The Silver Surfer

Illustration by Adam R. Garcia

New York state has an official bird (the Eastern bluebird), muffin (apple), and soil (Honeoye). No less emblematic is the unofficial gesture of state government: the Sheldon Silver shrug. Silver, the powerful speaker of the Assembly, is a genius of delay and inscrutability; first elected in 1976, he has heard more calls for urgent action than he can possibly count. The state budget is two months overdue and $9 billion out of whack? Ehh … we’ll get to it.

The shrug was in prime form last week, after Andrew Cuomo declared the least surprising candidacy in electoral history. The campaign rollout included asking citizens and incumbent legislators to sign a pledge supporting Cuomo’s “clean up Albany” agenda; several of Cuomo’s worthwhile proposals, such as a requirement that legislators disclose the sources of their outside income, appeared to be aimed at Silver. Surrounded by reporters and cameras yet still sounding barely awake, the speaker shrugged off Cuomo’s idea. “I don’t sign anybody’s pledges,” he said. “Pledges are fixed in time, usually, and they really don’t mean much.”

The Cuomo-Silver exchange hardly qualified as a skirmish. But it did serve as a preview of the treacherous dynamic that awaits Cuomo if he’s elected—and it stirred a depressing sense of déjà vu. Four years ago, New York’s big problems were the budget and the Legislature’s intransigence; a crusading attorney general rode into the governor’s office brandishing an overwhelming margin of victory and promising to drain the Albany swamp. Bashing the Legislature sure didn’t get Eliot Spitzer very far. Cuomo’s fans—and even a few of his antagonists—claim he’ll arrive with more, and more-nuanced, tricks up his sleeve. His 250 page campaign platform is one such tool. “Spitzer’s mandate was a mandate for Eliot Spitzer,” one Cuomo intimate says. “He didn’t really say specifically the things he was going to do that would be controversial with the Legislature. Andrew’s laying out very specific things.”

Spitzer’s main tactic was threatening the seats of legislators who didn’t play ball. Cuomo’s strategy is subtler, involving carrots as well as sticks. The theory is that Cuomo’s pledge and his policy tome will provide cover for incumbents who are running—scared—this fall, and that if they’re reelected, they’ll return to Albany grateful to the new governor for saving their phony-baloney jobs. Cuomo’s inner circle is a smart and experienced bunch, but the candidate keeps tight control of decision-making and will rise or fall on his own strategic skills. “I say this with all praise in my heart, but Andrew’s an incredibly manipulative guy,” a fellow Democrat says. “He knows how to do three things over here that will show up over there.” That Cuomo either didn’t anticipate Silver’s disdain, or did and then tried to make nice afterward, was surprisingly maladroit; that he has been staying in touch with Mike Bloomberg shows more savvy.

Cuomo’s ability to finesse the angles is up for an immediate, serious test: whether to accept the ballot line of the Working Families Party, the alliance of public-employee unions that has quickly become a force in city elections and is looking to retain its statewide reach. Candidate Cuomo’s budget proposals would hit WFP members hard. “If he takes the WFP line, he’s crazy,” a prominent Democratic strategist says. “It will tie his hands as governor.” Yet if Cuomo gives the WFP the back of his hand and then bullies it over the budget, he will find himself in a predicament much like Spitzer’s, facing an array of determined, well-financed enemies. “He has not figured that out,” a Cuomo adviser says. “Andrew respects the constituent players of [the WFP], while he doesn’t agree with them on every policy. He does not want to be at war with any of the people in that group, even those who will bear some real pain if we’re going to get state finances in order.”

Spitzer was ahead of the curve in his embodiment of voter anger, and fighting consumed him. Cuomo is no Mr. Nice Guy—many pols who know him well fear him—and he arrives as public rage with government soars. Yet his success in Albany will likely hinge on whether he can stroke people at the same time as he’s pushing them around: Manipulation we can believe in.

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The Silver Surfer