Inside Albany’s Nervous Breakdown

By
Andrew Cuomo
What's going on in Albany?Photo: Mike Groll/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

There is high-stakes craziness every year as the state legislative session goes down to the wire. What makes this year unlike others — and the reason rent regulations for 2.5 million city tenants expired at midnight — is that Albany appears to be going through a collective nervous breakdown. Combined with a temper tantrum.

The first part has been building since January, set off by the arrest of longtime Democratic Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver. Thankfully, the state budget got done in March, without major incident, and with some significant accomplishments.

But the freak-out accelerated in May, as the indictment of Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos loomed. Senate Democrats cleverly tried to force an embarrassing vote to remove Skelos from his post. The Republicans responded by yelling, “You are out of order!”

With both leaders replaced, junior members have been exercising their newfound voices, and the rookie leaders (Carl Heastie, Assembly, and John Flanagan, Senate) are struggling to forge consensus and solidify their own standings. And threading through everything is a fear of who might be next in the criminal crosshairs of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Last week it was the State Assembly Democrats screaming, this time at one another. The issue was a bill to establish a state monitor to oversee the East Ramapo School District. But the argument devolved into a nasty debate over who was more racist: the Jewish members who run East Ramapo’s school board or the black legislators who were trying to impose the monitor on behalf of the black and Hispanic kids who attend East Ramapo’s public schools.

The governor hasn’t been immune to the anxiety. Andrew Cuomo recently went to Nyack to give a speech about property taxes. Somehow, though, he started talking about how he’d been afraid, as a boy, that the Tappan Zee Bridge would collapse as he crossed it: “I couldn’t stop thinking about it … Yes, I guess my childhood was miserable.”

Perhaps he was joking, but things got weirder when Cuomo moved on to how people doubted his plans to build a new Tappan Zee: “They said, ‘There’s this nice new governor. He’s so sad looking. He looks like a puppy, he does. How are we going to break it to him that he can’t build his bridge?’”

Then two killers escaped from a state prison. That hasn’t exactly settled anyone’s nerves.

Instead, it has all fed the temper tantrum. After months of being bashed and wiretapped, Albany is using the last days of the legislative session to teach its antagonists a lesson.

Okay, Bill de Blasio — you tried to destroy the Republican Senate majority in the 2014 elections? Hey, mayor — you think you’re a more important Democrat than the governor of the state? And you, Preet Bharara — you want to lecture us about ethics and criminalize the traditional horse-trading that allows government to function?

Well, we’ll show you who is really in charge! 

Yes, there are earnest policy disagreements going on, genuine differences of opinion on difficult subjects — the renewal of 421-a, for instance. The program is supposed to subsidize real-estate developers in exchange for the creation of a greater number of below-market apartments. Are the tens of millions in tax abatements really the most efficient way to deliver the cheaper units?

There are also raw, long-term battles being fought on new fronts: The teachers’ unions, for instance, hate Cuomo’s proposed tax breaks for private schools, and the governor disdains the unions’ power over public schools. Senate Republicans seem determined to stick de Blasio with a one-year extension of mayoral control, to try to restrain the mayor from going after them in the 2016 elections.

Yet the brinksmanship going on right now has more to do with political existentialism than any particular policy disagreement or any tactical leverage. Albany feels as if its way of doing business is under attack as never before, and it is responding by holding its breath and turning blue.

The governor has been under particular stress, not just politically. His father, Mario, died in January. In March, his partner, Sandra Lee, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And he’s been sinking in the polls. 

Cuomo has reacted with a combination of passivity and pugnacity. In late April, when Cuomo was asked about the expiring real-estate development subsidies at a business breakfast, he said that city leaders and the industry should “work it out among themselves.” After de Blasio did just that, crafting a plan backed by the Real Estate Board of New York, Cuomo dismissed it, complaining that it came too late and didn’t boost wages for enough laborers, and that de Blasio didn’t understand the political dynamics of Albany.

But even if de Blasio’s plan had deep flaws, the governor has been slow to offer an alternative. Instead, for the past several weeks, Cuomo has seemed eager to embrace distractions, from the Dannemora prison break to the opening of an Albany car dealership.

The governor is fully engaged now, working individual legislators and trying to find middle ground. He has promised to keep the legislature in Albany until it passes “a law to strengthen and extend tenant protections.” Plausible compromises seem obvious: raising the threshold for when apartments become market-rate, say, and shaving the number of years on the 421-a abatement, plus the inclusion of a modified living wage for construction laborers.

The governor’s team is lowering expectations at the moment, and Cuomo is dealing from a weaker hand than in the past. But part of me believes that the heightened current drama has been a messy, unintentional setup for Cuomo to be the adult in the room as the kids thrash around in anger and fear, to claim the win on the thorniest issues in one “Big Ugly” megadeal. If any legislator has been on the phone promising votes in exchange for money or jobs, well, they sure do have something to worry about from Bharara. Otherwise, they can honestly say they voted for what they think is best for their constituents.

But that’s a rational analysis. And whatever the policy outcomes this week, this has been anything but a rational season in Albany.