Meanwhile, Cuomo set about cajoling and prodding the other players. He invited groups of legislators to the governor’s mansion for bagels and policy chitchats, part of his multipronged charm offensive. At one session with Democratic state senators, Cuomo welcomed everyone, then opened the floor to discussion. Talk quickly turned to one of this year’s most contentious issues, the “millionaire’s tax.” Adopted in March 2009, as the recession worsened, it slapped an extra one percent levy on joint incomes above $300,000 and brought in more than $3 billion in additional revenue. But the tax was temporary and scheduled to expire in 2011. Cuomo had promised to let it disappear. Now, though, with the state planning to slash funding for Medicaid and education, legislators, particularly in the Assembly, were pushing for its extension, arguing that the state’s wealthiest had already received a federal break when the Bush tax cuts were continued this past December. Cuomo’s budget proposes cutting the state’s spending by 2.7 percent from last year’s total, with the biggest hunks likely to disproportionately affect the poor; extending the millionaire’s tax seemed a fair way to mitigate some of the consequences. Yet Cuomo didn’t budge, reiterating his claim that the millionaire’s tax would drive business and residents out of state. And he knew how easy it would be for them to leave, because his primary residence was about six minutes from the Connecticut border, in Mt. Kisco. That was too much for Westchester’s Suzi Oppenheimer.
“First off, I have plenty of rich people in my district, and they’re not moving,” she told Cuomo. “Second, stop saying you live in Mt. Kisco! You don’t! I know exactly where you live. You live in my district, and I don’t have Mt. Kisco. You live in New Castle—but that’s upscale, and you want to be more blue-collar!”
Cuomo started to say something about the distinctions between a mailing address and a tax address. But then he gave it up and smiled. “All right, Suzi, you’re right,” he said. “I don’t live in Mt. Kisco.” Laughter filled the room. “He defaulted to humor, which I thought was very good,” says an Assembly member who regularly disagrees with Cuomo on policy but at that moment couldn’t help liking him.
“Cuomo is orchestrating a big game of musical chairs. But only about half the players have chairs.”
Playing nice has practical value for Cuomo in helping to line up votes. But the appearance of playing nice is equally if not more important for a politician still trying to live down a reputation for pugnacity. Particularly because Cuomo isn’t relying completely on bonding to get what he needs. He encouraged the creation of the Committee to Save New York, a business group that has spent nearly $2.6 million on pro-Cuomo advertising and outreach. And Cuomo has reminded legislators, regularly yet subtly, that he knows how to play rough if necessary. Sometimes the message is sent through the Post’s legendary Albany columnist, Fred Dicker, who frequently quotes “sources close to the governor” railing against Shelly Silver, the Assembly leader, and Dean Skelos, the Senate boss, as enemies of reform. But capitol insiders know to read past the headlining jabs in Dicker’s columns for the important paragraphs. “Take that recent column that said Skelos is in trouble with his members,” says one of Cuomo’s legislative allies. “The interesting part was the second item, which said the reason the ethics bill is not happening is because Senator [Michael] Nozzolio has a law firm and doesn’t want to reveal his clients. I read that to be a signal from Andrew: ‘I’m coming after your members, and I’m going to get into their shit.’ That kind of thing will move people.” Cuomo has also craftily stirred other major issues, including legislative redistricting and gay marriage, into the mix periodically—in part because he wants them resolved, but also as bargaining chips or signal-senders to constituencies. “If you don’t keep people in Albany busy, they’ll assume you’re busy screwing them, because that’s how it’s been in the past,” a Cuomo adviser says.
Cuomo is a gifted storyteller. He uses long pauses, multiple accents, shouts, breathy whispers—he puts on a real show. A former Cuomo operative remembers one of his old boss’s favorite tales about a predecessor, Nelson Rockefeller. Cuomo quizzed one of Rocky’s powerful aides, Alton Marshall, about the wealthy governor’s success with the Legislature. “Ah, Rocky,” Marshall told him. “Rocky would bring ’em over to the mansion, he’d sit around, they’d have a few bottles of wine, they’d have some cigars. He’d say, ‘What do you need? How can I help you? I like you.’ Oh, yeah, Rocky, he owned ’em. They loved him. He was charming.” Cuomo, the ex-aide says, was inspired, believing he had the skills, if not the libations, to work the same magic. “Yeah,” Marshall said, “and you know, every once in a while, you gotta take one of these guys outside and shoot him.”
Cuomo has deployed specialized pressure to the two powerful legislative bosses, Silver and Skelos, designed to fit the differing personalities and political needs of the two men. Last November’s election results returned Skelos to majority leadership; his Republican caucus has a slim numerical edge on the Senate Democrats but a vast advantage in discipline. The Senate Republican agenda is tilted toward its suburban Long Island base, making Cuomo’s proposal to cap property taxes and slash government spending a natural fit. He tells Skelos that they share an agenda and that the Republican leader and his members will gain respect with the public, showing they’re above politics, by compromising with a Democratic governor.
To those carrots, Cuomo adds two sticks: Skelos doesn’t want to discuss tougher ethics standards until after the budget is done, and he’d like to stall proposals for nonpartisan redistricting—the adoption of which would be a demographic death sentence for his Republican majority. Redistricting is required by law, but Cuomo isn’t forcing the issue of how lines will be redrawn—for now, anyway, which helps his relations with Skelos.