The handling of Silver is at once more delicate and more muscular. Silver has been the leader of an impregnable Democratic majority in the Assembly for nearly two decades, so Cuomo tries to shake up the speaker’s sense of security. One method is jabbing Silver through Dicker’s column in the Post; another is subtracting some of his closest Assembly colleagues by giving them jobs in the Cuomo administration. Cuomo also has some policy chits to play with Silver, knowing that the lower-Manhattan Democrat is a fierce defender of rent regulations, which are set to expire in June. But the governor is banking even more on the unwillingness of a Democratic speaker to feud with a Democratic governor who enjoys vast public support and is willing to use it to punish dissenters.
Cuomo’s neutralization of two other forces in the annual budget wars has been equally deft. More than a third of the state’s money is spent on Medicaid, making it a necessary and obvious target for cuts, and yet each year the same ritual plays out: The governor proposes cuts to health care; the state’s hospital lobby and the union representing health-care workers spend millions of dollars in maudlin TV ads decrying the cuts—on top of the millions they contribute to elected officials; the governor’s poll numbers decline, and he agrees to an expensive truce that barely makes a dent in rising Medicaid costs. Cuomo invited the foxes into the henhouse, which he named the Medicaid Redesign Team, and asked the major health-care players to come up with cuts—or else he’d impose them. And Cuomo got key participants, including the Greater New York Hospital Association and SEIU 1199, which represents health-care workers, to publicly commit to participating before specifying just how much money he wanted to see slashed: $2.9 billion. “When we got the number, we were ready to walk out,” one health-care-industry participant says. But Cuomo’s calculation assumed the worst in every equation, raising the amount that supposedly needed to be cut. “The way he got to $2.9 billion was nutty,” the Medicaid insider says. “Then he said he wanted a 2 percent cut from current spending, which is a lot easier to deal with.” Cuomo’s math says the MRT achieved $2.3 billion in cuts, with an almost $1 billion year-to-year reduction in state spending. The deal was fragile, however, appearing to hinge on the inclusion of a cap on medical-malpractice awards for pain and suffering that’s a priority for hospitals. Silver and the Assembly staunchly opposed the cap. So Cuomo, in the final weekend of bargaining, settled for the inclusion of a fund that indemnifies hospitals in lawsuits over brain-damaged infants. The Jenga-like Medicaid package held together.
Another power Cuomo had to contend with was Mike Bloomberg. His chosen tactic was jujitsu, turning Bloomberg’s force to his own purposes. For months, the mayor had maneuvered to scrap the state law requiring that teachers be fired according to seniority, arguing that budget cuts were going to force him to lay off good young teachers instead of underperforming lifers. His loud and expensive campaign had finally succeeded in passing a bill through the State Senate that would allow for merit-based personnel decisions in the city’s schools. Four minutes after that bill was approved, Cuomo shot it down, releasing his own fuzzy proposal for an “objective” evaluation system, to be implemented eventually.
Cuomo’s team claims it’s all Bloomberg’s fault, that the mayor has been disingenuously crusading for the end of “last in, first out” when what he really wants is the freedom to can the hundreds of teachers already rated “unsatisfactory” and the thousands drifting between schools in the reserve pool, and that Bloomberg is attempting an end run around collective bargaining. But Cuomo’s sympathies for the legal rights of labor are heightened by his desire for peace with the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city’s educators. The UFT, in turn, needs Cuomo’s protection. “Bloomberg hands Cuomo a giant gift by making all this noise about seniority layoffs,” a friend of the governor says. The mayor didn’t get the schools rules changes, or much of the state money he sought, and voiced the loudest immediate objections to Cuomo’s budget.
Keeping labor relatively happy, however, helps Cuomo become the leader of a new national Democratic identity, one that contrasts with the Republican right’s union-bashing yet is fiscally conservative and socially progressive. The message is that the unions can be a full partner in the budget-cutting process, not political pariahs, as Scott Walker tried to make them. “New York can be a beautiful model, if we get this done, to say, ‘Guys, you used the stick when the carrot really worked,’ ” a Cuomo associate says. “ ‘Why didn’t you try bringing them in and sitting them down and looking them in the eye and putting out your hand and saying, “We need to do this together”?’ ” And if that approach fails, Cuomo has made clear, he’s willing to be tougher than Walker, Christie, or anyone else. In a sense, it’s a return to the nineties Democratic identity personified by one of Cuomo’s political mentors, Bill Clinton. The Big Dog, however, was willing to end welfare as we know it, infuriating the left; Cuomo has passed up the chance to challenge Democratic orthodoxy and tell the teachers unions that seniority protections need to end because the archaic rules are damaging the unions’ credibility even more than they’re hampering what goes on in the classroom.