The Fourth Man

Photo: Patrick McMullan (2)

In mid-May, when New York State’s budget was merely seven weeks overdue, Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch got a call from an aide to Andrew Cuomo. Ravitch had spent months constructing an intriguing, if controversial, budget proposal. One of Cuomo’s aides was phoning Ravitch to inform him that a story was about to be leaked to the Associated Press in which “people close” to Cuomo would express his opposition to key parts of the Ravitch plan, effectively killing it.

When Cuomo officially declared his candidacy two days later, he issued a 224-page platform that included three priorities for 2011: Trimming state spending, adding no new taxes, and the establishment of a 2 percent annual cap on property-tax increases. But this spring’s extended budget impasse enabled him to push his agenda early—with the bonus of allowing the actual governor, David Paterson, to take the heat. Achieving those policy aims, however, would require deftness considerably beyond the well-timed media leak.

As the budget battle has staggered into summer, Cuomo has become the shadowy fourth man in the Albany room, helping shape the tactics and policies that have dragged it to (near) completion. Publicly, Cuomo has supported Paterson’s positions at key moments while not appearing to meddle. When the Legislature tried to replace school-aid cuts with tax increases, Cuomo spoke out forcefully on Paterson’s behalf at a press conference. Behind the scenes, Cuomo has been even more active. “Andrew’s mark is all over this budget,” a Democratic insider says. “He began a dialogue with Paterson about a month ago, and they’ve been having nearly daily conversations and Andrew talks a ton to Larry Schwartz,” Paterson’s chief of staff.

Paterson and Schwartz came up with a stroke of political genius—the lame-duck governor’s threats to shut down state government have enabled him to force weekly budget concessions from the Legislature. Cuomo has successfully bolstered their choices, from cuts to education spending to holding the line on most tax increases to fending off the temptation to add billions to the state’s deficit through Ravitch’s plan. Winning those battles now, by Paterson proxy, reduces the pain Cuomo will need to inflict should he get elected. The risk is that Cuomo has antagonized the Legislature six months before he’s sworn in. Last week, he declared that the Legislature was “dreaming” if it didn’t agree to a Medicaid-funding contingency plan and said the Legislature had “accomplished absolutely nothing” in their revisions to Paterson’s budget. “It’s classic Andrew,” says an Albany insider who likes Cuomo. “The fundamental points are accurate, but it’s going a little too far, it’s saying a little too much.”

And one of the most contentious issues remains unresolved. Paterson included the property-tax cap in his budget but was unable to keep it from being set aside by the Legislature. The state teachers union and civil-service union are adamantly opposed to a flat cap, because property taxes supply cash for education and employee benefits; those unions also happen to be the biggest sources of campaign donations to Democrats in the Legislature.

All the maneuvering has fueled Albany’s hottest rumor: that Paterson went along with Cuomo’s budgetary wishes so that Cuomo could help him get a job, maybe even as Charlie Rangel’s successor in Congress. The rumor is a measure of the Legislature’s fear of Cuomo’s ability to use the political dark arts. But the candidate believes that any tension he’s escalated with the Legislature this summer will be outweighed by what he does between now and the new year. Starting with a decisive election-day mandate as his base, Cuomo thinks he can continue to build grassroots support for his proposals, including the property-tax cap, by going district to district to sell his program, and that members of the Legislature, desperate to be seen as heroes instead of obstructionists, will be swept along on the tide of public opinion. If Cuomo can combine that sort of populist groundswell with his talents for hardball and horse-trading, the state may finally get the kind of governor it needs.

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The Fourth Man