The Non-Steamroller Plan to Run New York

Illustration by Antony Hare

Andrew Cuomo is not Eliot Spitzer—okay? You got that? Is it clear?

When the governor-elect emerged two days after thumping Carl Paladino by 28 points, it was for a phone-in radio interview with Albany’s most powerful reporter—the man Paladino perhaps unwisely threatened to “take out”—Fred Dicker of the New York Post. They covered the usual ground: the state’s budget mess, the pesky news media.

But the most amusing, and informative, exchange came when Dicker asked about attracting talented people to government. Cuomo noted that Albany’s reputation for bizarre dysfunction isn’t exactly a recruiting tool, then began hammering a larger theme. “We’re not going to turn that around in three weeks … you’re not going to turn that around in January,” he said. “To say everything should change on day one … ” The reference was to Spitzer’s 2006 campaign slogan, “Day One, Everything Changes.” “I’m gonna say, ‘Been there, done that,’ ” Cuomo continued. “We get that it’s not day one!” Great, now about— “People expect to see realistic progress,” Cuomo went on. “No one who is at all informed would say, ‘Everything is going to change on day one!’ ”

The fixation was a little weird, even factoring in the long, nasty battle between the two highly ambitious men. Yet it was a reminder that, whatever Cuomo’s disdain for Spitzer’s vices, his deepest contempt is reserved for Spitzer’s abilities as a politician. That he considers Eliot an amateur and himself a maestro. And that for all of the humility Cuomo learned after his failed run for governor in 2002, he is now more than a little eager to show New York how the game is supposed to be played. Where Spitzer raised expectations, Cuomo will temper them. Where Spitzer was confrontational, Cuomo will be methodical. Instead of trying to bully recalcitrant leaders, Cuomo will try to persuade them, at least initially. “The subtlety, the art form, is to build the political consensus,” one Cuomo insider says. “Eliot’s paradigm was top down: ‘I’m gonna go to Shelly [Silver] and tell Shelly he has to do this.’ First of all, you don’t tell Shelly he has to do anything. Second of all, Shelly follows his membership. He always has. That’s why he’s still there. Eventually Eliot sort of said, ‘Okay, now I get it—I’ll go from the bottom up.’ Yeah, so he picked up a club and went into districts and said, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ No. You build the political support district by district, build the editorial support, let them see the support in a poll, let them hear it in the shopping center. That’s how you get the Legislature.”

So Cuomo may spend even more time on the road than he did during the campaign, talking about ethics reform and a property-tax cap. Not that he’s going to put all his faith in such romantic notions of grassroots democracy. “Andrew doesn’t just throw the fastball,” an aide says. “He’s got an arsenal of five different pitches.” Those could include such inside-baseball stratagems as using electoral redistricting as a bargaining chip: Give the new governor more of what he wants on, say, pension reform and perhaps Cuomo won’t push so hard for nonpartisan redistricting. Artful press leaks can apply pressure. And there’s always money. The state teachers union and the civil-service employees union supply crucial campaign cash. If Cuomo, by appearing at fund-raisers, and the state Democratic Party can become an alternate ATM, the governor will gain leverage. If all that doesn’t work? Well, Eliot Spitzer is always available for advice.

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The Non-Steamroller Plan to Run New York