Nearly three months after launching his campaign for governor, presumptive Republican nominee Marc Molinaro has spent most of his time hammering incumbent Andrew Cuomo, a two-term Democrat, on ethics scandals, economic development spending, and other issues. But key questions remain about Molinaro’s own policy stances.
“I know that campaigns are marathons, not sprints,” he recently told Gotham Gazette, after participating in a rally in support of keeping the single-test admission system to New York City’s specialized high schools, when asked for more detail about his education platform.
Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, talked broadly about investing in communities, empowering teachers, and focusing on early interventions, but said New Yorkers would have to wait for more specifics.
“I can” go into more detail, he said with a half-laugh, “but I won’t.”
That sums up the state of the Molinaro campaign. He has offered a handful of policy planks, mostly around government ethics, and promised “bold” plans that will challenge entrenched interests and help make New York more affordable for homeowners.
As July approaches, the candidate certainly has time to roll out his policy agenda, given he has no primary to worry about and needs to earn votes for November, when he will appear on the ballot on three party lines: Republican, Conservative, and Reform. But what policies will he run on? What does Molinaro need to do to rally the GOP base while also appealing to independents and moderate Democrats? And, how can he overcome the Democratic enrollment advantage in New York in an election that will be, in part, a referendum on President Donald Trump?
Like any Republican candidate for statewide office, Molinaro faces major obstacles from the outset. There were more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans in New York as of April, with Democrats also outpacing Republicans in registering new voters. And Cuomo’s record, which includes some centrist and crossover legislative and budgetary achievements, makes it hard in some cases for any Republican to carve out turf that’s right of the two-term incumbent, but not so far to the right that he or she alienates too many New Yorkers.
Thus far in the race, Molinaro has focused on traditional Republican themes of cutting taxes and reducing government spending.
“If taxing and spending were the best way to lift families out of poverty, we’d have the best government in the country and I wouldn’t be running for governor,” he said in his May 23 Republican nomination acceptance speech. “Overtaxing and overspending -- it’s a dream-killer, a job-depriver. It robs working people from the ability to save.”
Molinaro has come out in favor of extending the state’s property tax cap, instituted under Cuomo, and recently called for the so-called “millionaires’ tax” to be phased out.
Since 2012, the governor and legislature have limited increases to property taxes levied by localities and school districts to 2 percent of the previous year’s rate or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Bigger hikes to bolster school districts can be made if 60 percent of voters in those districts approve of them; there’s also a provision for localities to make bigger hikes. New York City is exempt from the cap, something Republicans from the city and beyond have criticized.
As for the income tax rate for the top bracket -- 8.82 percent for individuals making $1 million or more and couples earning $2 million or more per year -- Molinaro wants “to have it expire over time.” The rate went up, from 6.85 percent, in 2009. Molinaro declined to state what rate he would seek for the state’s highest earners.
On sports betting, legislation to legalize that form of gambling has stalled in Albany as lawmakers debate fees. But Molinaro has called for an 8.5-percent tax on sports betting if it does become legal.
E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, pointed out questions Molinaro needs to address about his tax plan.
McMahon said making the property tax cap permanent could hinge on just how Molinaro would phase out the millionaires’ tax.
“You’ve gotta decide what you’re going to do with that before you decide anything else that has financial impact,” McMahon said.
There’s also the question of how much political capital Molinaro would invest in perpetuating the property tax cap. McMahon noted that Cuomo and Republicans who control the state Senate say they support the move, but have not yet made it a top priority. The cap is set to expire in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
McMahon said Molinaro could signal his support for the property tax cap by making it his sine qua non for passing the state budget.
“Will he say…this is going to be a condition for a budget or any extension of rent regulation?” McMahon said, referring to a top priority for Democrats who control the Assembly by a wide margin dominated by New York City members. “The question is, what is going to be your priority, what are you going to do to make it happen?”
Trimming the fat
Along with criticizing state taxes in his Republican Party nomination acceptance speech, Molinaro promised a new approach to budgeting for government agencies. He said he would recruit “the best and brightest” from colleges and businesses to audit state government, and promised “zero-based budgeting” in which “no agency gets a dime until it can show we’re getting what we pay for.”
“What we have now is an outmoded, outdated, and antiquated 20th-century state government at its worst,” Molinaro exclaimed.
Erie County Republican Committee Chair Nick Langworthy, who has met with Molinaro to strategize on the election, suggested that cutting government spending could resonate with voters.
“He needs to address the out-of-control spending of the state and the out-of-control taxes. How does he make it better?” Langworthy said.
“I think he will have some bold proposals, from some of our private conversations, coming forward that probably will shake some of the vested interests to their core,” he added.
The devil is in the details, of course.
“He basically talked about waste and fraud,” McMahon said. “Until you know what he’s talking about, you don’t know whether there’s anything there or not.”
McMahon pointed to the state police barracks in New York City as an example of the kind of expenditure that Molinaro could target for cuts.
“There’s a few million bucks,” McMahon said. “A few million here, a few million there -- next thing you know, we’re talking real money.”
In a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette, Molinaro shied away from specifying how he would trim the now-$168 billion state budget.
Political scientist Richard Flanagan said the candidate could make waves by completely scrapping state investment in economic development.
“He might say, ‘I’m a free market conservative and I can’t pick winners and losers. Markets pick winners and losers,’” said Flanagan, who chairs the College of Staten Island’s political science department. “That would be a bold break from the New York way. It might appeal to New Yorkers.
“It’s a different approach from what Cuomo’s been doing,” Flanagan said.
Indeed, Molinaro recently pledged that if he is elected governor, there will be no direct subsidies paid by government to private businesses, though he stopped short of saying he would end economic development programs. Those can include measures such as tax breaks, tax credits, space allocation, and public-private partnerships.
Action on ethics
Often in the same breath Molinaro has criticized state spending, he’s blasted Cuomo for alleged ethical improprieties, connecting the two through an alleged pay-to-play culture, where donors to the governor’s campaign are rewarded by government action. Both Molinaro and Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon are trying to persuade voters that the corruption trials of members of Cuomo’s inner circle make the incumbent unfit for office. The governor’s former top aide, Joseph Percoco, was convicted of fraud and soliciting bribes in March; and Alain Kaloyeros, the mastermind behind many of Cuomo’s biggest development projects, is now on trial for corruption-related charges.
“What’s out? Cuomo’s multibillion-dollar pay-for-play giveaways -- gone, yesterday!” Molinaro said in his GOP nomination acceptance speech. “Corporate welfare -- gone, yesterday! We’re going to make New York attractive to all businesses.”
Molinaro, a former state Assemblymember, has proposed a two-term limit for governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general and state comptroller -- a rebuke of Cuomo as the incumbent seeks a third term. Molinaro says term limits would mark “a long-overdue start to restore honesty and integrity to state government.” He has pledged to serve only two terms if elected, even without a law in place.
The Republican challenger has also called for a ban on campaign contributions from people and organizations with business before the state; and supports closing the so-called LLC loophole, which lets companies or individuals make virtually unlimited campaign contributions through limited liability corporations, but saying it must be done as part of comprehensive reform, indicating he favors limits on other entities like labor unions. Cuomo has voiced support for closing the loophole in the past -- notwithstanding the fact he is the state’s largest beneficiary of donations from LLCs. Cuomo has neither advanced the legislation nor voluntarily shut down his campaign’s access for LLCs, something Nixon has done.
Recently, Molinaro said the Joint Commission on Public Ethics had “no integrity” as it cleared former Cuomo administration official Sam Hoyt of sexual harassment and assault. Molinaro and others pointed to the fact that JCOPE’s executive director, Seth Agata, is the third consecutive person with close ties to Cuomo to head the commission.
Molinaro is making his case for reforms as 46 percent of voters statewide say corruption is a “very serious” problem, according to a February Quinnipiac University poll. But skepticism of reform proposals seems high; 62 percent of voters thought ethics laws included in the 2015 state budget would have no effect on reducing corruption.
“I don’t think he’s going to win the election on ethics reform,” Republican political consultant John William Schiffbauer said of Molinaro. “New York voters are so desensitized to the idea of political corruption, unfortunately, that it’s just not the single issue that I think it should be.”
Schiffbauer added that many upstate voters already view Cuomo as ethically compromised. He said Molinaro’s challenge will be persuading residents of New York City, Westchester County, and parts of Long Island.
“Those are always historically areas that have high numbers of registered Democrats, who generally just always vote Democrat,” Schiffbauer said. “That’s where he’s going to need to be selling that most. Or selling it like: Cuomo has dropped the ball, he’s let you down.”
People living with disabilities
Other than talking tough on budgeting and corruption, Molinaro regularly brings up his experience as the father of an autistic daughter on the campaign trail, a campaign he launched as county executive, and the notion that New York must become a more compassionate, inclusive place.
“We are going to reset New York’s priorities,” he said in his nomination acceptance speech. “Children and adults with disabilities, seniors without savings, classroom funding and special education, opioid addiction, safe drinking water, signal switches in subway tunnels -- those are the kinds of things that’ll move New York forward.”
He told Gotham Gazette he would push every executive agency to update its policies for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, though he declined to provide details.
Molinaro pointed to a program he created in Dutchess County, called ThinkDIFFERENTLY, as an example of his approach.
The program, marked by a resolution of inclusive principles, has hosted free movie events and annual picnics where service providers can connect with people with disabilities. The county’s related “Think Ahead” program, a partnership with Dutchess Community College, has provided job preparation and life skills training for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to the Molinaro campaign.
Schiffbauer noted the issue could help distinguish Molinaro from his rivals.
“It’s an issue that you really haven’t seen many people talk about in New York state and city,” he said, adding that the candidate’s experience as a father could make the issue come to life for voters. “He’s not bringing it up just to bring it up. He’s always talking about this issue.”
Fixing the MTA
In his interview with Gotham Gazette, Molinaro sought to stake a claim in the red-hot MTA debate by noting the authority’s service -- specifically, the Metro-North Hudson Line -- extends through his county, where he often says upstate and downstate meet.
He outlined changes he would make to the authority’s structure, calling for the board to get the power to fire its chair, a governor appointee.
While new MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford has promised to make accessibility one of his main priorities, Molinaro also called for increased services for people with disabilities.
“I know it’s something that he’s going to take on,” said Langworthy. “He’s going to show that the money has been wasted. He’s going to have proposals to fix it.”
Molinaro promised as much in the interview, but asked whether he’d be willing to increase spending to help disabled people use the MTA, he demurred.
“My basic philosophy is make government as effective and efficient as possible,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to the [idea], ‘Well, we always have to spend more money to achieve something.’”
Molinaro also declined to comment on Byford’s multibillion-dollar plan to fix service, which has drawn support from Cuomo. Nixon released her own subway plan at the end of last month, which is supportive of the Byford plan, but includes several mechanisms to pay for it and long-term funding of the MTA, something Cuomo has not figured out yet, though he continues to promise to pursue congestion pricing next year after he was unable to push it through the Legislature in the recently-ended session.
Molinaro has not outlined his plans for funding the MTA’s long-term capital needs.
Jails and justice
The national debate on criminal justice reform has played out in the Democratic primary, with Nixon apparently pushing Cuomo left on legalizing marijuana. Before campaign season, Cuomo announced proposals including the elimination of cash bail, speeding up trials, and fixing or closing substandard jails, but he has not won passage of any of those measures.
Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, said Molinaro could play his criminal justice record in Westchester County to his advantage.
The Republican has spearheaded the creation of a jail to replace the overcrowded facility there. He launched the initiative before a state government report ranked the old jail as one of the worst in New York.
While the project does not necessarily symbolize legislative reform, it speaks to management and budget decisions, and Benjamin said Molinaro’s effort to tackle the issue could earn him points.
“He took that issue on, which previous county executives hadn’t done,” said Benjamin, who co-authored a 2011 policy paper on jails in the Hudson Valley. “It was a costly choice and he took it on in a just-right way from a public policy perspective.”
Molinaro has not made clear where he stands on issues reducing or eliminating the use of cash bail for most non-violent offenses, an issue that has some bipartisan support, and he has not indicated that criminal justice reform will be a focus of his campaign.
The Trump factor
As the general election approaches, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, whether Cuomo or Nixon, is likely to tie Molinaro to President Donald Trump. Molinaro will also be asked to weigh in on Trump policies, statements, and controversies, though he is already loathe to do so, preferring, like some other Republican candidates around the country, to keep the focus on his race and platform.
Cuomo and his representatives have repeatedly labeled Molinaro as a “Trump mini-me” and a conservative opposed to LGBT and immigrant rights, as well as other progressive principles.
Molinaro says he did not vote for Donald Trump for president, claiming he instead wrote-in former upstate Republican Rep. Chris Gibson.
But Flanagan, of CUNY’s Staten Island college, said that stance might backfire.
Being ambivalent about Trump might alienate the president’s supporters while failing to win over any Democrats. Molinaro recently said he does not favor the Trump policy of separating immigrant families at the border, and has previously criticized the president’s “both sides” response to a white nationalist rally in Virginia and the Trump tax reform’s low threshold for state and local tax deductibility. On the latter point, however, he has also faulted Cuomo and Democrats for policies leading to New York’s high tax burden on income-earners and homeowners.
Flanagan said members of Trump’s base on Staten Island might think, “He didn’t like Trump? Forget him; I’ll vote for Cuomo.”
Conservatives interviewed for this article illustrated how tricky it will be for Molinaro to stake out his position in relation to the president.
Langworthy voiced disgust at the “mini-Trump” characterization.
“It is just infantile,” he said. “If that’s [Cuomo’s] message, he should be ashamed of himself.”
State Conservative Party Chair Mike Long, whose party has endorsed Molinaro, said the gubernatorial candidate should embrace Trump’s economic policies.
“You have to do something similar to what Donald Trump has done as president of the United States,” he said. “Look at the outcome with him - he’s already created tremendous growth in our nation...That’s what has to be done in the state of New York.”
Fighting a centrist
Flanagan pointed out several areas where it will be difficult for Molinaro to distinguish himself from Cuomo without going too far to the right.
Perhaps no issue is more challenging for a New York Republican trying to win statewide than gun control. Cuomo’s legislation to expand the state’s assault weapons ban, among other measures, is hugely popular in New York City, and gets a small plurality of supporters upstate. But there are parts of the state that are heavily Republican and ardently opposed to the Safe Act, again begging the question of how Molinaro locks up the base while appealing to suburban moderates.
Flanagan said Molinaro could chart a new course by “artfully” arguing for a system in which localities determine new gun regulations.
“I do have concerns with how aggressive this governor has been,” he previously told Gotham Gazette. “I think in some ways irresponsibly ignoring those that do support, as I do, the Second Amendment and forcing legislation without having the kind of local robust conversation necessary. I believe the constitution is as it’s written.”
On education, Flanagan said, Molinaro could argue for more charter schools, though it would be tough for him to distinguish himself from Cuomo, a strong supporter of charters who has secured a variety of legislative and budgetary victories for the growing sector. Flanagan also said Cuomo’s failure to deliver on promises of universal pre-K for the state could be open to criticism from the Republican candidate.
“Somehow this guy needs to get the independent voters,” Flanagan said of Molinaro. “[Universal pre-K] may be an issue where he could engage the independent voters without getting a lot of backlash from the Republican base.”
Conservatism and charisma
It is difficult to say what lessons previous Republican runs for governor might hold for Molinaro. In 2014, Cuomo handily defeated Rob Astorino, a county executive from just north of New York City who ran on a campaign opposing Cuomo’s gun-control measures and ban on hydraulic fracking. Astorino’s gun control pitch didn’t work, and fracking has largely fallen out of the headlines.
The last Republican to become governor, George Pataki, ran on promises of an across-the-board tax cut to unseat Cuomo’s father. But the campaign came during the nationwide “Republican Revolution” of 1994 -- a vastly different climate compared to Trump’s first term. Pataki did win three terms, though, and, when introducing Molinaro at the Republican state convention, said he sees parallels this year to his initial, surprise victory over an incumbent Cuomo.
Which issues beyond the initial list he has offered -- taxation, state spending, unfunded local mandates, cutting business regulations, government ethics and campaign finance reform, MTA management reform, and better accommodations for people with disabilities -- Molinaro will prioritize and put forth detailed policy plans for is to be seen. It is clear a main focus will be highlighting that he is not Governor Cuomo.
Molinaro’s campaign might come down to banking on incumbent fatigue, conservative nostrums, and personal charm -- the Republican candidate’s charisma helped him become mayor of Tivoli at age 19, and he has maintained a career in politics ever since.
“I just haven’t heard a bold new idea,” Flanagan said of Molinaro. “It’s not like he’s the Jack Kemp of New York who sort of personifies a new third wave for the Republican Party or anything.”