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The Albany Machiavelli

Sometimes Cuomo’s intensity and drive for action—in many ways an admirable contrast to polarized, paralyzed politics elsewhere—can yield sloppiness in the details. In designing his gun-control legislation, Cuomo argued that recent mass shootings ended only when the killer stopped to reload—so why not lower the state’s limit on the number of bullets in a clip from ten? Assembly Democrats suggested cutting the clip size in half, to five; Republicans pushed back, and so the governor compromised at seven—even though no such clip is manufactured. Later, as gun owners complained and a lawsuit was filed, Cuomo backpedaled, and ten-bullet clips can still be legally sold—though gun-owners are supposed to load only seven rounds. “The number seven just got stuck in Andrew’s head,” an administration insider says. “ ‘We’ll be first in the nation! That’s what we want to do! We want to show the way here and lead the way!’ Though anyone who knew anything about guns never would have arrived at that number.”

As his term progresses, the issues are becoming more thorny. Cuomo has said repeatedly he wants to reform the state’s marijuana and abortion laws, but he’s still waiting for the proper moment. He’s open to greatly expanding the amount of legal gambling in the state, with as many as seven new casinos—which has already sparked a battle among cities and legislators to share in the spoils. “I’m in no rush,” Cuomo tells me. “I don’t want casinos unless it’s done the way I can get it passed and I’m gonna be proud of it five years from now.” But he’s dodgy on what the “right way” looks like. “I want it picked by an independent gaming commission, I don’t want any politics,” he says—which sounds risible coming from such a deeply political animal. Cuomo is right to avoid being tarred with the corruption that often taints casino-siting decisions. And his sense of timing is once again proving uncanny. By backing off during budget season, he could be in a position of greater leverage if he plays the current corruption scandals right: It’s a little difficult for the Legislature to ask for more influence in casino decisions when its members are being handcuffed. And as the governor rolls out public-integrity reforms, it’s unlikely he’ll try to topple Silver, a move that might backfire, uniting the Legislature against Cuomo. Besides, Silver has been a thoroughly useful partner so far.

Nothing, though, is more vexed for Cuomo than fracking. It’s a devilish issue for Democrats everywhere, pinning them between the vehemently anti-fracking
enviros on the left, the indisputable need to find new energy sources, the clamor for blue-collar jobs, and the moneyed pro-fracking business community. On
the federal level, President Obama has been tormented by the Keystone XL pipeline decision. Cuomo keeps pointing to scientific debate over fracking’s potential for environmental harm as the reason he’s delaying a decision on whether to allow the gas-extracting method in New York. He’s clearly confounded by how to make the issue a political win, or how to at least limit the damage from choosing one side. Polls show the public more or less equally divided; the prospect of new jobs for upstate is enticing, and the energy industry is a generous political-­campaign donor; opponents are mostly on the left, a group that’s already wary of Cuomo and is potent in Democratic primaries. At a recent fund-raiser, Cuomo was asked when the fracking stalemate would be resolved. He responded by blaming the pro-fracking lobby for not doing enough to shift public opinion in favor of approval. “It was amazing,” says a donor who was in attendance. “He was admitting that it was all about political cover.” Cuomo is nearly as blunt analyzing his thinking for me, but with a more favorable spin. “Chris, fracking is a 50-50 political decision—literally 50-50. All the polls: Half support, half oppose. If it’s 50-50, where’s the political decision?,” he says. I ask the obvious question: Isn’t it his job to lead, to do what he thinks is right for the state even if it’s not definitively popular in the moment? “I don’t know,” he says. “A well may end up being poisoned a year from now—and then what? A child falls into a well casing, or there’s an explosion. I don’t want the liability, frankly, and I don’t have the knowledge. There’s no politics for me one way or the other. It’s literally 50-50. I just want the smart decision. And I want the right decision.”

Bobby Kennedy Jr., the governor’s former brother-in-law and a member of the state’s fracking advisory council, has also been relentless in talking up the risks to Cuomo. The governor claims that, whatever he decides, he wants the state prepared to win the inevitable lawsuits, and that he’s left the scientific judgment in the hands of the state health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah. It all makes Cuomo look uncharacteristically indecisive—something that’s often more damaging, in politics, than looking unprincipled. “I really don’t care what Bobby Kennedy thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing,” says State Senator Libous, whose district would benefit from fracking and who is one of the Legislature’s most powerful Republicans. Libous’s cooperation has been crucial to Cuomo’s bipartisan deal-making. “The most important thing in the southern tier is jobs. We’ve been decimated over the last ten, fifteen years. I like the governor. I do. I don’t always agree with him. I think he’s done some good things. I want to believe he’s waiting for the doctor and he’s going to make a determination based on the science.” And yet Libous knows that ultimately Cuomo will make the decision, right? “I want to believe he is waiting for the doctor, okay? Maybe I’m naïve, but I want to believe that.” There’s a long, disbelieving pause; Libous is anything but naïve. “Okay?”