Championing reforms is key to Cuomo’s future

Andrew Cuomo is positioning himself to be president of the United States. His chances of getting there will be infinitely increased if he is able to turn Albany into a calmer, less venal, more reflective and genuinely representative place. There is a certain irony to this for the son of Mario who was once known as an all political, take-no-prisoners, tough guy politician. He is perceived as having done a very good job as attorney general but being governor is different, and he knows it. As governor, he will have to negotiate with the power people in the Legislature who have always done self-serving, special interest type business. He has only to look at what happened to Eliot Spitzer.

Cuomo must win the Legislature’s confidence and at the same time convince the people that he really is going to clean things up. In order to do as governor what he has done as attorney general, Cuomo will have to do what’s right as opposed to what is “political.” As his father’s top political enforcer, he had to undergo a character transformation or at least he had to mature in order to avoid the same old, same old pitfalls as he faced in the past. He’ll need to be perceived as being “good” and “likeable” as opposed to “Tough Guy Andy.” His friends at the radical right wing New York Post know that and they’re spreading around his picture, with his kids and his girlfriend and an atypical smile on his face. Old man Hearst would be proud.

To succeed, he will have to do what David Paterson has attempted to do in order to keep the Legislature at bay. He has to succeed in getting along with the Legislature, which Paterson was never able to do, or his governorship is doomed. He has to reserve all the perks of being a strong executive. The more power he cedes to the Legislature, the weaker he becomes. It’s that simple. He has to toughen the ethics rules in the Legislature. That can only help him. The less double dealing and inside trading the legislative leaders can get away with and the more truly transparent the process is, the more powerful Cuomo will be. That’s why Paterson vetoed the quarter of a loaf ethics law that the Legislature was able to dupe the so-called “good government groups” into endorsing. That’s why Cuomo is opposed to allowing the Regents (owned by the Assembly, which is owned by the teachers’ union) to have the sole say as to who gets a charter school. He appoints the members of the SUNY Board of Trustees, and he is not about to relinquish that influence to the legislative chieftains.

Of course, the members of the Legislature know full well that they need Cuomo at the top of the ticket, otherwise they will lose their marginal members. On the other hand, Cuomo knows that he can’t be perceived as being in bed with them. Cuomo is signaling that Albany has to be reformed and that means a diminution of power for the leaders and their associated lobbyists. So Andrew has to be a champion of reform. He has to be Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt rolled into one. He is telling anyone who wants to run on his coattails that they will have to pledge to support reform. Interestingly, he is painting himself not only as a candidate of reform but as a candidate of bipartisan reform. He is signaling those Democrats who want to preserve the old order that he is not above making deals with their mutually exclusive Republican enemies in order to achieve reform.

Andrew has come a long way and he holds great promise. He started as a tough guy and now he is a tough guy with a commendable mission. If he wants to shoot for the moon, to go all the way to the White House and to uphold his anointed title as “son of Mario,” he will have to go for it. He will have to insist that apportionment be done fairly and that New York style gerrymandering be relegated to the past. He will have to put a dent in the power of the institutionalized lobbyists. He will have to do more than the commendable talk his father was famous for and translate his platform into actions. If I were Shelly Silver I would have to know that Andrew means business and I’d give up a lot to make Cuomo comfortable. Three quarters of a loaf is better than none should be Silver’s thinking — otherwise he may just end up with none.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/24/10

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