Our governor is the government. Andrew Cuomo said so himself in early November, and was roundly mocked for it, because blurting “I am the government” seemed such a naked display of ego. The thing is, Cuomo was right to use the first-person pronoun. He completely dominated state government during his rookie year in office, and established himself as the most effective politician in a long, long while. And it’s largely because his first year as governor was preceded by 53 years in and around government. Political amateurs brandish their inexperience in elective office as their primary credential, and while an outsider’s perspective can be valuable, too often the result is low comedy (This is Herman Cain!). Cuomo is marinated in politics, and he showed that having an intimate knowledge of everything from the state capitol’s architectural history to the weaknesses of its current inhabitants can be extremely useful. A year that started with the fiscal triumph of a rare on-time state budget moved seamlessly to a social breakthrough, the legalization of gay marriage. Cuomo finished 2011 just as artfully. Instead of waiting and allowing a narrow fight over whether to extend the millionaire’s tax to grow, the governor went on the offensive—behind the scenes, as is his style, working the phones with business and union leaders and quietly hashing out new tax brackets with fellow insiders Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos. He leaned on polling to assess the public mood, but when it came to calibrating the package of sweeteners needed to make the rate changes happen, Cuomo relied on the tactical skills honed in the back rooms of Albany and Washington. He knew he had a problem with black and Latino city legislators, who were bristling from Cuomo’s previous cuts to education and Medicaid, so he included $62 million for inner-city jobs programs; he held a much stronger hand with Senate Republicans who might object to tax increases on the wealthy—if they weren’t so scared of Cuomo’s redistricting them out of their narrow majority. He didn’t care if good-government types screamed about all the scheming being done surreptitiously, so he held back details until he could declare victory.
Where all this political wizardry will lead is still a significant uncertainty. Dozens of towns are balking at the governor’s property-tax cap; his slashing of MTA funding to sew up Republican votes could damage mass transit; and his family connection to a powerful yellow-cab financier leaves him looking compromised for stalling a livery-cab expansion, perhaps costing the city $1 billion. It’s also true that Cuomo has broken his campaign vow of no new taxes. Yet expecting ironclad honesty or ideological purity from politicians isn’t merely naïve—it’s a formula for bad governance. Andrew Cuomo is proving a master of magical pragmatism. Maybe a lifetime in politics isn’t such a bad thing, if you’re the biological son of Mario Cuomo and the spiritual spawn of Bill Clinton.