Rochester, NY (January 2, 2011) -- Eschewing the glitz of black-tie balls and the pomp of horse-drawn carriages parading through Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo set a clear tone in his inaugural address: those days are over. The symbolism was appropriate and the rhetoric was strong -- but the million dollar question -- or, for New York, the multi-billion dollar question -- is can he and Lt. Governor Bob Duffy do the things they say they will?
The Cuomo Approach: A Populist at War with His Party?
To hear Gov. Cuomo speak on Saturday, one would think that Carl Paladino was the real victor in November. In the bluest of blue states, speaking to an audience that gave him a clear victory, Cuomo said nothing about education, health care, the environment and very little about jobs. His vision had little to do with policy -- it was all about trust.
At times, Cuomo sounded like a jilted lover, pleading for just one more chance. He spoke of the mistrust, the cynicism and the fact that no amount of rhetoric would heal the deep rift between state government and the people of New York. Of course, where Paladino the candidate threatened to take a baseball bat to Albany, Cuomo could not be so blunt: he has to govern, he has to work with the very people who are responsible for the sour mood he so aptly described. So how can he deliver on his promises when the very people he needs to carry out his marching orders are the ones responsible for the mess?
Cuomo has signaled his approach: he will offer a hand of compromise to his political foes, but will not refrain from falling back on the most powerful weapon available to (popular) politicians -- public support. Cuomo committed to non-partisan government, reflecting, he claims, his recent practice as the state's Attorney General. But Cuomo also went out of his way to encourage the people to get active. In fact, his first significant act as governor was to sign an Executive Order opening up a wing of the Capitol that had previously been closed to the public. Both literally and figuratively, Cuomo is urging the public to enter the halls of power with him. If they do, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans will find that their legislative majorities pale in comparison to a popular mandate.
One can see how certain battles are likely to shape up. Cuomo will have to take on public employees (and more specifically, their unions). The unions will mobilize their legislative support and mount a public campaign about how draconian cuts will imperil the health and safety of New Yorkers. But Cuomo will also go public, challenging those same groups on their facts and demanding them to find the cost savings. In that debate, the public is likely to back Cuomo -- there is ample evidence that the state's workforce is too large and few New Yorkers sympathize with the state providing the overly-generous pensions it currently provides. If the public answers this call, Cuomo will win this battle.
Another impending battle will be harder for Cuomo: the fight over New York's Medicaid costs. The state currently has -- by far -- the highest per person Medicaid costs in the country. The only way for the state to better manage this program (i.e. reduce out of control spending) is to cut costs. But in this case, the cuts do not affect overly-generous pensions, they will affect old people, children and people with disabilities. For Cuomo to back up his rhetoric of January 1st, 2011, he will have to take on this system and rally the public. But in a state still hammered by recession, these cuts will be a tougher sell. Is there an alternative? Not really -- but Cuomo will find that public support for shrinking government bureaucracy is far easier to mobilize than support for truly difficult cuts for government to make. And Cuomo, liberal Democrat in a liberal Democratic state, will have to sell this idea to the people who elected him.
Secret Weapon: Bob Duffy
And that brings us to Bob Duffy. If anyone is wondering what Cuomo's calculation was in selecting Duffy, wonder no more. Duffy will not be the ceremonial Lt. Governor, nor will he be the fiercely partisan attack dog that some pols sometimes need so they can act more like a non-partisan executive. No, Duffy's role will be almost identical to the role he played in Rochester (which is precisely why Cuomo picked him: he saw how effective Duffy was in Rochester).
Duffy's role will be that of emissary to friend and foe, to schmooze and cajole them, to provide the pep talk -- and sometimes the arm twist -- needed to mobilize support. If Duffy accomplished anything in Rochester, it was his ability to cheerlead and mobilize disparate groups around his initiatives. True, Duffy did not always succeed: while he successfully mobilized a number of interests around mayoral control of the schools, he never scratched the surface of the teachers' union. But then, that was likely part of his strategy: Duffy knew teachers would never be on board and he further knew that the teachers union is one he could potentially defeat in the arena of public opinion. Had he stayed in Rochester (and had he taken a slightly different approach), he might have ultimately won his fight.
So, when Cuomo is talking pension reform, Duffy will be the eyes and ears of the administration, touring the state and talking with local Rotarians and at community meetings, shaking his head and saying the state simply cannot afford the luxurious benefits it has promised. He will talk about his own pension and compare it to those in the private sector. This is classic Duffy -- the one skill Cuomo wants on his team -- someone who can appeal for sympathy and understanding from the very group that is about to suffer from a policy change.
Duffy will also provide Cuomo a key voice Upstate for the Cuomo vision. Although Cuomo's electoral base is clearly downstate, if Duffy can build support for the Cuomo vision in the Upstate region, it will strengthen Cuomo's hand immeasurably. Upstate Democrats and Republicans in the legislature will find it politically more palatable to support the administration. And when they have to run for re-election in 2012 in brand-new districts, incumbents who have supported Cuomo (incumbents of both parties) might find an easier row to hoe -- if, that is, Cuomo is able to gain some victories that demonstrate that supporting him is worth the trouble. The key for the Cuomo team is timing: they need to have some substantive victories quickly so the administration can shore up their legislative supporters -- of both parties -- in the 2012 elections.
A Need for Conflict Over Consensus
Contrary to what one might expect from Lt. Governor Duffy, do not expect him to call for a coming together of New Yorkers. Sure, he might talk about how we are one state, one people, etc. But the Cuomo-Duffy team has made it clear that they are not looking for a silent majority to back them every two years at the polls. They are seeking a raucous, mad-as-hell public to remain engaged and to push their leaders like never before. Why? Cuomo himself put it directly in his inaugural speech: the formal powers of the governor are limited. He can veto legislation (but that veto can be overridden) and he can sign executive orders. But the force of law and final spending decisions rest with the legislature. All the governor can do with the legislature is cajole, wheedle, push -- and hope.
But when the governor can point to a tide of public opinion supporting his position, and more importantly, when that governor can point to key members of legislators' constituency and say "See, they're with ME!" that can go a long way toward changing minds in the legislature. Ronald Reagan used this tactic effectively in 1981, reminding members of Congress about his vote share in their district and some of the key supporters who backed him. Cuomo will do the same, with Duffy leading the intelligence-gathering operation for him and keeping those local supporters in line.
If Cuomo is to be believed, business as usual may indeed be over in Albany. Instead, some rancorous debates and some bitter political battles will ensue. But if change is not seen soon, those populist words of Cuomo from January 1st will ring awfully hollow in 2011 and could serve to be his undoing in 2012 and beyond. His success or his colossal failure could rest in the hands of the people of New York -- just as it should.
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