This article appeared in the August 8, 1994 issue of New York Magazine.
Cuomo is in his shirtsleeves, smiling and chatting into a microphone. For the better part of an hour, he has been at his most disarming, trading banter about New York’s athletic teams, lending a sympathetic ear, and helping sort out minor problems people are having with the system. That’s the idea of “Ask the Governor,” a WCBS call-in show on which Cuomo appears every month. Now and again, though, the chat grows contentious. Near the end of the program, a call comes from a man named Gene, in Webster, New York, a place, he says, where “life is worth living.”
“It’s going to be even more worth living with your new baseball stadium, huh?” Cuomo chimes in, grinning. Webster is outside Rochester, where a new stadium is being built, thanks to a $15-million appropriation in this year’s state budget.
“Well I don’t know,” Gene stammers. “That’s why I want to get on the phone. Everybody’s been talking about different things. And I’d just like to talk to you a little bit about your reelection. The new stadium — that sounds great. But it seems like you all of a sudden start giving a little more attention to where things are needed and what the complaints are. That’s what I want to hear your feedback on.”
“All right, Gene, can you be specific?” the governor queries, attempting a fake.
“Be specific? I don’t have to,” Gene blurts out. “You already done it yourself. I mean, you are a smooth talker, and I want to know why you haven’t started all these things— ”
“Started what?” Cuomo snaps, suddenly irritated. “I have been doing it for eleven years. I’ve been doing this show forever. I did a show before this forever— ”
“I don’t care about the show,” Gene interjects.
“Then what are you talking about?” the governor barks.
“You’re going for reelection and you’re— ”
“Going to different areas and seeing what is needed— ”
“Gene, Gene— ”
“ … to get re-elected— ”
“Wait a minute, Gene — now it’s my turn.” The governor is nearly shouting now. “No politician in the history of this state has been— ”
“Your words go around the block ; they never ·are specific,” the caller interrupts again.
“All right, Gene, in 1983 to 1989 — okay? The first two terms, all right? We began to pick up $7-billion-worth of Medicaid assistance for counties like Monroe. That was something I did. We reduced the taxes to the lowest level in 30 years. We passed the biggest bond issue, $50-billion-worth of construction. … We were all over the state making the state university stronger. We were all over the state with the decade of the child, $6-billion-worth of investments in children. We were all over the state with all sorts of programs for the disabled. … We built the state police to the largest number in history. … We created a rural-affairs office, which you never had before. We created an environmental-assistance fund, which you never had before. We created a park fund, which you never had before. Do you want me to continue to go on, Gene … ?”
The really telling thing about this exchange was not the governor’s bullying of a thoughtful citizen. It was that the question Cuomo so indignantly answered was not really the one Gene asked. The caller was inquiring about the governor’s election-year budget, which is full of goodies like the new stadium in Rochester. But the subtext of Cuomo’s testy response was clear: He has done a lot of things, damn it.
He has reason to be defensive. As he girds for what well may be the political battle of his life — polls show his main Republican challenger running even — a consensus has emerged that at 62, Mario Cuomo has done little of value, or at least far less than he ought to have done. His deeds simply haven’t measured up to his fine words. Rather suddenly, the what’s-he-done thesis has become conventional wisdom. In late July, Cuomo was called to account by pundits who agree on little else, James Ledbetter of the Village Voice and former Bush adviser Jim Pinkerton.
The current anti-Cuomo mood is not just routine dissatisfaction. There is a deep sense of weariness with Cuomo, a feeling of anger, even betrayal. Perhaps this was inevitable after the esteem Cuomo was held in a decade ago, when he seemed the only person in the Democratic Party with the guts and gravitas to call Ronald Reagan’s bluff convincingly. Cuomo’s speeches from that period — his 1984 Democratic Convention keynote, his Notre Dame lecture on abortion, his Harvard class-day address — were jewels of political oratory, as moving as they were erudite. Taken in sum, they spelled out a vision of liberalism triumphant at a time when the party of liberalism was otherwise comatose.
I heard Cuomo give one of those speeches at Yale in 1985, a few weeks after Reagan was sworn in for his second term. He talked about Galileo, forced to recant his heresy that the Earth revolved around the sun. As Galileo arose from his knees in the Inquisition chamber, he was heard to whisper, E pur si muove — “and still it moves.” “I know what the results of the last election were,” Cuomo told the packed hall that February night. “I know what 59 percent of the electorate appeared to believe for that moment. Surely that’s significant. And I understand how this defeat has created the temptation to be silent, to accept the victor’s version of the truth. But I hope I will be strong enough to know all of this and still be able to say, E pur si muove.” It was inspirational.
Cuomo lived off the capital he accumulated with those speeches through two reelections. The day the tide finally turned was probably December 20, 1991, when a chartered plane stood idling on a runway in Albany, waiting to take Cuomo to New Hampshire in time for the primary-filing deadline. When he opted out, many New Yorkers were more than disappointed; they felt used. The glamour of living in Cuomo’s realm was gone. It was replaced by a nagging sense that New York might have been better off with some more ordinary governor. Instead of choosing a poetic genius who fretted elaborately and talked to himself, we should have married someone who could make up his mind and show up for work.
Cuomo, of course, anticipates this sort of criticism. “Somebody like me gets a little national attention at a few national conventions and then all they know is what you said at the convention — and the death penalty,” he told me in a long, reflective interview at the governor’s mansion. “And this has a kind of eclipsing effect on people. They know these prominent truths. They don’t know the rest. And it blocks out even the pursuit of the rest. You could call it the dumb-blonde syndrome: She was beautiful, therefore she couldn’t cook.”
Cuomo aims to stamp out the syndrome. His office is circulating an achievement memo that runs to six pages and mentions everything from the new earthquake center in Buffalo to the 1987 ethics law to controls on acid rain. His political consultant, David Garth, has produced shrewd 30-second TV spots in which “ordinary people” tout accomplishments that affected them.
Yet when he moves from the abstract to the particular, the governor himself does a poor job of representing his record. He can offer a laundry list of accomplishments like the one he unfurled for Gene’s benefit on “Ask the Governor.” But ask him to distinguish what’s really important — his top three or top five or even his top ten — and he demurs.
Instead, Cuomo will tell you about his argument with his son. “My son Andrew, who’s a really brilliant guy, and I wish you knew him — and a good guy, too, and a nice guy — he said, ‘You have to take one thing and say it over and over.’ He said, ‘The way you are, you’re eclectic. I know what you’re going to do; you’re going to get into everything, you’ll do everything, and you’re going to wind up with nothing, because nobody will remember-unless you get one thing,’”
He will tell you about his conversation with David Garth. “Ask Garth,” Cuomo says. “He called me up and said, ‘Somebody gave me this book on the state: He says, ‘This is incredible! I didn’t know you did these things.’ I said, ‘You didn’t know these things? Mr. New York political consultant — the big genius — Israel hires you because you’re so smart, and you tell me. … ’ He says, ‘I didn’t know any of it. The safest roads and bridges! Thirteen centers for advanced technology! This is fantastic! Why didn’t you tell somebody?’ This is Garth! I said, ‘Terrific, David. You’re going to get a fortune, David. You’re supposed to tell people.’”
But Cuomo still won’t tell you what his priorities have been. One is left wondering how it is that he is a great man with no famous achievements. It’s like trying to understand a Lincoln who never freed any slaves, or an F.D.R. without the New Deal or World War II. Cuomo claims that had he focused rhetorically on one thing — education, say — he would now have a national reputation for it. But even in specific areas, he is unable to say what his distinctive contribution has been. Instead, he reels off a numbing list of acronymic programs, none of which resonates.
The governor would have this unwillingness to play the game seen as part of his anti-politics, his resistance to the usual fakery. He won’t reduce his record to sound bites. But his reticence also has something to do with an unwillingness to be judged in conventional terms. Of all the attempts to explain Cuomo’s failure to run for president, the most convincing was that he was afraid to take a chance, to enter a contest he might lose. The same explanation would seem to apply to his performance as governor. It’s not playing the game of politics that he dislikes. It’s playing a game he might not win.
In any case, there has long been too much focus on the why of Mario and not enough on the what. Cuomo is a deep and fascinating man. But he needs to be evaluated as other elected officials are, on their accomplishments. Whether he likes it or not, it’s time to consider: After three terms, how is his record?
The lead argument in the conservative critique is the New York economy. George Pataki, the Republican nominee apparent, says the state overtaxes, overspends, and overregulates. This has created a poor business climate, which has driven companies and jobs elsewhere. “It’s Mario’s Fault” is the whiny, simpleminded distillation of this criticism.
The answer that Republicans want Cuomo to make, and that he is too smart to make, is “It’s not my fault.” So long as the premise is that New York is in a bad way, Mario loses. The state has a powerful governorship, and Cuomo has owned it for twelve years. He has been running the state forever. When he was elected, fax machines were rarities. CNN was still an experiment. The truth is, however, that the state’s financial condition, however dismal, is not simply Mario’s fault.
The whole Northeast has been losing ‘manufacturing jobs since the mid-seventies. It was also whacked hard by the recession. Massachusetts, for instance, lost jobs at a higher rate than New York between 1990 and 1992 despite being governed by Bill Weld, a free-marketer who embodies all that Cuomo’s critics prefer. But statistics also show that New York lags the region in recovering. From March 1993 to March 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, it created new jobs at a fraction of the rate of Massachusetts.
The recovery has been sluggish in New York because of the stratospheric cost of doing business, which is mainly a result of high taxes. But the seeds of this problem were planted long before Cuomo assumed the bully pulpit. Just as Richard Nixon filled out the Great Society, in New York it was Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, who raised the leviathan state. During his fourteen years in office, the cost of government grew eightfold. The fruits of Rockefeller’s edifice complex dot the landscape; it was he who wove the massive social safety net that is matched by no other state’s. By the time Rockefeller got done, the top individual tax bracket was 16 percent.
Hugh Carey tamed the beast somewhat. But Cuomo inherited a public sector that was still far too large, with heavy accumulated debt and taxes far too high. This stifled private-sector growth during the good years of the Reagan boom (except on Wall Street) and made the Crash all the more devastating when it finally came. Cuomo has also had a fractious, obstructionist Legislature to contend with.
All this granted, Cuomo has never really faced the basic problem of a state government that tries to do too much and does it too expensively. He has trimmed the budget when he has had to. But he has expanded it, much more, when he has been able. His principle, Cuomo says, repeating a line he has used many times, is “You should have all the government you need. But you should have only the government you need.” Tellingly, he now emphasizes the “only.” In his first inaugural address, he cast his philosophy as an answer to Reaganism: “Of course we should have only the government we need. But we must insist on all the government we need.” In practice, it has always meant the same thing: all the government New York could afford.
Asked whether the public sector in New York is too large, Cuomo pauses as if bewildered. “Too large? We have fewer state employees per capita than most states,” he replies. This is true, but misleading. New York ranks forty-fourth in state employees per capita, just as it ranks a benign-sounding twenty-second in terms of its tax burden.
But these numbers are a result of the dozens of obligations shunted onto localities. (The irony of passing off these unfunded mandates to towns and cities and counties, while denouncing Reagan for dumping federal responsibilities on the states, is lost on Cuomo.) When you combine state and local numbers, New York breaks the bank in both categories. One in sixteen New Yorkers (including children) is a public employee, and taxes work out to $4,361 per capita, 62 percent above the national average.
So what about the tax cuts Cuomo keeps bragging about? It’s true that he dropped the top individual rate from 10 percent to just under 8 percent. But the burden has increased because lower rates have been abolished. The regressive reality is that a family in New York with a taxable income of $26,000, or a single person at $13,000, pays the top levy of 7.875 percent. Wall Street billionaires and their bootblacks, therefore, pay state taxes at the same rate.
Less visible taxes, particularly corporate taxes, add to the load. Business taxes are some 75 percent higher than the national average. New York companies pay a 15 percent tax surcharge, high phone taxes, and an energy tax that contributes to costs twice as high as in some neighboring states. They pay exorbitant tolls to transport goods on the New York State Thruway. “But the taxes are less damaging than the psychological climate, the sense that no one is trying to fix the things that are broken,” says one think-tank observer in Albany. As a result, businesses have left in droves.
To counteract that trend, Cuomo has underwritten an enormous program of economic development. Like other states, New York tries to recruit and retain businesses by offering various kinds of bribes. These include targeted tax breaks, discounted energy, and even direct investment. Four different agencies put out press releases every few days heralding their giveaways to companies from Spalding Sports to ABC Television. Susan Glass of the Urban Development Corporation claims the state has created or retained some 200,000 jobs.
There is, however, no evidence to support this fantastic assertion. Governments cannot do better than the marketplace at determining where investment will best generate growth and create jobs. Businesses love it when governments try, because it allows them to make a direct claim on state monies. But it doesn’t really help. As Vincent Tese, Director of Economic Development for New York State, admits, threats of leave have only increased since New York began bribing firms to stay. Cuomo’s economic-development programs are inordinately expensive, consuming 2 percent of the state budget. Infrastructure, meanwhile, has gone begging. Nearly 70 percent of New York’s bridges are currently rated deficient, double the national average.
This strategy is echoed in the budget Cuomo signed June 9. It offers 34 different business tax cuts, very few of which, according to Frank Mauro of the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute in Albany, “bear any logical relationship to the stated goal of job creation.” Cuomo’s style of economic development involves government in a wheel-spinning vicious circle: The state spends time and money creating and implementing its taxes and regulations, then spends more of both finding ways around them for those who complain the loudest. Instead, he should just cut business taxes across the board. But the notion that the key to a sounder economy is doing less rather than more seems never to have occurred to him.
Money might be freed up for a corporate tax cut if Cuomo looked to the “re-inventing” strategies that other states have employed. This is, however, an alien notion. “You show me a way to do it in the private sector that’s just as good — then that’s the way we ought to do it,” he says. In practice, though, he has done little to offend the Civil Service Employees Association, New York’s major public-employees’ union. He boasts about layoffs, but even after trimming its payroll in the past few years, the state still has 18,000 more full-time employees than it did in 1983. And they are paid 20 percent above the national average.
Nor has Cuomo gotten into the spirit of deregulation. He has criticized absurdities like the Wicks law, which adds an estimated $400 million a year to public construction costs by banning subcontracting. But he hasn’t shown any leadership in trying to get it repealed. Nor has he tried to get rid of rent control — which would do more to create decent, affordable New York City housing than anything he has done.
Cuomo seldom thinks about long-term economic benefit — or long-term costs. A recent example was his intervention in the Long Island Rail Road strike. The short-term expense of forcing the MTA to cave in to union demands is negligible. But the costs will continue to accrue long after he is gone. Or, to take an old example, Cuomo’s closure of Shoreham will cost Long Island residents billions of dollars in higher rates — spread out over decades.
Cuomo works hard to promote an impression of fiscal responsibility. He claims the budget is in the black this year. But advocacy groups — the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute, the conservative Public Policy Institute, and the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission — say that’s an illusion. Though the budget may generate a cash surplus this year, there is a continuing structural imbalance. If we keep taxing and spending the same amount, we’ll have a multi-billion-dollar shortfall next year, and more the following year. Because the state, unlike the city, doesn’t do multiyear budgeting, the problem is concealed.
A positive cash flow is generated by one-shots, shell games, and dubious borrowing. The most notorious gimmick was the “privatization” of Attica prison. The state sold the jail to a public authority, the Urban Development Corporation, for $200 million, then leased it back. This freed up a pot of money to help cover current obligations. But the UDC had to issue bonds to pay for the prison. The result is that tax payers will be paying to lease their own property for decades. This scheme is like taking out a second mortgage on your house — and pretending you’ve found a source of no-strings-attached new wealth.
Cuomo is also the guy who raided the state’s workers’-compensation trust fund to the tune of $1.3 billion. That money has gone to finance general revenues instead of reducing the high cost of workers’-compensation insurance in the state, which business sees as one of the biggest drawbacks to doing business in New York. Taxpayers will also be paying over the next twenty years to make up the $2 billion that the Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state illegally borrowed from its employee pension fund. More recently, Cuomo has supported fiscal reform to eliminate the state’s short-term debt and regularize its borrowing practices. But as a result of the old-time tricks, New York’s bonds are rated among the lowest in the country — only Louisiana’s are lower.
Say this for Cuomo: He picked a lousy time to be a governor. His inauguration in 1983 coincided with the epidemics of AIDS, crack, homelessness — all the problems that nobody knows how to do anything about. It was also the moment, as Cuomo has often noted, when Reagan’s New Federalism kicked in, which meant less aid to the states.
But the past ten years have also been a period of creativity at the state level. Forced to do more with less, governors of both parties have earned reputations on the basis of innovation in education, health, and welfare. Among them: Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Lawton Chiles of Florida, and John Engler of Michigan. Cuomo seems to have placed a low premium on new ideas. While others experimented, he railed against the demise of revenue sharing.
Cuomo is not someone interested in the intricate details of policy — the prose of politics as opposed to the poetry of politics, to use a distinction Richard Nixon once made. That’s fine, and perhaps preferable in a chief executive, so long as he has capable advisers who do immerse themselves. Cuomo, however, has a long-standing aversion to having strong people around him. Instead, he has surrounded himself with guys from the old neighborhood like Fabian Palomino and yes-men like Sandy Frucher. Cuomo’s legendary parochialism makes matters worse. Phobic about leaving New York for so much as a night, he doesn’t keep up with what his colleagues are doing. He told me he doesn’t read the New York Times or other papers because he doesn’t have time.
The larger issue, though, is the way Cuomo thinks about government. His basic ideas seem fixed in the era when he came of age, the era of the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan, a time of seemingly limitless resources and unbounded American power. Cuomo thus has had a strong rhetorical commitment to expanding opportunity for the young. In 1985, he declared the objective of guaranteeing a job for every high-school graduate. But his School-to-Employment initiative never went anywhere. Likewise, Cuomo has long championed Liberty Scholarships, which are supposed to ensure every qualified high-school graduate the means to go to college. But the first money will not be spent on the program until 1996.
Public schools, meanwhile, have languished. Since Cuomo became governor, education spending has more than doubled. The dropout rate has gone down some. But the quality of the product — measured in average SAT scores — has declined slightly. Throughout his tenure, Cuomo’s biggest push has been to equalize funding between rich and poor districts. This is the right thing to do, and a fairly brave stand politically. But Cuomo hasn’t gotten very far with it. “It’s a sad situation,” he says. “We are not doing well. The Republicans and the richer communities are offended at the shift.”
Even Cuomo acknowledges that without significant policy changes, more money won’t make a huge difference to troubled schools. But more mundane systemic reforms don’t interest him. He has ignored the idea of letting non-education majors become teachers, one that Tom Kean implemented to good result in New Jersey. And he has had little to say about New York City’s most promising program, the East Harlem District Four experiment, which allows public-school parents a choice of schools.
Cuomo’s main initiative at the moment is something called 21st Century Schools, a program funded in the new budget that aims to liberate schools from regulation while holding them to high standards. It’s a good idea but will cover a maximum of 60 schools in the state. Education reformers fear the plan will go the way of Cuomo’s earlier efforts, his High Schools of Excellence, his Excellence in Teaching program, and his New Compact for Learning: into ineffectual obscurity. “A lot of states are thinking about innovative ways to reorganize education,” says Diane Ravitch, a former education-department official, now a professor at New York University. “This is not one of them.”
Cuomo’s health-care record is like his one on education: long on fairness, short on fiscal responsibility. He wins credit for expanding coverage for low-income children and pregnant women who didn’t previously qualify for Medicaid. The result has been an improved vaccination rate for children and a reduction in infant mortality. But spending is totally out of control. Year after year, the biggest increase in the state budget is for Medicaid.
The Republican line notwithstanding, this is not all Cuomo’s fault. New York is reimbursed by Washington at a lower rate than other states, on the basis of a disadvantageous federal formula. By tradition, New York also covers almost all of the 21 optional Medicaid services, and offers them without stint — chiropractic, vasectomy reversals, even hair transplants. New York also tries to cast the eligibility net as widely as possible. Overregulation — which produces nursing-home costs a third higher than the national average — is a long-standing problem as well.
But Cuomo has accepted all this as beyond his power to change. “You can’t cut Medicaid,” he says. “What do you want to cut?” Well, California, which also has generous benefits and eligibility rules, does Medicaid much more cheaply: $1,900 per recipient against New York’s $5,600. The basic reason is that California has focused on restraining cost. Long ago, it moved to managed care, hospital contracting, utilization reviews, and co-payments. Not until 1991 did Cuomo push for enactment of a managed-care law in New York. As a result, only about 10 percent of Medicaid recipients are in HMOs.
New York has been bold in experimenting with insurance reform. Since last year, companies that cover small businesses and individuals have been required to provide for those with preexisting conditions at the same rate as others; they cannot discount for young or healthy people. As a result, many people who previously had no access to insurance at all are now covered. Total enrollment, however, has declined since the law took effect, partly because young and healthy people drop coverage when rates shoot up. In New York, premiums have gone up for two thirds of policyholders covered by the law. To some, the state now serves as an object lesson in the dangers of piecemeal health-care reform. But it’s probably too early to judge.
Welfare is even more complicated. As in other areas, New York is burdened by its tradition of generosity. Home Relief, the state program that supplements AFDC, the main federal welfare program, pays higher benefits here than elsewhere.
The state’s magnanimity seems to have a self-exacerbating effect; long-term welfare dependency and the problems associated with it are more serious here than in perhaps any other state. For most of his first term, Cuomo never talked about the growing crisis. The words underclass and illegitimacy seldom passed his lips; the only issue was Reagan’s stinginess.
Toward the end of his first term, Cuomo nearly detoured into a more promising approach. He appointed a study commission that included David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, two principal engineers of President Clinton’s recently announced welfare-reform proposal. The group recommended a bold plan for dropping recipients from the state rolls after they were trained and placed in jobs.
Cuomo now brags about the 1986 report. At the time, however, he backed away from it, and the Legislature defeated it. “Ever since then, Cuomo has kept a very low profile regarding welfare reform,” says Irene Lurie, a welfare expert at SUNY-Albany. “Other states had very visible new programs — Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Wisconsin. Cuomo just withdrew.”
His rhetoric has been all over the map. Cuomo often speaks eloquently of the dignity of work. But he says mandatory work programs aren’t practical because the jobs don’t exist. Meanwhile, more-imaginative governors have been drawing up lists of the public-service jobs that welfare recipients can do.
Cuomo has also often indulged, as in a speech he gave at Harvard in 1992, in old-fashioned liberal cant. Talking about the culture of dependency, he said, was blaming the victim. Welfare, he insisted, was a small part of the federal budget. Reform, he said, was “not the solution.” He has excused the rise in single-parent families by calling it “nothing new.” This is truly inexcusable.
Equally inexcusable was New York’s near-failure to participate in the 1988 welfare-reform bill sponsored by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The Moynihan bill offered federal money for participation in the JOBS program, which is intended to prepare welfare mothers for the job market. “Most states leapt at the opportunity,” Moynihan wrote last year in the introduction to a report on the state’s failure. “Not New York.”
In the past year, Cuomo has promoted a panoply of little programs. Jumping onto the national bandwagon, he even supported fingerprinting welfare recipients to prevent fraud. Cuomo’s new commissioner of social services, Michael Dowling, wins high marks from policy types for his desire to change the dependency mind-set that governs welfare offices in the state. But there is still nothing you could call an approach — no single, coordinated, publicized strategy. Cuomo’s new programs may go the way of old ones, their names now forgotten.
Cuomo looks better on crime. The most dramatic increase in the state budget during his tenure, other than for Medicaid, has been for prison construction; the number of beds has doubled since he took office.
At the same time, Cuomo has promoted the use of “shock incarceration,” or socalled boot camps, as a less expensive alternative to jail. He proposed a carefully tailored three-strikes provision for violent offenders, in addition to a variety of other useful sentencing-enhancement provisions for violent criminals. And he has supported an assault-weapons ban that is far more serious than the federal one Bill Clinton is poised to sign — it would ban the guns used in a quarter of the crimes in New York — though so far the State Senate has blocked it.
Cuomo also favors alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders, though the Legislature has stymied his initiatives. He has proposed intelligent reforms in the juvenile-justice system. He has expanded drug and alcoholism treatment inside and outside of prisons. And he has been lauded for excellent judicial appointments.
Toughness on crime is meant in part to compensate for Cuomo’s stand against the death penalty. He has admirably held to this position in the face of overwhelming public opposition.
Lately, Cuomo has been accused of adjusting his views to suit the popular mood in time for the election. According to a front-page story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Cuomo backtracked by endorsing a statewide referendum on the issue. Following the story, he was denounced by editorialists and mocked by cartoonists not just around the state but around the country.
The governor makes a convincing case, however, that this was a bum rap, that he never fine-tuned his position in any way. Newspaper stories support his assertion that as early as 1982, he endorsed a referendum.
But he has always argued that life without parole — his sensible alternative to the death penalty — should also be an option on the ballot. Nor has Cuomo ever taken a position that he would commute death sentences if his veto were overridden, as the Times said he would. “My position is exactly the opposite!” he says. “And has been forever.”
Even to think he would flip on the issue misunderstands the governor. Though he can be as evasive as any politician, there are certain moral issues that mean a great deal to him. One is abortion.
Another is the death penalty. His positions may sound sophistic, but they are carefully wrought. On executions in particular, Cuomo would rather lose the election than change his position. “This was unfortunate,” he says. “And this hurt, no question . And I’ll never be able to clear it up.”
On issues of conscience, Cuomo remains an outstanding leader. On race, the issue that continues to tear New York’s social fabric so severely, he has been a superb conciliator. This talent first displayed itself in 1972, when he successfully mediated a polarized black/Jewish conflict over low-income housing in Forest Hills. As governor, he helped to restore calm after Bensonhurst and Crown Heights. He handled the Tawana Brawley episode with fairness and good sense. On immigration, too, Cuomo has been brave. In the face of rising xenophobia, he has defended immigration as the strength of the state and the country. He is, in fact, something of an obsessive on the issue, constantly reminding listeners that he came from a neighborhood “where everybody came from somewhere else.” At their best, Cuomo’s integrity and thoughtfulness breed respect not just for him but for politics and government as a whole.
Even now, despite the failings of his record, the governor can woo listeners with his notion of the compassionate state. “I would love to win and therefore have affirmed by the state the difference between my approach and the Republican approach,” Cuomo says. “The difference between their denial of our capacity to do things and my insistence that we can; their negativism and my positivism. “This is a deeply appealing sentiment, even if it’s out of sync with the reality of his administration. It is impressive that Cuomo has not lowered his aspirations for government, even after all he has failed to ·make it do.
The governor retains an amazing power to move people with his words. Toward the end of our long interview, he came out with this spiel: “The country, and the state as part of the country, badly wants strength at the moment. They want somebody very strong because they’re frightened, first by the loss of economic dominance, then by the loss of our own self-control as a nation, all the violence, the degradation on television, the degradation and the obscenity in various forms all around us, which they’re finally be ginning to figure out is not the media’s fault — because the media are supplying what the people are asking for. And the people are beginning to sense that they are disgusted by what they see — that they desire what disgusts them, and they are disgusted by what they desire.
“It’s a very bad time. What I’m trying to say is ‘Yes, you need strength. I will be strength for you. I will not be buffeted by the political winds. I will not tell you what you want to hear. I will not be deterred by the fear of defeat. I will not be seduced by higher office or other opportunities. I will do what needs to be done. I’ll be stronger than anyone else you could have. But my strength will not come with harshness. It will come with sweetness.’”
It is amazing to hear this sort of political poetry, let alone to hear it emerge with apparent spontaneity from the mouth of a candidate running for reelection. This is rhetoric of a high order: cogent social criticism, which makes listeners want to be better citizens, better people. In our generation, no one else has done it better. No one has expressed the liberal vision of society with such eloquence and force. No one else has made the case with such clarity or such conviction. But in the end, rhetoric without action isn’t politics, it’s literature. Cuomo prepared his people to go somewhere, but never took them. He spoke beautiful words, but didn’t follow with meaningful deeds. In a way, the words deepen Cuomo’s failure; he was capable of so much more.