Cuomo has always had the tax thing figured out

For Andrew Cuomo, the issue has always been taxes. There really is no getting around it — New York is an incredibly highly taxed state. We all know it and Cuomo, who most of us think has his eye on the presidency, knows it too. He comes by it honestly; he worked for the Clinton White House as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It was Clinton, on his own way to the presidency, who figured out a neat political configuration. In being a social progressive and a fiscal conservative, he set the model for Andrew.

The other great figure in Andrew’s life is, of course, his father Mario. We could call the old man “Mario the Bull.” When Mario Cuomo took a position, he stuck with it. Consider his stance on the death penalty or his position on abortion that he laboriously laid out in an important speech at Notre Dame, the prestigious Catholic University. Now I admit I’m prejudiced. I wrote a biography of the elder Cuomo and I think he really had heroic qualities. Andrew not only learned what to do from the old man but he clearly learned what NOT to do as well.

First on his list were taxes. From the first minute Cuomo the Younger ran on his own foray into state politics, he was as careful on the matter of taxes as one would be walking close to the third rail on the subway tracks. Andrew was not going to allow anyone to sucker punch him on taxes. He knew that nothing, but nothing, gets people angrier or more frightened than the thought of paying $25,000 in taxes on a small shack on Long Island or in Westchester.

From the first minute he got into office, he worked assiduously to give people the impression that he was doing something about their taxes — the one thing topping the list of their salient political issues. He used every bit of his capital with the Legislature, particularly the Democrats in the Assembly who are very good at spending the people’s money on things that would help their constituents. As a result, he got his way. His tax cap was so thoroughly hated by the state’s civil service unions that they simply refused to endorse him. And when an obscure Zephyr Teachout ran against Cuomo in the primaries, she got a lot of votes — a third of them.

In this case, the Clinton formula just didn’t work. Cuomo’s progressive agenda on guns and women’s rights was largely overlooked by progressive Democrats. They tended to paint him as a reactionary because of his fiscal posture. Among the youngish governor’s top priorities is a program that will give incentives to the myriad levels of local government to combine and to save money. Mario Cuomo wanted to do that as well and got nowhere because of what we can only call “local nationalism.” People want their own thing.

Now the Cuomo posture on taxes is paying off. Rob Astorino, his Republican opponent, twice won his office as the County Executive in Westchester on the tax issue. But now he is trailing Cuomo because Cuomo has been running ads talking about his efforts to cut taxes and Astorino’s profligate spending in Westchester. You know what? It’s working. There aren’t enough union voters or progressives who want more spending to vote against Cuomo, and even if they wanted to vote for someone other than Cuomo, who would they vote for? Of course there is the Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, who is polling rather well for a Greenie. But there is no way Hawkins is going to win because he won’t be getting many Republican votes.

In the end, crafty Machiavellian Cuomo had the tax thing all figured out. I guarantee that if he runs for president, he’ll use the same playbook.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 10/6/14

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