Cuomo has recently sacrificed some trust on the fiscal front. After declaring that an extension of the “millionaire’s tax” would indeed be a new tax, in March the governor reversed himself. It’s a perversely beautiful thing listening to Cuomo’s contorted attempt to explain why he isn’t being hypocritical, and why in his mind everything is fluid, always subject to renegotiation. “Our extension is projecting an increase in year three [of the current budget]. Between now and then, there’s going to be two more budgets. So who knows what’s going to happen?” he tells me. “That will be the first year of a new governor and a new Legislature. Now, I hope I’m the governor … But the question is, net, do taxes go up or down? This is a net tax reduction, in this budget. It’s always a net conversation.” State business leaders, who had solidly backed the governor, are outraged: “He’s being too cute by a half,” one says.
Filling the budget holes of upstate cities can’t be done with such legerdemain. Cuomo’s proposal to allow financially distressed places like Yonkers and Rockland County to borrow their way out of short-term trouble brought howls, most loudly from Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, a fellow Democrat whom Cuomo had installed as co-chair of the state party. Miner wrote an op-ed for the Times explaining her opposition to the “pension smoothing” scheme; the night it was going to press, Cuomo’s aides called the paper’s editors trying to get the essay killed, to no avail. Eventually the governor crafted a more modest pension proposal. But Miner still isn’t signing up.
In the days after Hurricane Sandy, Cuomo became a ubiquitous khaki-clad presence by touring the destruction and by plastering his name in large letters on banners at relief sites. Two days after the storm, he was already thinking about how New York’s recovery would fit into his own narrative. “His father always used to say there are two kinds of governors: builders and stewards,” an Albany veteran says. “Mario said complimentary things about both, but the builder was somebody who was really bricks and mortar. And the steward was somebody who took care of things and tided things over, especially during difficult times. Mario wanted to be a builder but blames the recession for forcing him to be a steward. One of the reasons Andrew doesn’t like giving speeches is he doesn’t want to be compared to his father—‘I don’t want to be a guy who talks pretty and gets nothing done.’ Andrew fancies himself a pure builder: The Tappan Zee Bridge [which he wants to replace], the energy grid, this whole storm rebuilding.”
Sandy was a tragedy, but its aftermath produced some political comedy. When a Wall Street Journal reporter asked a straightforward press-conference question about whether Cuomo would visit D.C. in pursuit of federal recovery money, Cuomo smirked. “If I went to Washington now, what story would you write?” he responded, imparting a presidential spin where none existed. After he finally made the Capitol Hill rounds, Cuomo held a press conference, accompanied by most of New York’s congressional delegation. Absent, though, were two of its most important Democratic members, Charlie Rangel and Jerry Nadler. Even some of those present were rankled that Cuomo had come to their turf and not invited any House Democrats to the day’s meetings with congressional leadership. “People are miffed,” a delegation insider says. “And this isn’t a delegation that needs a ton of love. A little love and they’re happy and go on with their business. You wouldn’t hear any of this complaining about how he’s treated them on Sandy if he’d made a visit or two before. And it’s curious, because they will be superdelegates in a scenario in which he’s running for president. These are people he’s going to need.” There are more substantive complaints, too: chiefly, that Cuomo’s redistricting dance with State Senate Republicans will end up costing New York’s Democrats seats in Washington.
Cuomo seized on the storm as an opportunity to embellish his bipartisan credentials, by strenuously highlighting his cooperation with Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the pursuit of federal recovery dollars—though Christie, a possible 2016 rival, got an Oval Office audience with President Obama, and Cuomo didn’t. Despite the sniping, and the Republican stalling during the fiscal-cliff fiasco, Cuomo has amassed a huge infrastructure fund at a moment when federal money is scarce. “We only do, in a normal year, about $30 billion in construction in the state, period!” he tells me. “This will be a massive construction program! Of historic proportion! It will be more construction in an intense period than we’ve done in 40, 50 years! Yeah, yeah, challenges. Opportunities! You get a $30 billion reconstruction program? You will have done more improvements in the MTA and the Port Authority than have been done in 50 years! Tappan Zee Bridge! These are big things! So Sandy and guns, yeah, big challenge, big opportunity. See, for me, that’s why I’m here. The little ones—somebody else can do the little ones. I don’t have to be here to do the little ones. The big ones, the degree of difficulty goes up. But so does the reward.”