Governor Cuomo Is Playing the Long Game

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Not for beginners. Photo: Mike Groll

One of the mysteries of the wrangling over how to pay for universal pre-K has been the staunch refusal of state senate Republican leader Dean Skelos to even consider allowing the city to raise taxes on its wealthiest residents. Maybe it’s purely what he says it is: a belief that all New Yorkers already pay too much to the government. Because it can’t be self-interested. What would the constituents of Skelos’s Long Island district care about a bunch of Park Avenue bankers paying an extra $3 a day?

But yesterday, as Skelos hollered into the microphone at a pro-charter-school rally in Albany, the words of one of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s allies popped into my head.

“Yes, Dean and his members are from Long Island, Westchester, and upstate,” the Cuomo insider said. “But where does all the state Republican money come from? The richest people in New York City. And he’s getting killed for being Cuomo’s flunky, because in 2011 Skelos and the governor didn’t let the millionaire’s tax expire. It’s all Manhattan millionaires, and Dean can’t go to them now and say, ‘Not only did I extend the millionaire’s tax, I’m gonna add a new one.’”

That may indeed be the core of Skelos’s motivation. But that line of thinking may also be what Cuomo wants Skelos to think, in order to help stiffen the Republican’s stiff-arming of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tax-increase proposal. Because one of the beautiful things about the governor is that he’s never simply playing one game at a time — and often what seems to be his main concern is really only of middling importance.

So yesterday, as Cuomo made himself that star attraction at the charter-school rally, he was indeed doing what he appeared to be doing: siding with the pugnacious Eva Moskowitz against de Blasio to show the neophyte mayor who is still boss (though it’s curious that twice now a de Blasio trip to Albany has provoked a theatrical, late-breaking Cuomo event).

But the governor was also taking a shot at his antagonists in the teachers unions. And aligning himself with a bunch of cute, high-achieving, mostly minority kids. Plus, Cuomo was scoring points with the hedge-fund community that has backed the charter-school movement and who have been very generous to Cuomo’s campaigns. Backing charters also fits neatly with a pro-business agenda that has seen the governor propose tax breaks for banks and a cut in the estate tax.

That agenda, in turn, could help Cuomo in suburbs like Westchester — whose county executive, Rob Astorino, today officially announced he’s running for the Republican nomination, in hopes of challenging Cuomo this fall.

There’s no realistic chance Astorino will defeat Cuomo, and it’s not in Cuomo’s nature to take even a long-shot opponent passively. Still, the governor has seemed oddly worried about the 2014 campaign. Maybe he’s spooked by his softening poll numbers upstate, a trend that could make it harder for him to claim a sweeping bipartisan mandate and to run up a bigger reelection margin than his dad did back in 1986. Unlike de Blasio’s camp, which believes the city’s voters can be used as electoral leverage, Cuomo’s theory is that urban liberals have nowhere else to turn in the governor’s race, so the real action will be reeling in moderates outside the five boroughs.

Yet that’s not all: Even if he’d never be caught looking too far ahead, the governor’s current maneuvers look calculated to help him in 2015. This fall’s elections could move the state legislature even further to the left, so helping Skelos hang on to a sliver of the senate majority leadership helps Cuomo maintain a useful balance of power, with the governor at the center — in every way. Though if somehow liberal Democrats do seize a true legislative majority, no doubt the governor will be deft enough to play the new angles.