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The Albany Machiavelli

Cuomo may be this country’s best politician—in the interest-swapping, nut-­cutting, backroom sense—since Lyndon Baines Johnson. He also has some of the triangulating skills of his former boss Bill Clinton—and some of Clinton’s explosive temper. The governor has learned to keep that side of his personality mostly private, but he still blisters aides and adversaries. The governor’s contempt for weaker people, and his paranoia about perceived enemies, suggests a less flattering kinship with a third president, Richard Nixon. The relentless calculating can take a toll on subordinates. “Working for Andrew is not a mission, it’s not a cause,” a former aide says. “There’s no movement component to it. It’s businesslike, workmanlike.”

Just as with LBJ, though, there’s subtlety along with the arm-twisting and browbeating. One of Cuomo’s favorite words is calibrate. He’s constantly adjusting tactics for the moment and the market. “It’s a relationship with the Legislature, right?” the governor says, describing how he won new gun-control legislation. “They have needs, and you have needs. And your appetite has to be calibrated thusly. There’s going to have to be a balance. The way I get most issues done, public opinion can be educated, can be mobilized, and it is fundamentally very hard for them to oppose public opinion. Guns, today, I think it’s the people first. So you show [legislators] polls, you have calls to their district office, it was part of the State of the State. We will then do, literally, 500 town-hall meetings. I do videos, and I do the Internet and e-mails. They will know at the end of the day that there’s very strong support behind this position. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also the popular thing to do. And if you don’t do it—democracy works, at the end of the day.” Translation: Do what I want, or you will lose your job.

Cuomo’s manipulation of the narrow party divide in the State Senate has been masterful. For two years, the governor had worked productively with Senate Republicans and their silver-haired majority leader, Dean Skelos, dangling a favorable redistricting plan to win pension reform in 2012. But the slim GOP edge was at risk in last November’s elections. Cuomo backed two Senate Republicans who’d provided him pivotal votes in 2011’s gay-marriage fight, an act of political loyalty and logic. But the governor didn’t deploy his campaign resources on behalf of many of his fellow Democrats, stoking bitterness. Jeffrey Klein, a Westchester and Bronx senator, had previously recruited three other Democratic free agents and set up the Independent Democratic Conference; at the end of 2012, as control of the Senate hung on ballot recounts, the IDC cut a deal to share leadership with Skelos and the Republicans. The IDC wasn’t the most high-minded group: It came to include Malcolm Smith, who was arrested earlier this month and charged with extortion, among other things. Bolstering the Republicans’ retention of a partial majority was Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who decided to caucus with the GOP.

Cuomo denies having anything to do with the machinations—“You are not supposed to interfere in the Legislature, and you’re not supposed to be hyperpartisan. Well, Eliot [Spitzer] was. And that’s why he got nothing done”—and Klein backs him up. “The governor and his people didn’t really interfere in this process,” the senator says. “When the dust settled, he said, ‘Let’s get to work.’ ” But Cuomo is adept at sending signals, and it’s impossible to believe it would have happened if the governor had objected. The Senate play fit with Cuomo’s core big-­picture political vision—that Albany is now a model of bipartisanship—and the structure quickly paid dividends. More important, both Democrats and Republicans now need him. In late December, after the horrific shootings in Newtown, Cuomo pressed his advantage. He threatened to blow up the coalition if legislators didn’t cut short holiday vacations and return to Albany so that New York could be the first state to tighten gun laws. “You think they’ve got Felder?” Cuomo said, according to Senate Republicans. “I have the rabbis who Felder reports to! You think you have Klein? I’ll get Klein to be a Democrat again! You are in power only so long as you can move progressive measures.” (Cuomo denies making the remarks.) The governor was prepared to launch an ad campaign lasting months. No need: In mid-January, the Senate passed Cuomo’s gun-control package two hours after the bill was distributed.

The governor claims his urgency on guns had nothing to do with scoring national political points. “Memories fade, and this is a very difficult issue,” he told me in the middle of the push. “These guys [in the Legislature] calibrate public opinion in their district, right? They’re constantly calibrating it. Public opinion in their district is at an all-time high that something has to be done. Politics is partially about timing, and strike while the iron is hot and while people get it. People get it now. There’s energy in the moment because the awareness is high. Marriage equality was difficult for some of the Republicans for a set of obvious reasons, but gun control—the negative is almost more widespread for a lot of these senators, electorally.” The governor is hardly all bludgeon. He sometimes goes to significant lengths to give everyone a win. During this year’s budget negotiations, state Republicans kept complaining that the governor was pushing them too hard after they’d taken a political beating on gun control. Cuomo asked them to figure out what they wanted, then waited until Republicans conducted a poll. The results showed the GOP would be helped most by a package of tax cuts for small business. Into the budget went the tax cuts. Having the Independent Dems in the ruling coalition enabled Cuomo to get a win on increasing the state’s minimum wage, a proposal that Senate Republicans blocked last year.