. Charlie Crist’s first act as governor in 2007 was to create an Office of Open Government, and, in Louisiana, in 2008, Bobby Jindal made it a priority to call a special session in which legislators agreed to begin disclosing more information about their income, outside employment and clients. And here in New York, just four years ago, Eliot Spitzer promised a squeaky clean slate.
Since then, Albany has so often been rocked by scandal that misdeeds signaling dramatic wrongdoing elsewhere feel like barely a tremor. Good government advocates, voters, and even elected officials of questionable moral character agree that something has to change. (Pedro Espada, now former-Senate Majority Leader, disgraced, indicted, touted in a report released last week his championship of ethics reform in Albany.)
Can the new governor really hope to reorient the government on a path towards good?
As a candidate, Cuomo proposed a slate of improvements to Albany’s ethics infrastructure that are more or less standard practice around the country: an independent ethics oversight body, lower limits on political contributions and increased transparency for both lawmakers and lobbyists.
“The chronic dysfunction of Albany metastasized into the corruption of Albany. And it was a bipartisan affliction,” he said on the day he announced his candidacy for governor. “Job 1 is going to be clean up Albany….We need strict ethics laws, we need full disclosure of all income….We need independent monitors, because self-policing is an oxy-moron.”
Independent monitors — in Cuomo’s more detailed policy proposals, he argues for independent ethics commission — might be the most important of those reforms. “At the heart of what has gone wrong in Albany is the failure of the ethics watchdogs to be aggressive,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director of NYPIRG, the government watchdog group. Currently, New York has two main ethics oversight bodies: the Commission on Public Integrity, which oversees lobbying and executive ethics, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has power over the state senate and assembly.
Neither has a strong record of providing independent oversight. In the case of the legislative commission, four of the nine commission members are themselves legislators, and the commission was untouched during the most recent round of ethics reforms, during the first year of Spitzer’s tenure. But the Commission on Public Integrity was one of the products of that reform package, which merged the state’s executive ethics and lobbying commissions.
Over the past three years, the public integrity commission has shown that not all ethics reform is guaranteed to improve Albany’s ethical climate. One (likely intentional) result of the merger was that it put the head of the lobbying commission, David Grandeau, who was widely regarded as one of the more effective watchdogs in Albany, out of the job. The first executive director of the new commission, Herbert Teitelbaum, resigned from his position last year after a state inspector general’s office reported that he had leaked information about an investigation into the Spitzer administration to a Spitzer aide. When the chairman of the public integrity commission, Michael Cherkasky, left his position this month, he said in a statement that the commission was too large, was selected in too partisan a process, and had too few resources to do its work.
Cuomo’s plan would create just one ethics oversight body, and, ideally, give it the resources it needs to perform the enforcement he’s promised. But, as NYPIRG’s Horner admits, “I don’t think an independent ethics body is going to mean things will be all sweetness and light here.”
It’s not clear, ultimately, that changing the structure of ethics oversight and improving transparency will stymie the flood of scandals that has poured out of Albany in recent years. Ethics laws and ethics enforcement can promote transparency and encourage officials to avoid conflicts of interest, but are not strong enough to keep determined scoundrels out of trouble.
Of all the reform-hungry leaders that have taken over statehouses in the past few years, Gov. Jindal was probably the most honest about what he hoped to accomplish. His administration’s purpose was not to clean up Louisiana’s government so much as to improve the national perception of the state as an ethical backwater. “If we want to change our reputation, we have to make aggressive reforms to truly clean up our state government,” Jindal wrote. The ultimate goal, a Jindal advisor told me at the time, was to convince the business community that Louisiana was not the corrupt place outsiders imagined.
Albany, on the other hand, more or less is. In 2006, before Eliot Spitzer took office, New York had 24 registered lobbyists for every legislator, the highest ratio in the entire country, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of the Center.) The nationwide average was 5. Legislative sessions are shot through with fundraisers, where lobbyists hand over checks. And in the past four years, two governors and two now-former State Senate Majority Leaders were investigated for ethical issues, along with a slew of other policymakers.
The attitude of New York’s elected officials seems to be, at this point, to grab as much as they can for themselves and get out. To a certain extent, the ethics proposals that Cuomo has floated could change that mode of thinking. Requiring lawmakers to disclose more about details about their personal finances and forbidding campaign funds from being applied personal expenses sends a signal that politics must be separated from personal gain. Limiting Albany fundraisers during legislative sessions staunches the flow of money and puts a damper on the free-for-all atmosphere. And an ethics commission with real teeth signals that someone is watching.
But there’s a limit to how much laws can restrict people intent on breaking them. (Even with laws requiring greater disclosure of outside income, it’s unlikely that Pedro Espada would have listed the funds he’s accused of embezzling, for instance.) In Florida, since Crist’s initial push on ethics, lawmakers have been chipping away at open government provisions: In March, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Crist stepped aside as the legislature passed bills closing off public access to 911 calls, for instance. And as Louisiana’s example shows, even ethics reform that seems strong on the surface can betray weakness when put to the test. One Louisiana legislator, who helped write the ethics laws, was later able to navigate the system well enough to have seven ethics charges dismissed on procedural grounds. The president of the state’s Public Affairs Research Council has said that the 2008 reforms were “a step backwards” and that they decreased the state’s ability to enforce ethics provisions. Or, as the Times-Picayune’s James Gill wrote in 2009, “The only question left hanging is whether our new ethics laws are useless by accident or design.”
Ultimately, what matters is the decisions of individual officials, and no amount of ethics reform or moralizing about ethics reform can change that. New York voters sent 35 new legislators to Albany this year, the largest freshman class in years. If they chose wisely — if they chose politicians committed to public good over personal gain — the news out of Albany might be less salacious in the coming session. But if not, Cuomo’s ethics proposals will only be a partial solution.
Mayor Bloomberg made a speech yesterday, dinging Washington on economic issues and jobs creation. He touted the growth of New York City’s economy, and he mentioned the American Dream.
He must be running for president.
As for Andrew Cuomo…well, he’s headed for Albany with an agenda that appeals more to Republicans than to his own party, isn’t he? The man can barely cough without having it interpreted as a sign of his national ambitions.
He must be running for president.
Has it crossed both men’s minds? Of course. In Bloomberg’s case, he actively pursued the option in 2008. If you believe New York magazine, he’s actively exploring a run in 2012. And as often as the mayor denies that his thoughts are wandering in that direction, he stages a stunt like yesterday’s speech to reignite speculation about his next big gig.
But if (when?) either of these New Yorkers takes the plunge into a presidential race, do they stand a chance of gaining traction across the country, and taking over the Oval Office?
No. As much as it’s fun for New Yorkers and the New York media to speculate that one of their own might claw his or her way into the highest office, New York is just not a place that incubates presidents, anymore.
Let’s start with the reality that the last New York politician to make it to the White House was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and before that, Uncle Teddy. (And yes, Hillary Clinton made a go for it, but New York was more of a stop-over than a stomping ground for her.) Like Cuomo, the Roosevelts had roots in New York and experience in New York government. But a century ago, that wasn’t quite the liability it is today. To turn his stint in Albany into an asset, rather than a liability, Cuomo will, more or less, have to work miracles — balancing the budget, corralling corruption (or at least the appearance of it), and returning the New York State government to something resembling a functioning entity.
Bloomberg’s tenure in New York City, on the other hand, has mostly given him a positive platform for his signature centrist pitter-patter. But as much as the mayor would like to believe otherwise, that’s not what wins national elections. In 2012, he would be, at best, a spoiler, a sort of super-charged Ralph Nader for the coastal elite. When considering Bloomberg in a presidential light, the most important data point to consider is not his work on education reform, his talk about jobs, or his green-friendly, bike-lane loving development plan.
It’s that question that Quinnipiac asks New Yorkers every year: Would you want the mayor at your house for Thanksgiving? The answer is always no. But in a big way, that’s what a presidential campaign is — hanging out in the living rooms of families in states like Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Bloomberg’s more comfortable in board rooms. The noise about his presidential prospects won’t quiet down anytime soon. But it’s unlikely to crescendo into that hand-clapping, feet-stomping roar that heralds a presidential victory.
A month after voting, Election 2010 in New York is almost finished. Over the weekend, the outcomes of the last outstanding races for state Senate seats rolled in, and it became certain that Republicans will control New York’s upper house. Now, the only New York race in which there is no official winner is a federal House race out on Long Island, in which Republican challenger Randy Altschuler has refused to concede to incumbent Tim Bishop. (UPDATE: Altschuler conceded the race Wednesday morning.)
The 2010 election cycle was a remarkable one, with tea parties and budget shortfalls and cantankerous candidates dominating headlines. But in New York, it has resulted, ultimately, in a return to the status quo.
On a state level, Republicans have dominated the Senate for decades. In the Assembly, Shelly Silver will remain a stumbling block for a centrist governor’s agenda. And on a federal level, New York has returned Republican representatives to traditionally Republican districts, and allowed Democrats to hold on, if narrowly, to traditionally Democratic districts.
Those slim margins matter, though. Some politicians are hubristic enough to govern radically even when only barest majority of voters have endorsed their platform. (Former President George W. Bush, circa 2000, is the poster boy for this attitude.) But most take a close win as a sign that they need to work harder to represent that large portion of their constituents who voted for their opponents.
Luckily for the Republican-led state Senate, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. In Albany, the politician with the clearest mandate to push forward his policy priorities is Governor-to-be Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s priorities — capping property taxes, cutting spending — line up with those of Senate Republicans. It’ll be easy for Republicans to latch onto his agenda, and claim some portion of the credit when the economy takes a turn for the better and the state budget starts making a little bit of sense, again. If their desires and Cuomo’s were more divergent, they’d have a hard time arguing they’d been sent to Albany to do anything but obstruct (or in political parlance, “balance”) Cuomo.
Out on Long Island, Rep. Tim Bishop is edging ahead in a dragged-out recount fight against businessman Randy Altschuler. It’s the last undecided House race in the entire country, and the result will have no impact on the balance of power in Washington. Either Altschuler will join an emboldened Republican caucus, or Bishop will return with his chastened colleagues in the Democratic Party.
Although Altschuler has refused to concede, he has indicated that if he did some, miraculously, make it to Washington, he’d take the close race to heart and represent a district that’s evenly split between the two parties. As a freshman in Washington, that’s a hard road to travel, though — to party leaders, another Republican vote would mean another Republican vote.
Bishop, however, could serve as a cautionary voice. In the last two years, Democrats tried to enact a slew of new policy ideas on issues like health care and energy. The lesson of Bishop’s narrow race seems to be: don’t push it. New Yorkers just would prefer if everything stayed, more or less, the way it was.
David Paterson called the state legislature to Albany this week as an act of absolution. “The purpose of this session was as much to clear my conscience as anything else,” he said, after the Senate and the Assembly took a pass on his plan to close the state’s budget gap. If the legislature won’t act on the budget, it’s no longer Paterson’s problem. He’s done. There’s little more he can do as governor, and he has washed his hands of this state.
It’s understandable. After he ascended to the governor’s office in 2008, New Yorkers quickly lost their patience with Paterson, sending his approval ratings plummeting. After that, they lost interest in him, as well. Paterson’s term will stretch to 21 months in total; Spitzer governed for just 14. But Paterson has always seemed, somehow, to be playing governor, his efforts inevitably shadowed by his predecessor’s quest for rehabilitation and his successor’s march to power.
Paterson’s fate was to hold the line, after one anointed leader fell and before another could spell him. To do so from early 2008 to the end of 2010, however, was no mean feat. During Paterson’s time in office, the housing market collapsed, President Obama surged into office, unemployment rose, and the president’s popularity plummeted. If Obama couldn’t sustain his mojo through this period, how could Paterson?
Of course, he did little to help himself. If his misbehavior never shocked the way Spitzer’s did, it was distasteful nonetheless, in particular his intervention in an aide’s domestic violence case. In response to the fiscal mess he inherited he began slashing costs, but proved in the end to be less effective as an executive leader than he had been as a legislative one. He held onto the hope that he could run for governor, even after President Obama told him he was too unpopular, that he should step aside. (And here’s a counterfactual to ponder: Could Paladino have bested Paterson?)
In the past few months, Paterson has been doing penance for his missteps. He has tried to pave the way for Cuomo, to ease the governor-elect’s transition into the intractable problems facing the New York government right now. This week’s last ditch special session did produce one small gift for Cuomo, at least: the Assembly voted to ban hydrofracking until May 2011, which will give the new governor a bit of breathing room to decide if the controversial drilling technique is safe.
Paterson professes no hard feelings about Cuomo’s ascension, but it must have been humbling to step aside for another, more pedigreed politician, who earned a mandate from voters that Paterson never had. But if Paterson really did hold the session to wipe his conscience clean, perhaps he doesn’t care so much anymore about what voters think. At this point, he’s answerable only to himself.
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.
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.
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.
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.