Andrew Cuomo and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

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Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

The phone is Andrew Cuomo’s instrument. Somehow distance brings out the governor’s full range of operatic inflections and rhetorical flourishes that he doesn’t deploy effectively in person. Today, on the phone, three weeks from Election Day, cruising toward a second term, he is in full Rodney Dangerfield mode.

I passed gay marriage! I passed the toughest gun law in the country! I closed more prison cells than any governor in the history of the state! Minority job vouchers! My record of progressive accomplishment tops anyone!” Pause, dramatic reduction in volume. “Now, do you have some voices on the left that are impossible to placate in any realistic way? Yeah … Ask yourself: If he were more liberal, he would have done what? What more could I have possibly done? You’re gonna use the tax code just to take money from the rich and give it to the poor? That’s not liberalism. That’s confiscation! Liberalism was ‘Lift up the poor’ … The problem for liberals and progressives — of which I am proudly one — is you have to demonstrate you can actually do what you talk about. And that’s what I’ve been doing. My government works.”

Cuomo has a point. On balance, he’s had a strong first term. The state has gone from a $10 billion deficit in 2010 to a projected $6 billion surplus. He’s restored functionality, if not total rationality, to a state government that had become a national embarrassment. Cuomo has also poured money and attention into Buffalo, and the state’s second-largest, formerly woebegone city is seeing fresh job growth. He has been opportunistic, pushing through tighter gun laws after the shootings in Sandy Hook and wrangling the legalization of gay marriage just two years after the State Legislature had rejected the idea by a fairly wide margin.

There have certainly been flaws. Cuomo is replacing the decrepit Tappan Zee Bridge without really explaining how he’s going to pay for the new $4 billion spans. He’s still stalling on a fracking decision. There have been tax cuts for corporations and spending cuts for social services. But the lack of enthusiasm for Cuomo, in both the citizenry and the political class, is as much about his muscular style as any substance. “Is he a son of a bitch at times? Yeah,” one of the governor’s Albany allies says. “He is a mechanic; he works on cars as a hobby, fixes engines. And in politics he moves the process forward. You don’t love Andrew Cuomo. But there hasn’t been a better governor, not in the last 50 years.”

The current year, though, has been a rough one. He underestimated the anger of the state’s left wing and the ability of the Working Families Party to marshal it against him — at least for a few embarrassing days in May. Then he ignored his Democratic primary challenger, Zephyr Teachout, who mounted a surprisingly robust, albeit unsuccessful, insurgency. Since winning the primary, Cuomo has barely campaigned, avoiding in-person debates with the Republican candidate, Rob Astorino. (He did agree to a radio debate.) Even if Astorino, or Teachout, was never a real threat, ­Cuomo’s attitude toward the campaign has fueled the perception that he views himself as above the democratic process.

The fallout from his Moreland Commission machinations haven’t helped. One of his loudest campaign promises four years ago was that he’d clean up corruption in Albany. In 2013, the governor empaneled the commission to investigate ethical violations in government, but his higher priority was using the commission as a subpoena-packing weapon to pressure the Legislature to pass stricter ethics laws. The move was classic Cuomo: ethically debatable tactics to achieve modestly higher ethical ends.

The governor insists that he’d declared from the outset that he’d shutter the commission when the Legislature passed an ethics bill, and that’s true. In July, however, the Times detailed how Cuomo’s aides meddled with Moreland’s work, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been pursuing the leads the commission developed.

Maybe the successes of the first three years made Cuomo overconfident. Or maybe his bumpy 2014 was partly rooted in the growing realization that his shot at a 2016 presidential bid was slipping away. “Psychologically, the governor is a guy that’s goal-oriented,” a senior state Democrat says. “He would never admit it, but he’d been driven by positioning himself for president. Now that that’s off the table, he’s a little bit adrift.”

Cuomo is far more complicated than that, though, and so are the circumstances. Holding back big new ideas until January, when the new legislative season starts, for instance, is a strategic choice. Not that he’s promising any revelations. “I fundamentally intend to continue doing what I’m doing,” he says. “Fiscal discipline and pushing the envelope on socially progressive issues … For me, the team comes out of the locker room for the second half, the team is ahead 21 to 0, what are you gonna do different in the second half? Very little.”

Still, he seems to be casting about for a set of challenges worthy of his restless intensity for the next four — and maybe eight — years in Albany. After three years of travel avoidance bordering on the phobic, he will take “trade missions” to China, Mexico, Israel, Canada, and Italy. The publication, last week, of his autobiography also seems to have revived his energy. “Writing it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “The editor, she said, ‘You’re writing it like a lawyer writes a legal brief, and it becomes a boring, sterile read.’ She wanted more emotion and hyperbole and rhetoric. I said, ‘Yeah, but in my business, if they can spin the language to mean something else, they will.’ 

There’s plenty of emotion at the mention of his antagonists. Cuomo is emphatic, if not especially convincing, that he didn’t see Teachout standing right in front of him at a parade in September. “There was somebody between me and her. Look, I shook hands with that guy … uh, the lieutenant governor, Wu!” Cuomo says, referring to Tim Wu, who ran for that office in the primary. As for Teachout’s surprising 34 percent? “That showing had nothing to do with her,” he snaps. “In a very small-turnout election you have the [state] teachers union, which is against me, you have the public employees that are against me … and the fracking people, probably the largest single issue for activist Democrats, who are upset that I won’t ban it.”

The Times drives him crazy; he thinks its editorial board is obsessed with public financing of campaigns, a reform Cuomo says he supports, even though he’s dubious that it has much relevance in the age of big-money independent-expenditure committees.

Not that he cares to dwell on some pesky liberal carping when he’s got the whole state to worry about. Cuomo believes the center is still the most responsible place from which to govern New York — and the country, though he’s merely an informed spectator on that front, of course. Aren’t national politics increasingly polarized, with the right and the left wings setting the agendas for the Republicans and the Democrats? “That’s always been true,” Cuomo says, quickly warming to the subject. “But you’re leaving out a big piece of history. Bill Clinton wins saying to the left of the party, ‘You are unelectable.’ Bill Clinton gives a speech saying, ‘Mario Cuomo, Dukakis, Ted Kennedy are the politics of a failed Democratic Party.’ Bill Clinton does Sister Souljah, puts his finger in the chest of Jesse Jackson. That was after a period of left dominance. Clinton is then centrist-moderate-left, right? Sort of tacks back and forth between the two. Where is the national Democratic Party now? Well, they’re talking about Hillary Clinton. Her last name is Clinton, which represented that centrist-left platform. So I think that’s where the party is nationwide. And the Clinton philosophy is still a winning philosophy.”

Ah, the multiple psychodramas embedded in that single paragraph. Cuomo, though, sounds more relaxed than usual, claiming he’s content ruling New York for the foreseeable future. “I am so happy that I got to do what I’m doing. This is a gift,” he says. “I want a great record. That’s what I want. That’s what matters. When you’re dead politically — and I’ve been dead politically, and I saw my father dead politically — what matters is what you got done.” 

*This article appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.