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Is Cuomo Losing Democratic Legislators?

p.s. 11
Gov. Andrew Cuomo marches in the Puerto Rican Day parade.

To a number of advocates and lawmakers, the end of legislative session this week not only represents a chance to see several important issues resolved but provides them with their first chance to gauge the trust, the investment they have put into Gov. Andrew Cuomo and to reflect on the leadership he has offered in return. With major deals in Albany still pending, some remain unclear exactly how they feel, but black and Latino lawmakers from New York City increasingly believe that Cuomo misled them -- or at least they didn't get what they were expecting. Although no one would go on the record to voice their concerns--behind the scenes their frustration is boiling over.

Today legislators are expected to vote on "the big ugly," the end-of-the-year deal that contains a property tax cap, a bill changing tuition rules for the city and state universities and a rent law deal that has been slammed by tenant advocates. And even now all the details are not clear.

With major cuts to education, health care spending and other social safety net programs across the state, as well as funding to New York City in the budget, minority legislators as a whole wanted Cuomo to make it up to them, to deliver on a promise that he is a Democratic leader who cares about issues important to downstaters, working class, the poor and black and Latinos. Most think he hasn’t done that.

An Uneasy History

Cuomo has had problems with the minority community, going back to his 2002 gubernatorial primary challenge to the state's first major black political candidate, Carl McCall. Cuomo dropped out of the primary, and McCall went on to lose to Gov. George Pataki. When he ran for governor eight years later, Cuomo was criticized for not picking a lieutenant governor of color or from the city. After his election, Latino politicians criticized him for not placing any Latinos in major cabinet positions.

Many of these legislators and some advocates then pinned hopes for having their faith in Cuomo restored on the last week of session. They even warned Cuomo that their support hinged on what he delivered on rent laws. It was a lot to wish for, perhaps, and almost impossible to achieve.

When Cuomo withdrew from the Secure Communities program, a move lauded by Latinos in the state, a number of city lawmakers said privately that they felt that the move was only the "tip of the iceberg," something Cuomo had to do to show that he was paying attention to their community. Rent laws would provide the real test, not only of Cuomo’s relationship with blacks and Latinos but also of how progressive he would be.

"Andrew has the chance to be the leader of the Democratic Party," Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, told Gotham Gazette earlier this month. "Andrew has a chance to do something Democratic, unlike what he has done up to now, which has been very Republican. He has a chance to do something for the Democrats with rent."

When McKee got wind of the agreement Cuomo had reached with the Assembly and Senate Republicans, it was clear he felt Cuomo had failed. He said Cuomo "sold us out," and that the bill was an "unmitigated disaster for tenants."

Sen. Adriano Espaillat visited the Assembly to glean details from members just after they had been briefed by their leadership. He told reporters quickly afterward that he wasn't sure what Cuomo had given up "to the other side," was worth what Democrats got in the rent deal.

What McKee and a number of Democratic legislators from the city wanted was a clearer effort to repeal vacancy decontrol so that apartments are not taken out of rent stabilization when they are vacated and the rent is $2,000 a month or above. One Senate staffer described the effort to do away with vacancy decontrol as "like Republicans pushing to ban abortion. It isn't going to happen, but we have to push for it."

Tenant advocates also hoped to change the process by which landlords can take apartments out of rent control by making improvements to the building—or by simply reporting that they have. The wanted the state to have to check to see whether reported improvements actually took place.

Lawmakers and advocates were ecstatic last week when they heard that Cuomo had threatened landlord groups that he would declare an emergency and kick rent control into the hands of the New York City Council. The move apparently led to some concessions but not the kind advocates were looking for.

Rent Regulation, Cuomo Style

Although the deal is still reportedly being tweaked in the backroom, no drastic changes are expected. And this is what we know so far:

The 421-a tax credit, which gives developers a tax break for setting aside 20 percent of a building for affordable housing, will continue for four years. Vacancy decontrol will still exist, but the bar will be set a little higher. The rent threshold for removing an apartment will go from $2,000 to $2,500, and maximum annual income will increase from $175,00 to $200,000. There is supposed to be a new measure to check on the work landlords claim to have done, but exactly how that will happen isn't yet clear. The rent laws will expire in four years and will be combined with the property tax cap in a bill that will expire in five years.

Republicans in the Senate were seen as getting more from this deal than downstate Democrats. As for Cuomo, who had said only that he wanted "stronger" rent laws and who made a tax cap one of his top three priorities, it seems that he came out of the deal fairly happy. He told reporters at a scrum yesterday, "You probably have to go back 30, 40 years to find a rent regulation bill that does as much for the tenants. You always try to do better, but the best bill in decades, I think, is pretty good."

Earlier in the day, the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus held an emergency meeting to discuss the rent deal. Then caucus chair Assemblymember Karim Camara and Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries, both of Brooklyn, met with the governor. They exited the meeting with little to say.

Jeffries told reporters, the "deal as it is remains as it is," but said it may need "clarity and strengthening." Instead of criticizing Cuomo, he blamed Senate Republicans, whom he called a "wholly-owned subsidiary” of real estate interests.

Cuomo told reporters his rent deal increased the rent threshold for vacancy decontrol by 25 percent. "Maybe you flip it the other way and say, was there anything that would make you happy?" he said of disgruntled advocates and legislators.

As it stands, legislators don't seem willing to call Cuomo out publicly on the deal. Some are still waiting for all the final details, and others still seem a bit off guard.

"It's hard to have a complete assessment of the governor's performance with so much undone," said Sen. Kevin Parker. "He is taking his final now, he has a chance to significantly improve his grade."

Another senator from the city, Gustavo Rivera, still holds out hope that the rent deal will somehow be stronger than the details that have so far been made public.

"I believe that with the governor's support we can pass stronger rent laws that will protect my constituents and those in rent regulated units throughout the state. There has been speculation about what the final product will look like in terms of the rent regulation legislation -- but nothing concrete. Proposals that do not end vacancy decontrol simply do not do enough to end predatory practices by bad landlords in the Bronx and throughout the city," he said.

Others, such as Assemblymember Rory Lancman, believe Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver did their best on the rent deal. "At the moment we have a Republican Senate that is eager to see rent regulation expire because then gold would rain down upon them from real estate industry. We’ve got to take what improvements we can get and live to fight another day," he told Liz Benjamin. "Hopefully, we can revisit this issue with a Democratic majority in the Senate in two years. If anyone thinks that [Silver], with full support of Democratic conference, hasn’t gotten the best deal that can be gotten, I think they’re being unrealistic."

Cuomo’s Edge

Even if the city Democrats decided to directly challenge Cuomo, it is questionable how successful they would be.

Cuomo is hugely popular; people are writing articles touting him as the most successful governor in America, and his name is being bandied about as a 2016 presidential candidate. Most Assembly members and senators from the city view the Republican majority in the Senate as the main impediment to a better rent law and other legislation that they think would benefit their constituents. If they want to retake the majority, Cuomo may be the best tool they have.

The Senate Democratic leadership has told its members all year not to rock the boat, but to let Republicans be active in the hope the GOP will screw up and New Yorkers will vote them out in 2012. The Democratic leaders fear any repeats of their two years in the majority when they could not keep their majority together -- largely because of too many unpredictable legislators from the city. This year, they are trying to do better. In fact they had their ducks in a row on marriage equality -- knowing where all their members stood on the issue long before even the possibility of a vote became a reality.

Meanwhile , rumors run rampant among legislators and advocates that Cuomo made a weak on rent regulation to guarantee a vote on same-sex marriage, or that it’s all part of a Machiavellian scheme to help keep Senate Republicans in the majority. Regardless of rumor, the plain truth is that so far Cuomo's agenda has not meshed with that of the city legislators of color. Cuomo is a fiscal conservative, and his stance against the millionaires tax and for major budget cuts is not what many of their constituents want. But without more leverage it isn't clear how these legislators are going to get their way or get along with the governor for the rest of his term.

Late on Wednesday night, the senate moved to pass its fifth temporary rent extender. Espaillat and a number of Democrats voted against one of the extenders earlier this month as a sign that they wanted in on negotiations. Cuomo responded viciously saying that the legislators were shirking their duties--despite the fact that Cuomo and advocates had said there would be no great danger if the laws lapsed temporarily.

A frustrated and tired Espaillat rose to explain his vote last night saying hopefully that the senate's repeated failure to pass a more permanent measure indicated, "perhaps there is still room to negotiate," to win greater reforms. The extender passed unanimously.

Cuomo Takes His Issues to the People

Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor
Yesterday Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his 'People First Tour' to rally support for his legislative agenda.

With 19 days left in the legislative session and the budget signed, sealed and delivered, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday that he plans to tour the state with his cabinet to build public support for his legislative priorities. Those priorities -- a property tax cap, same- sex marriage and ethics reform--all face major hurdles in the legislature, a legislature that Cuomo can no longer sway with promises of favors and restored funds in the budget. Cuomo must now rely on the power of his popularity -- according to most opinion polls Cuomo enjoys a 70 percent approval rating among voters.

For weeks after the budget passed advocates wondered when Cuomo would take to his bully pulpit and start pushing for the legislation he spoke about during his campaign: gay marriage, an ethics bill, redistricting reform, rent law renewal and a property tax cap. On Wednesday some of those advocates were disappointed that their issues were not at the top of the list.

Some saw Cuomo's move as a sign that backroom negotiations have broken down, that Republicans in the Senate are stonewalling Cuomo on ethics and marriage equality while Assembly Democrats are blocking a tax cap. But things aren't as clear as they might seem. Cuomo insisted at the news conference on Wednesday that the tour was part of his plan all along and that he had not faced any sort of setback in the negotiations.

"From the early days of my campaign, I have said we need to bring the people back into government," Cuomo said. "That is what we did during the budget process, and we achieved historic reform. Now, we must do it again in order to keep moving forward. The people want their property taxes capped, they want Albany cleaned up through real ethics reform, and they want marriage equality. We are going to engage the people of this state to build a broad coalition behind this agenda so that these reforms are not just talked about but actually passed this session."

Despite his high poll numbers, some legislators doubt that Cuomo has the leverage he needs to force the passage of his favorite legislation. The passage of the budget removed Cuomo's main sticks and carrots; without them, they say, his hand is weakened. And they note that some politicians who had already made public promises to support some of these policy initiatives now seem loathe to back them.

Sen. Neil Breslin, deputy majority leader to the Democratic conference, said that he feels that gay marriage and ethics reform will not get any hearing in the Senate until the end of session, and at that point he isn't sure what the senators will do. But, he said, "The Senate Republicans are up against the wall." Republicans have to decide whether they should keep their promises and bring things they oppose to a vote or simply deny them a vote. Either way they will likely feel a negative impact at the polls sometime down the road.

Marriage Equality

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos pledged during his campaign -- and has repeated it since the Republicans won back control of the Senate last November -- that he would allow gay marriage to come to a vote and let his members vote their conscience. Skelos even said he would allow Democratic Sen. Tom Duane, the only open gay senator, to carry the bill, even though the bill would normally be carried by someone in the majority.

But so far there is no marriage equality bill in either house. The Assembly in the last few years has repeatedly passed a bill, only to see it languish or fail in the Senate. Those backing the measure may be delaying the introduction of the legislation until public pressure generated by Cuomo stirs up more support.

Even if Republicans do not simply block-vote against the measure as they did in 2009, few observers expect more than a small handful of Republicans to vote for the bill. It also remains unclear how many Democrats are on board; Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Democrat, has become the most outspoken member of legislature to oppose the measure, and Sen. Joseph Addabbo also voted against the measure early in the roll call -- a vote some credit with setting off a domino effect that led to the measure's defeat.

Eight Democrats voted "no" -- Adddabbo, Carl Kruger, Darrel Aubertine, Diaz, Shirley Huntley, Hiram Monserrate, George Onorato and Bill Stachowski. Only four of those Democrats remain in office. Addabbo and Huntley have indicated they may have changed their stance since the last vote.

It is unclear, however, whether passing gay marriage on their watch or presiding over another year of its failure will do Republicans more harm or good.

"I think they are forced to bring this to a vote," said Breslin. "They've said they will bring it to the floor, and the Democrats are much better than we were before. If they [Republicans] block-vote against it I think they will suffer negative effects in close districts."

Cuomo is counting on his coalition of gay rights groups and celebrity supporters to help push public support to a boiling point that legislators simply can't ignore. First, though, someone will have to introduce a bill.


Cuomo's ethics package would require legislators -- including tose who are lawyers -- to disclose more about their outside sources of income and empanel an independent commission to investigate ethics violations. It reportedly faces most opposition from Senate Republicans. "The Assembly and the governor have a full agreement on an ethics bill. The issue is getting the Senate on board," Assembly Speak Sheldon Silver told reporters in April. In the past, Silver, a trial lawyer, has blocked moves to have lawyers disclose outside income. Skelos also is also a trial lawyer.

Cuomo has repeatedly threatened to empanel a Moreland Commission, which would have sweeping authority to investigate corruption in the legislature, if the legislature does not pass an acceptable ethics package.

Still, there has not been much movement on the issue. Skelos continually insists to reporters, "There will be an ethics bill passed by the end of session." But Skelos has not allowed a series of Democrat-sponsored ethics bills to make their way through the legislative process. They have not been discussed in committee and are simply rotting on the vine.

To combat this, on Wednesday Democrats held an interactive public forum to discuss their bills and get the public's opinion. Good government groups testified and were cautious not to alienate the big boys at the negotiating table: Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats. They made sure not to label anything a make or break to ethics legislation.

"We need to make sure people can trust the state legislature again," said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who defeated the notorious Sen. Pedro Espada in the Democratic primary last year and took part in Wednesday's forum. "We need to have this discussed publicly. The Republicans made a commitment to ethics and redistricting reform."

Rivera said he wants to be able to discuss his bill, part of the package of ethics reforms the Democrats have put forward, which would increase financial and client disclosure requirements. "If they think it can be made better, let’s discuss it in public. I know they ignore us when it is useful for them," he said.

Tax Cap

The property tax cap may not have much to do with New York City, yet legislators have tried to tie the issue to the renewal and possible strengthening of New York's rent reguations. Cuomo has said that he supports the "strongest possible" strengthening of the rent laws, but he did not make them the focus of the announcement of his tour. He has refused to name what specific measures he does or does not support when it comes to renewing and strengthening rent regulations.

Senate Republicans are opposed to strengthening rent laws and have even introduced a bill that would weaken them. Sen. Catherine Young has introduced a bill that would allow landlords to deregulate apartments much more easily than they can now. On Wednesday Sen. Liz Krueger questioned Young's motives for introducing such a bill. Young, who represents western New York, where rent regulation is not much of an issue, declined to say who lobbied her to support the legislation. Cuomo may be shying away from a full court press on the issue because he does not want to anger Senate Republicans who have greatly benefited from campaign donations from the real estate industry.

As for the tax cap, that would limit any increase in property tax rates to 2 percent per year or the rate of inflation, Senate Republicans passed Cuomo's program bill as one of their first legislative actions this year. The Assembly has not moved on the bill, and Silver says he intends to introduce his own version of a cap, with tweaks. Legislators are afraid a strict property tax cap would hurt schools and public services while still forcing localities to pay for unfunded mandates from the state.

Skelos has refused to negotiate on the cap with Silver, while Cuomo has said he prefers his own bill but would be willing to hear other ideas. Fred Dicker of the New York Post reported this week that Senate Republicans only passed Cuomo's version of the bill because they know it won't pass in the Assembly. "I think Republicans are really nervous on the tax cap," said Breslin.

Redistricting Reform

Cuomo did not make redistricting reform a major feature of his initial tour announcement. The measure would take the drawing of district lines out of the hands of the legislature and create an independent body to oversee the task. As it is now the redistricting process allows the majorities in both houses of the legislature to draw up districts that lean toward their base. This helps their incumbents stay in office. Experts say that this process has kept Republicans in control of the State Senate.

Many see the redistricting issue as a key to the Senate Republicans' survival and yet Skelos and a number of his members signed former Mayor Ed Koch's pledge to support independent redistricting. Despite that, Skelos has insisted that passing a law to redo the redistricting process would be unconstitutional. Instead, the Republicans in the Senate passed a motion that would change the redistricting process through a constitutional amendment. That will take years and multiple sessions of the legislature to complete, meaning the new, supposedly fairer districts would not kick in until after the 2020 census.

Koch and his supporters said that Skelos' measure was stalling tactic. They want Cuomo to help them pressure Skelos into action by pledging to veto any district lines drawn by the old process. A veto would then leave the courts to draw up the district lines -- something that would likely also not favor the Republicans. So far, though, Skelos hasn't budged.

Cuomo has not made his stance on his independent redistricting a focus of his public outreach. When reached for comment on Cuomo's tour and the list of his priorities a spokesman for Koch's group NY Uprising noted that Cuomo did make ethics reform a major part of the unveiling of his tour.

With 19 legislative days remaining observers agree that Cuomo needs to get the wheels moving on his key legislation. Breslin, though, thinks Cuomo has time on his side -- "I think most of this legislation will be rushed through at the end of session. If it doesn't come up I think the governor will be more than happy to keep us here until these issues are resolved."

Cuomo Cultivates His Media Messenger


Tom Robbins, formerly of the Village Voice, had an interesting prediction for Gotham Gazette in 2010: "Andrew Cuomo launches his campaign for governor and tells Post state editor Fred Dicker that he's going to be nothing like Spitzer. ‘You and Eliot really got off on the wrong foot, Fred, and I’m not going to let that happen with us,’ he vows. ‘No governor in his right mind wants both you and your boss Rupert as enemies. I learned that from my father.’ In the following weeks, Dicker runs off a string of exclusive stories based on insider tips from the AG’s office and Cuomo campaign."

That exact series of events probably did not take place in real life, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo apparently has won himself the unwavering support of the New York Post's Albany editor, Fred Dicker, and the Post's editorial page. The cozy relationship between Cuomo and Dicker, with Dicker getting loads of information from the close-lipped Cuomo administration but attributing barely any quotes to Cuomo, leaves other Capitol reporters feeling a bit burned and skeptical about the openness of the Cuomo administration.

Virtually all politicians want to control the media and get their message out, but Cuomo seems to have taken this to a higher level, refusing on the record communication with some of the state's leading news outlets, favoring a single sympathetic reporter and using advertising to press his case.

The Governor's Outlet

So far, Dicker seems a major beneficiary of Cuomo's approach. Dicker, a 30-year veteran is known as a dogged, opinionated Capitol reporter. Along with his column for The Post he also has an A.M. radio talk show that is must-listen radio for Albany insiders.

"All you have to do is read the New York Post to see how often Freddie and Andrew talk, though the attorney general has, over the last couple of years, rarely been directly quoted," said Wayne Barrett in a blog post titled "Andrew Cuomo Hanging Out With BFF Fred Dicker Not Good News for Other State Democrats" dated July 29, 2010, documenting the perceived close relationship between Dicker and Cuomo.

"Since Cuomo announced his candidacy, the governor-to-be, who still won't appear on NY1, has gabbed four times on Dicker's Talk 1300. In fact, he's so comfortable on the show that he sounds like he thinks he's still whispering off the record to his trusted confidante," Barrett continued.

NY1 keeps a "Cuomo Clock" that tallies the number of days Cuomo has not appeared to do an on-air interview with the network. The clock sits somewhere around 1,524 days as of writing.

Barrett wasn't the only one concerned with Cuomo's connection to Dicker last year. Remember Carl Paladino? Paladino and Dicker got into a heated exchange during a meeting of the business council last year. The men exchanged words about assertions Paladino had made about Cuomo's love life and about investigations Dicker was supposedly doing into Paladino's daughter. After Paladino threatened to take Dicker out, his press secretary Michael Caputo accused Dicker of "working for Cuomo." Paladino called Dicker a "stalking horse," for the Cuomo campaign.

Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, a paper that Dicker derides on his radio show, says that Dicker's coverage has "driven entire episodes at the Capitol."

One good example might be the "Trooper Gate" scandal. The Albany Times Union had reported on Bruno's use of state vehicles -- apparently thanks to a tip from the Spitzer administration. Dicker's relationship with Gov. Eliot Spitzer was extremely contentious, so Dicker quickly took the side of Republican Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

"Fred's coverage is extremely lopsided and favors whatever the Cuomo administration is fanning for. It seems to me it has been that way for years. I think the Cuomo administration uses Fred as a wall post so people can see what they are planning," said Smith.

Smith said that Dicker's "standards for sourcing" allows people to say things they wouldn't if their names were attached it. This means the Cuomo administration and its friends can drop stories in Dicker's lap with impunity and still deny they have a close relationship with Dicker.

"To Fred's credit," said Smith, "he gets strong tips from people -- legitimate tips."

Dicker did not return requests for comment.

From the Editorial Page

The Post does not seem to mind shifting its positions to accommodate Cuomo. In the dispute over changing the last in first out rule for teacher layoffs, for example, the Post jumped suddenly from supporting Mayor Michael Bloomberg' support for ending seniority based layoffs to backing Cuomo's position.

Of course, the Post editorials could reflect sincere belief or an eagerness to support the governor after four years of turmoil in the state's executive branch.

"The governor is a popular guy," said a source who was the subject of a Post editorial that appeared just as Cuomo's irritation with this individual reached its peek.

"I think there is a sense of 'Let’s give the guy a chance,'" the source continued. "This governor is particularly skilled at certain things. But I think his manipulations have cost him with the press."

The source cited early revelations about Cuomo's ties to the Committee to Save New York and its reluctance to register as a lobbyist as an example.

Cuomo has made his relationship with the press and the media in general a cornerstone of his governorship. Even before he officially announced his candidacy for governor, Cuomo worked hard to tightly control his message -- and then get that message out. In that he seems almost the opposite of his predecessor David Paterson, who seemed to delight in on off-the-cuff conversations with reporters and on talk radio.

Cuomo announced early on that if labor challenged his position on budget cuts, he would a counter with his own ad campaign. Through the Committee to Save New York he has done just that. Meanwhile people who disagree with Cuomo publicly can expect a quick -- and harsh -- response.

All this -- and the Post's role -- came together in a dispute that involved the Committee to Save New York. It became known earlier this year that the group was not registered as a lobbying organization.

From the start, the Post rushed to the defense of the Cuomo administration and the Committee to Save New York. When Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group brought up the fact that the committee was not registered as a lobbying group even though it was technically functioning as such, the Post reacted with an editorial titled "Cynical Moralists," slamming Horner.

"So the committee's enemies -- backed by an ostensible voice of reform, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and other so-called good-government groups--are muttering about a supposed unholy secret alliance between the new governor and the business community," the editorial read.

The Post wasn't terribly concerned that the Committee to Save New York was not registered as a lobbyist and attacked Horner for pointing it out. But it took a very different stand when Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education protested Cuomo's budget cuts. The Post's editorial "Pigs in Saints' Clothing" pointed out that Easton is not registered as a lobbyist.

"Walk just about any capitol corridor in Albany, and odds are you’ll trip over lobbyist-without-portfolio Billy Easton, of the fraudulently mislabeled Alliance for Quality Education," said the Post. "We say without portfolio because, while rare is the legislator whom Billy hasn’t buttonholed lately, he has yet to register as a lobbyist this year."

Budget Brickbats

When chief Judge Jonathan Lippman submitted a budget that did not contain the level of cuts Cuomo had asked for, the Post again jumped to the governor’s aid.

"Lippman essentially stuck his thumb in Gov. Cuomo’s eye -- budgetarily speaking," the editorial said. "The new governor asked for restraint, and the jurist said, 'Maybe for thee but certainly not for me.'"

As the budget season has worn on, the Cuomo administration has begun to join in with the Post; Cuomo's press secretary, Josh Vlasto, has been blasting targets for the slightest annoyance.

Horner earned Vlasto's scorn for opposing legislation Cuomo proposed that would put caps on awards for medical malpractice suits. (Horner worked for Cuomo when Cuomo was attorney general.) Vlasto "called Horner a "mouthpiece for trial lawyers."

Horner shot back e-mailing The Observer's Azi Payabarh saying, "Pretty funny the best insult a career mouthpiece can come up with is to call someone a mouthpiece. It's not about personal insults, it's about the cruel impact that could result from the deal cut by the governor."

Vlasto denied that the Cuomo administration has any sort of special relationship with Dicker but did not provide any statement.

Horner said that a lot of people want to see Cuomo succeed -- himself and NYPIRG included. "We are the groups cheer leading the governor on a lot of issues like independent redistricting and ethics reform," he said.

However, Horner added, "I think personal attacks are beneath the office of the governor. I thought that last year when we had a governor attack us in the state of the state and I think it this year. The governor's office has always cracked down hard on criticism -- this isn't kick the bean bag. Unfortunately, it is their job to undermine the policy difference but if you want good public policy you need to talk to both sides."

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who sat on Cuomo's Medicaid redesign team, got his taste of the administration's tactics when he said he didn't agree with the group's quick approval of Cuomo's plans and didn't think the recommendations would actually save the state as much money as the committee claimed it would.

Vlasto went back to work. He told the New York Times that Gottfried is a "protector of Albany status quo and special interests."

Gottfried and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver released a statement the next day expressing their support for the design team's work.

"There is a difference between contentious policy disagreements and getting personal. I think we are starting to see that he is a bit thin skinned," said the source.

Getting Personal

Shawn Barry, of Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, a group that is protesting Cuomo's budget cuts said he thinks the vitriol does not help the debate. "It does seem there is a level of intimidation, a level of being vindictive. I think that came out of the campaign when anyone who issued the faintest criticism of his campaign got phone calls from the governor's aides. The sort of ad hominem attacks on the Dick Gottfried and Blair Horner -- there is a way to disagree with them to debate the substance of the critique without directly attacking the person especially people who have such long respected careers as those guys."

So what does all of this mean? Cuomo, who enjoys a 70 percent approval rating, seems quick to scuttle any dissent. For now, he only need rattle his saber to frighten off legislators, who currently have zero political capital, and he has successfully countered the arguments of opposition advocates with editorials in the Post and tongue lashings from Vlasto.

Some question, though, whether this can last. They think Cuomo is growing thin skinned and that his "my way or the highway" approach is actually fanning the fires of opposition. Sixteen protesters were arrested at the Capitol late last month, and groups that oppose cuts to education, school aid and services for the poor are stepping up their campaigns and pushing for the governor to keep a tax on the richest New Yorkers, something Cuomo has vowed he will not do.

Barry said the cheerleading for Cuomo in the press has made it difficult to get any dissenting message out. Cuomo hasn't even commented on the protests in the Capitol that led to the arrest of 16 activists.

Barry notes that polling shows that while Cuomo is popular his budget cuts are not. "When people are asked about the substance of the governor's agenda he no longer has majority support," Barry said. "His personal popularity continues to be high but there is this echo chamber ... a feedback loop. Some parts of media just feeds on itself. People hear the governor is popular and doing great things and that reinforces his popularity."

He believes this has made it nearly impossible for ideas other than the governor's to make it into the main-stream media.

"We are not getting any substantive evaluation of who benefits from Cuomo's agendas," Barry said. "The media drives the agenda. Some journalists go from mere reporting to pushing political agenda and political ideology. I don’t think that contributes to a healthy debate for New York State. You see it with Fred Dicker and Bill Hammond who do a mixture of opinion and reporting."

Barry isn't the only one who thinks as the Wall Street Journal wrote: "As the budget deadline draws closer, and policy hot spots have inflamed, the Cuomo administration is feeling a not-so-gentle tug back to earth."

"The governor loves to appear on Dicker's show and his inner circle loves to source Dicker. If there is news you first read about it from Fred Dicker. The governor knows knows how to spin media and manipulate public image of the administration, he may be more particularly skilled at doing it but it does not mean all the public on board or he is infallible," said Barry. "He may seem like he is Teflon on the surface but it seems like the criticism is sticking."

Uncertainty at Empire State Development Corp Continues

Photo (cc) beanhead4529
Atlantic Yards, now under construction in Brooklyn, is one of the Empire State Development Corp.'s more controversial projects.

From 2000 to 2010 New York's spending on economic development tripled and yet private sector employment dipped by 2.1 percent during the same time period.

Now Gov, Andrew Cuomo wants to reverse both trends. In his budget speech he stressed the need to expand the state's economy. "We need jobs and we need revenue," he said "Longterm, it's jobs, jobs, jobs."

In the same speech in January, though, Cuomo called for reducing capital spending on economic development and for cutting the operations budget as well.

To accomplish this, Cuomo has set out a few broad strokes, such as improving the business climate and cutting taxes. He has named former Business Council CEO Ken Adams as the new head of the Empire State Development Corp., which is charged with overseeing economic development across the state.

Cuomo has outlined a number of proposals that he says will get the organization back on track toward creating jobs and attracting and fostering new businesses. Past that, it is unclear if Adams or even the Cuomo administration knows what, exactly, they are going to do to turn around the corporation, which has been seen in recent years as ineffective, scattered and bloated.

Neither Cuomo nor officials at the Empire State Development Corp. would comment for this story.

Going Local

Legislators are anxious to find out what Cuomo has in store. In particular, they want more information about Cuomo's plan to create 10 Regional Economic Development Councils staffed by representatives of local businesses, government and academic institutions. The administration describes the councils as a "one-stop shop" for all the state's economic development programs. The councils are expected to initially receive $200 million in funding.

According to the Cuomo administration, these councils will put an end to the trend that saw state spending on economic development increase from $448 million in 2000 to $1.6 billion in 2010 while private sector employment decreased. According to Cuomo's administration, programs like the Empire Zone program, which gave tax credits and other benefits to lure projects into the state, did not have to account for whether they created job. While the state tried to create jobs on one hand, some in the administration says, Albany's mandates were cumbersome to business and ignored the realities of different parts of the state.

But legislators and economic development experts alike remain unsure exactly how the planned councils will function -- which programs they will bring together, how they will do it, how their success will be measured and where the power will lie in overseeing them.

"We don't have the information," said Sen. Bill Perkins, who sits on the authorities committee. "What are these regions? What is the plan? I am curious. I won't say suspicious, but when someone withholds information I have to wonder 'why?'"

Brian Sampson of Unshackle Upstate, who once worked for ESDC, said he thinks the councils will bring everyone together and improve efficiency "so that businesses in New York can grow faster. There won't be that 6- to 10 -month wait while things get sorted out. You will have the people with local knowledge at the table."

Development for Whom?

Development covers a wide variety of projects and endeavors, from enticing Jet Blue to expand its operations in the city, to boosting downtown Rochester, to helping cutting edge entrepreneurs -- and to building a basketball arena and luxury housing development in downtown Brooklyn.

As to which type of project he might favor, Adams, who has yet to be confirmed as ESDC chairman, remains a question mark. legislators and the business community think he is friendly to big business and supportive of Cuomo's desire to reduce the burden of doing business in the state by cutting taxes and red tape.

"There are those of us who believe that job creation and opportunity are best handled by small businesses, and I don't know if Ken really comes from that background," said Perkins.

"I think Ken was appointed as a signal to the business community that New York wants to create a pro-business environment. I don't think Ken would embrace something called the millionaire's tax," Perkins added. Neither does Cuomo.

Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy has been assigned to oversee the development councils, but they also are supposed to be part of the ESDC, making it unclear who will be in charge of what. Duffy has been traveling the state with Adams to "find the key decision makers for each region," as he told the Long Island Business News.

"Ken Adams is a great guy, but the question is, 'What is his role?'"said Andrew Rudnick, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Rudnick has worked with Adams before as both represent business organizations.

"We have an ESDC board chair who has yet to be named, and initially we heard before Ken Adams was named that the ESDC would be lesser in some way. So you have to know how will the responsibility be spread out between the regional councils and ESDC central. You don't know if he is the right man for the job until you know what it is."

ESDC's Record

To appreciate why changes to the ESDC matter so much you have to understand what the ESDC has done up until this point, but many experts say that, too, is hard to quantify.

The ESDC was created in 1968 primarily to oversee the construction of subsidized housing projects. As an authority, the ESDC can issue bonds to fund major projects without voter approval, and it also has the ability to use eminent domain. That has been a hot topic because of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

In 1975, after nearly entering bankruptcy because of mismanaged projects, the ESDC was retooled to fund general economic development projects across the state. Gov. Mario Cuomo used the corporation to finance the building of 30 prisons, doubling New York's prison system.

The ESDC's mission is largely determined by the legislature. The Senate and Assembly approve plans to provide incentives to lure business to certain areas and then the ESDC has to carry out the plans. The ESDC also works on major projects like Atlantic Yards where business organizations come to the corporation and ask for assistance with a major project.

The ESDC has been involved in other major landmark projects across the state, projects such as the revitalization of Niagara Falls and the planned construction of a new Pennsylvania Station, the Javits convention center, and the planned work on Governors Island. It has also been in charge of federal funds to rebuild Battery Park.

The ESDC has come under major criticism in its role for Atlantic Yards. Homeowners and property rights advocates say the organization justified the project and seized to benefit one major company rather than the many small businesses that have been forced to relocate to make way for the project.

In its other role -- overseeing programs created by the legislature -- the ESDC has faced major criticism for its handling of the Empire Zones, a program developed to attract companies to upstate. It isn't clear that any of the major tax breaks and funds it handed out led to any significant job creation. Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who was staunchly anti-big government, famously received $3 million in tax breaks from the state but only created 25 jobs.

Over the years, as happened at a number of other state authorities, the development corporation's independence led to unchecked expansion and inner chaos. An audit by then State Comptroller Alan Hevesi found 70 ESDC subsidiaries.

The last several years have been particularly difficult for the ESDC. The agency has had six heads in the last four years, largely a result of the turmoil in the governor's mansion.

This, Rudnick says, has hurt the ESDC. "The last few years have been tumultuous," he said. "The ESDC's impact has been limited by the revolving door in the state government and ESDC heads, and by budgetary problems at the state. The ESDC has been limited by having its directives given by the budget office."

He explained that budget concerns have led to tax breaks being limited or rescinded, and other programs being altered.

The corporation's efforts have been described as scattered at best. "I worked for the Urban Development Corporation, and [former Gov. George] Pataki changed it over to the ESDC," said Sen. Kevin Parker, "but I think they could have saved the cost on printing new letterhead and just called it the Upstate Development Corp. As it relates to my district, I haven't seen any benefits from the ESDC -- the state's biggest, flagship economic development corporation. Their goal should be creating stable jobs with benefits, but I think the resources are going upstate, and yet I don't see very much being created upstate either."

To do that, Parker said, ESDC should focus on smaller companies. "They haven't focused on small businesses," he said. "Businesses that have 100 and less employees create 80 percent of the jobs."

Sampson agrees that the ESDC has ignored small businesses. 'I think the ESDC has focused on chasing larger companies, the same companies that everyone else is going after and that, honestly, Tennessee, Texas and other states have a better chance at getting because they have a better business climate." The ESDC has landed some big companies tech companies like the chipmaking company Global Foundaries upstate.

Helping small business, according to Rudnick, simply has not been part of the development corporation's objective. "I don't think ESDC has been tasked with helping small businesses," said Rudnick. "Small businesses need start up money, and the state hasn't been in that role -- they issue bonds for capital projects. There are smaller, local agencies to help small businesses."

Moving Forward

Rudnick does believe, though, that the ESDC needs to refocus its values and core mission. "The ESDC needs new criteria. Most economic development experts would tell you that they no longer use the standard of how many jobs are created, which is what the ESDC uses. Instead, you look at quality of job, investment opportunities, the scope of a project and the potential for using green technology," he said.

Rudnick, Parker and Sampson all share a similar hope for the agency's future -- that the new regional zones will allow businesses all over the state to be better served, to bring people with local knowledge together to help them figure out how to grow.

"We need to get all different agencies speaking the same language," said Rudnick. "I've not seen one project that required just the ESDC. They may need energy or workforce development funding, and it's like the United Nations: Each agency speaks a different language about incentives. They are all saying something different and we need them to be on the same page."

Parker hopes Cuomo's new approach will get the agency on track. "The realities in Brooklyn-- Bensonurst, and Bath -- are totally different, and I think that these commissions will reflect that and show how the agency works in different environments. The mission should be creating good jobs with benefits, and I haven't seen them do that."

Sampson would like to see the ESDC working with local universities to harness new business models and the green energy opportunities. Not surprisingly, he also wants to see ore focus on upstate.

"Legislators from downstate need to realize a vibrant economy upstate is important for the downstate economy," said Sampson. 'Upstate has so many resources: agriculture, skilled labor and universities. We need to work with the universities, partner with them to create jobs, to plant seeds."

While Parker is concerned about what the ESDC will do for downstate, he also has his eyes on upstate. "I want to see the ESDC get involved with the green economy, partner with upstate universities where green jobs are spilling out of the universities and into tech parks," said Parker. 'They need to look at investing in creating our own green technology. Not only creating solar panels, but the blades for windmills."

As to whether any of this is part of Cuomo's plan, no one knows. As Sampson said , "We think we will hear more details soon."

Cuomo Unveils Ambitious Agenda

Andrew Cuomo
Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo delivers his first State of the State speech.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his State of the State address resembling the CEO of a floundering company as much as a proud new governor. Using three screens to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, Cuomo outlined his plan to help bring businesses back to the state, reduce taxes on individuals, revamp the juvenile justice system, reform campaign finance, fight political corruption and restore New Yorkers' trust in their government. The screens often displayed newspaper headlines announcing scandal and corruption in the legislature.

"What is the state of the state?" he asked the 200 politicians and 1,800 New Yorkers gathered at a convention center near the capitol building. "This is a time of crisis for our state, a time when we must transform our government to once again become the progressive capital of the nation and the seize the moment of opportunity," he said.

Just about anyone in the room would admit that Cuomo has a tough job ahead of him. Ask anyone off the record and they will tell you accomplishing his goals may very well be impossible, but daunting as the task may be, they want him to succeed.

Getting it Done

Like a company chairman at a board meeting, before he delivered his speech Cuomo allowed the leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly majorities to address the crowd. They shared similar themes -- increasing jobs, reducing spending. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is expected to be Cuomo's main opponent on trimming services and cutting spending, made it a point to say that some important programs -- notably rent stabilization, which expires this year -- must be saved.

Every year legislative leaders express support for governors and their declarations of the need for financial sacrifice and unpopular decisions -- only to stymie the governor at each turn. And the chaos that defined the senate last year has not exactly gone away; it's mostly just confined to the minority party.

Shortly before the speech, sour Democratic senators announced that they would not conference with the rest of the Democrats because they are disgusted with the way the party carried itself during its two years in the majority. The four are Jeffrey Klein, Diane Savino, David Valesky and David Carlucci. Their departure will likely further weaken the Senate Democrats, who mostly represent New York City, and yet may strengthen Cuomo's hand, because it is expected that those senators may lean more toward Cuomo's fiscally conservative policies than the Senate Democratic leadership.

While he still must fill in many details, Cuomo made it clear -- as he did in his inauguration speech Saturday -- that he would not be content with half measures. This was evident in his proposal for ethics reform.

Cuomo told the legislators in no uncertain terms that massive ethics reform will pass this year. "It is time to pass ethics reform. And it is time to pass ethics reform now!" he said, adding that this announcement wasn't meant as, "I'm proposing," or "I want us to."

Cuomo’s ethics reform plan went beyond anything proposed by his predecessors and even by some good government groups. Ethics reform, he said, would include ending pay to play, independent monitoring, full disclosure -- which Silver, for one, has resisted in the past -- and some public financing of campaigns.

"Maybe, just maybe, the stars have aligned,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "This could be the year that reform finally comes to Albany. The governor's State of the State address not only offered a road map for the comprehensive overhaul of the structure of state government, but also added a sweeping prescription to cure the ethical ills plaguing Albany."

Cuomo took a similar broad view of spending.

This year's budget process, he said, will not simply be an exercise in trimming. "This is a fundamental realignment for the state. You can't make up these kinds of savings over this long a period of time through a budget cutting or trimming exercise. We are going to have to reinvent government. We are going to have to reorganize the agencies. We are going to redesign our approach because the old way wasn't working anyway," he said.

Cuomo also said that taxes are simply too high for all New Yorkers.

The Mayor on the Governor

A good portion of Cuomo's speech did not directly deal with the city. Consolidating local government, a property-tax cap and plans to stimulate financial growth upstate were main themes, but not relevant to the city. But at a press conference following the speech Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in a chipper mood. He said he felt very positive about Cuomo's speech. He saw a lot of himself in Cuomo, in that Cuomo is operating as a "CEO" and willing to put his reputation at stake to make changes the state needs.

"It's time to roll up our sleeves and help the governor as he makes the tough and necessary choices," said Bloomberg. Bloomberg liked Cuomo's centrist message, which downplayed partisanship and focused on fiscal responsibility.

Noting that other governors have laid out ambitious programs and failed, one reporter asked what Bloomberg saw that gave him hope that Cuomo will succeed. "The people are at his back," the mayor answered. "The time is right."

Bloomberg said, "Cuomo didn't come up and say we are going to kick the can down the road. He said this is the time, and he put his reputation on the line and said 'I'm going to do it,' and that's the kind of accountability you need. Everything the governor does won't work, everything he wants to do won't get done, but I would rather have someone do 12 of the next 10 things we need, rather than the next eight."

Others were far less enthusiastic. A number of anti-poverty groups responded after the speech, focusing on taxes for the rich. They want Cuomo to extend a millionaires tax to help close the state's $9 billion dollar budget gap and to insure that the poor continue to receive services in the depressed economy. Mark Dunlea of Hunger Action Network said, "The poor were missing from Cuomo's vision."

City Specifics

The aspects of the speech that will affect the city -- a team that will "redesign" how Medicaid is distributed, performance based financial rewards for schools, reforming the juvenile justice system and possibly closing some upstate prisons where many city residents are incarcerated -- were all very relevant and fresh on Bloomberg's mind.

Bloomberg, who was accompanied by new schools chancellor Cathleen Black, was exuberant about Cuomo's plan to set aside a portion of the state's education aid funds to award to schools that increase their performance. "I was just thrilled the governor said he thought aid should be given out by performance, and if the state did that, New York City would get a great percentage of state educational support," Bloomberg said. He said most schools in the city are improving on some level regardless of how they currently perform.

The question, Bloomberg said, is, “Where are they gonna get the amount of money we depend on to carry us forward?”

Cuomo was blunt in his assessment of programs for young people under the supervision of institutions other than the school system. He proposed a consolidation of the state's juvenile justice system, saying: "You have juvenile justice facilities today where we have young people who are incarcerated in these state programs who are receiving help, assistance, program treatment that has already been proven to be ineffective. Recidivism rate in the 90th percentile. The cost to the taxpayer is exorbitant. For one child over $200,000 per year. The reason we continue to keep these children in these programs that aren't serving them but are bilking the taxpayers is that we don't want to lose the state jobs that we would lose if we closed the facilities."

While Bloomberg supports closing underutilized facilities and prisons, he wants the state to give localities control of where they send youthful offenders so that New York City youth won't be shipped upstate.

"I have always thought it is better to incarcerate people near their families,” said Bloomberg. 'The separate issue is that the state has too many facilities to incarcerate people. The number of people we are sending to jail is going down, but our costs have not been going down."

Cuomo also proposed consolidating upstate prisons, which are increasingly underpopulated. To upstate legislators who steadfastly oppose closing prisons in their rural districts Cuomo said, "An incarceration program is not an employment program. ... You don’t put people in prison just to give people jobs."

On Medicaid, Cuomo said he learned during his time as attorney general how wasteful the health program for low-income people can be. In his speech, he announced the creation of a team to look at revamping the reimbursement process. "The Medicaid program needs a desperate overhaul," Cuomo said. "It is dysfunctional on many levels, so this process has to be done anyway."

The Medicaid Redesign Team will begin work on Jan. 7 and report to Cuomo on April 1.

Bloomberg said the city can't bear large cuts in Medicaid reimbursement. "We have to, by charter, treat anyone who shows up at our front door," said Bloomberg of the city's public hospitals. "If Medicaid would stop paying, that would be a burden we plain and simply can't afford."

But Bloomberg said he did support overhauling the Medicaid system. “We cannot afford to put all this money into Medicaid. It will bankrupt the state. It will bankrupt the country."

The Task Ahead

Cuomo, with the use of his PowerPoint presentation, did inject moments of levity into the speech. He described the budget process as "ships passing at midnight." The image of three military ships floated by each other on the screen. "Wait," he said, and in a mock-startled tone informed the audience that he thought he saw someone he recognized. On one ship was Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, on the other Silver. And on the large destroyer was Cuomo. Suddenly out of the sky swooped "special interests: in a jet that dropped bombs on S.S. Cuomo. Cuomo pointed out that he was the only one targeted by the special interest bombs.

Cuomo has said he will wage a year-round campaign against labor unions and special interests to fight back against whatever negative press he receives for his proposed cuts. He did not drop some of the bigger bombs on the unions--like changes to the pension system during his speech.

In other words, the tough work still lies ahead.

Outside the convention center a large group of union members shouted and chanted. "How’s the new suit?" one state trooper patrolling the area asked another. "He's a pretty loose, nice guy the other answered, "But he's got a big job in front of him."

Cuomo Takes Charge

Andrew Cuomo
Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo taking the oath of office to become New York's governor.

Eliot Spitzer's inauguration four years ago was an event driven by hope. Crowds of onlookers stood on the capitol lawn to watch the Sheriff of Wall Street take his oath and then deliver the reform he promised: "Day One Everything Changes." James Taylor performed; there was a sense of jubilation, and for many voters it felt like Albany's time had come.

Four years ago Albany was regarded as a cesspool of ineptitude, corruption and privilege. Four years later, after Spitzer's resignation, the improprieties and missteps surrounding his successor, Gov. David Paterson, turmoil in the State Senate, and a slew of lawmakers caught up in investigations and scandal, voters hold Albany in even lower esteem. The state faces a $9 billion dollar deficit and escalating financial woes, and its government seems unable to even begin to cope with it.

In this climate, Andrew Cuomo was inaugurated in a small gathering of about 170 people in the “War Room” of the capitol, away from throngs of people, away from union members holding signs protesting proposed cuts, and without much of the reviled legislature in attendance. The magic of the Spitzer inauguration wasn't there; certainly that was in part because Cuomo did not want it. But if he did, he probably would not have gotten it. Albany, as Cuomo acknowledged in his inaugural address, is now both the punch line and the joke, and many New Yorkers, even those who voted for Cuomo, doubt how much one man can change that.

Opening the Door

As he did during his four years as attorney general and his campaign for governor, Cuomo kept the environment at the inauguration well controlled and sent messages as much through what he didn't say as through what he did. He did, however, deliver a speech that was impassioned and emotional.

"It is a time for deeds, not words, and results, not rhetoric. It is time for a bold agenda and immediate action. There is no more waiting for tomorrow, and there are no more baby steps, my friends," he said, seemingly warning the legislature that he would not stand for more half measures on fixing the state budget or on ethics reform.

And Cuomo did take action: His first cut as governor was not to the budget but to a red ribbon signaling that the second floor, which houses the governor's offices (once known as "Fort Pataki”), would now be open to the public. And he ordered the concrete barricades -- the ones erected in the wake of 9/11 -- removed from the front of the capitol.

Cuomo told a story about walking in the capitol behind a mother and her young daughter. The daughter remarked how beautiful the capitol is and wondered why there weren't more people walking in the hallways. Cuomo seized on the girl's musings.

"To get into this capitol is like running an obstacle course, and it shouldn’t be," Cuomo said. “People refer to the capitol as a fort or as a bunker, and it is anything but. This is a beautiful monument to democracy, this building. This is the people’s meeting place, and they should be invited in. And today, my friends, we will reopen the capitol, literally and figuratively.”

Details To Come

Cuomo also made promises during his inaugural address and in conversations with reporters afterward. He vowed there will be no new taxes and said that he will unveil an “emergency financial reinvention plan” during his state of the state address on Wednesday. During the campaign Cuomo did not divulge how he would address the state's looming deficit, other than to say he would not raise taxes. He has provided few, if any, details about what he would cut and did not offer any more specifics on Saturday. But that seems likely to change Wednesday.

In his speech Saturday, Cuomo said that he wants to pass a property tax cap during this legislative session. He also spoke of consolidating both state and local governments to reduce waste. Previously, he has talked a lot about cutting the state's Medicaid system, so that may be in play in his fiscal plan as well He could outline specific service and programs reductions -- something almost certain to attract howls of protest.

Cuomo has also taken the state of the state address out of the the Assembly chamber. It became tradition to deliver the speech there in 1923 when Gov. Alfred E. Smith decided he would give his speech rather than just write a letter to legislators. Smith spent years in the Assembly and wanted to keep the legislature on his side. Cuomo decided to hold his state of the state in a convention center to make it more accessible to the public. The administration is holding a lottery for members of public to win the chance to see Cuomo the deliver the speech in person. Some see it as a blatant slap at the legislature -- an attempt to distance himself from them and send a message. But publicly most legislators back the idea.

In his inauguration speech. Cuomo outlined some of his priorities.
“We have a very specific mandate for change that the people want. And our expectation is that the politicians and the elected officials of people are now going to do what the people voted for and what the people need. It starts with jobs, jobs, jobs, getting the economy running once again, getting the economy running all across this great state," said Cuomo.

"Number two is going to be cleaning up Albany and restoring trust. ... Any relationship is only as good as the level of trust, and we have lost the trust. And we are not going to get it back until we clean up Albany and there's real transparency and real disclosure and real accountability and real ethics enforcement. That's what the people have voted for and that's what the people deserve."

Cuomo issued an executive order mandating his staffers undergo ethics training.

Cuomo said the issues have been clear for years its just been the will and discipline that has been missing.

"We know what needs to be done. We have known, in truth, what needs to be done for many, many years. What we have to do this time is we actually have to do it, we actually have to deliver for the people of the State of New York."

Can He Deliver?

A number of legislators and advocates are very optimistic about Cuomo's chances for accomplishing the goals he has laid out. They say Cuomo has matured from the brash, self-obsessed, back-room dealer he was when he worked for his father and even during his first run for governor in 2002. They say he is goal oriented and has gained discipline from his time as attorney general. Further, they note, he has been around Albany a long time and has learned from watching the successes and failures of his predecessors: his father Mario, George Pataki, Spitzer and Paterson. Being governor , they say, is what he has been waiting and planning for for years.

Other legislators, however, are not convinced. Quietly and privately, they say that Cuomo has himself more in mind than his party. That his entreaties across the aisles to the Republican majority in the may improve relations in the senate where Republicans recently retook the majority but may further complicate relationships with the Democratic controlled Assembly. Tensions between Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have been speculated about for months as it is expected that Silver will stand against a lot of Cuomo's budget cuts.

Further, skeptics say, say Cuomo's demand that the courts settle legal disputes over contested senate races before he took office and his conservative leanings have hurt Democrats and were only done to further his political aspirations. They worry that Cuomo has his sights set on national politics.

And then there are the state workers in Albany who fear that their unions have been snowed by Cuomo; they expect there will be many more cuts to state and education jobs under the new governor. Some unions refrained from endorsing Cuomo because he has made it clear that he wants concessions; others endorsed him and hope a good relationship with the governor will keep them from getting the worst of it.

Spitzer famously vowed to go it alone, to be a steamroller while Cuomo acknowledged in his inaugural address that he needs the legislature as a partner and that he may even be asking them to give up some of their power.

"To the state legislators I say, I reach out to you to form a new partnership, because in truth the partnership between the executive and the legislature has not been working well for years, and that must change.

I respect the electoral responsibility of the legislature, I respect the constitutional independence of the legislature, but I also know that success will require a different approach. We must accomplish more, faster, smarter, and better, than we have in decades. We have no more time to dally.

"To my Republican colleagues I say, I will not govern in a partisan way and my administration will not be a partisan administration. I was not a partisan attorney general, I did not run a partisan campaign. I don't believe the Democrats or the Republicans alone created the problems we face today and I don't believe the Democrats or Republicans alone will be able solve the problems we face today. I believe we are going to have to do it and do it together."

Once Again, a New Governor Vows to Clean Up Albany

Photo by New York State Senate
Former State Sen. Vincent Leibell Monday became the latest member of the state legislature to be guilty of corruption charges.

On Dec. 6, former Republican Sen. Vincent Leibell pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing justice and one count of failing to report taxable income on his federal tax returns from 2003 to 2006. Last week, Leibell suddenly announced he was retiring from the senate earlier than expected and told colleagues that he would not take office as Putnam County executive, a post he won in November.

Investigators say that, in 2000, Leibell started receiving kickbacks from an attorney who represented a non-profit that Leibell himself had started. After finding out that he was under investigation this April, Leibell was caught on a wire telling the attorney to lie to the investigators about their arrangement.

Leibell is the latest in a line of Albany politicians who federal investigators have caught illegally taking advantage of their position. His plea comes less than a month after state elections in which almost every candidate ran as a reformer, Now, with the election over, everyone is waiting with baited breath for Andrew Cuomo to be sworn in as governor and unveil his agenda for curtailing the corruption.

His Ethics Agenda

The first chapter of Cuomo’s policy book is "Clean Up Albany: Restoring Trust and Accountability," and it speaks of sweeping ethics reform. Cuomo supports setting low limits on campaign contributions from public contractors and lobbyists in an effort to limit pay to play. He wants to greatly lower legal campaign contribution limits as a whole and institute a voluntary public campaign finance system. He also supports a new independent oversight board for the legislature.

andrew cuomo

It is unclear, though, how Cuomo plans to implement the package. Cuomo has not indicated whether he has a litmus test for an ethics reform bill or whether he thinks he can get it all done in one bill.

"I think Cuomo will want to negotiate a tougher bill than the one the legislature had last year but I’m not sure where he is going to draw the line," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Former Mayor Ed Koch said Cuomo's first year in office is a do or die year for the ethics and redistricting reforms. "It has to get done this (coming) year or it won’t get done," Koch insisted.

If Cuomo plans to get his reforms through in one major ethics bill, even legislators acknowledge it will take time and a lot of negotiating to arrive at legislation that could pass both houses.

"The question is will he be willing to spend the political capital to get the ethics bill done?" said Horner. "He is going to need a lot of capital to get that bill done but he will need enormous capital to finish the budget."

Lost in the Legislature?

The latest scandal has good government groups tearing out their hair in frustration and demanding the legislature do something.

"Someone make it stop!" wrote Horner. "Once again, a state elected official has pled guilty to charges of corruption. The guilty plea by state Sen. Vincent Leibell should reignite voter outrage about Albany. Gov. Paterson -- who made ethics reform central in his State of the State address and then dropped the issue like a bad habit -– should convene a special session to act on comprehensive ethics legislation."

In addition, Horner said the attorney general’s office, which Cuomo still occupies, needs to immediately conduct a review of non-profits that get state funding to make sure no other legislators are benefiting from funneling state money to organizations they control.

Despite such outrage, it remains extremely unlikely that the lame-duck legislature will move on ethics reform this year. What it could do after that could be open to question too.

The legislature passed a package last year that would have required lawmakers to reveal more of their outside income and established a new oversight board to review charges of corruption and conflicts of interest. It would not though have forced lawyer lawmakers like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and then Senate Majority leader John Sampson to reveal their clients, and the members of the oversight board would not have been independently appointed.

Gov. David Paterson said the bill did not go far enough andvetoed it. Good government groups NYPIRG and Citizens Union (whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette) supported the legislation, saying that any improvement to the existing ethics laws would be a good step. Common Cause backed Paterson’s veto, saying the bill needed to do more.

Going It Alone

Cuomo could choose options that do not require the legislature to act. During the Democratic primary for attorney general, several candidates spoke of having the governor sign an executive order to give the attorney general's office wider power to investigate and prosecute corruption in Albany.

The majority of state legislators caught abusing their office were investigated and prosecuted by federal authorities. An executive order could change that and mean that the federal government would no longer be the only ones holding Albany politicians accountable.

One contender, Eric Dinallo, called on Paterson to immediately sign an executive order. "Call me crazy," he told City Hall, “but I think it’s unlikely that the Albany legislature is going to pass laws for their own investigation and prosecution.”

Paterson did not follow Dinallo's advise, and Cuomo does not seem in any hurry to do so either. He seems determined to give the legislature a shot at cleaning up their mess.

Shortly after the election, Cuomo was asked if he would consider signing an executive order to give Attorney General-elect Eric Schneiderman wide power to investigate corruption in Albany.

"I want to see what happens with the ethics reform with the legislature, but there are a number of options that can be pursued," Cuomo said. "The optimum is that we have an overall reform bill done, signed by the legislature, for comprehensive ethics reform."

"Attorney General-elect Schneiderman ran on a platform of rooting out public corruption, and looks forward to working with Gov-elect Cuomo on a comprehensive approach to this pressing problem," said Schneiderman’s spokesman.

Koch said he doesn’t question Cuomo’s strategy. "I won’t second guess him," said Koch. "He has said he will try to work with the legislature but that isn’t the only option."

But Koch certainly sees Silver as an impediment to Cuomo’s reform plans, whatever they are, in the form of Silver. "At least one of the current Democratic leaders makes $1 million a year from his firm. So what is it for? I know malpractice reform and anything the trial lawyers don’t want never makes it through the assembly," the former mayor said.

At the same time Koch said that he thinks Silver is coming around on the reforms he and Cuomo have proposed.

Cuomo has acknowledged there are things he can do on ethics without the legislature, He cited the Moreland Act, which the legislature created in 1907, and which allows the governor to create a commission with subpoena powers to investigate any part of state government. Past governors have used the act to launch investigations on issues ranging from nursing homes to corruption in local government. Silver called on former Gov. Eliot Spitzer to use the act to investigate Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno in 2007.

But creating such a commission could ruffle feathers and antagonize the legislature. "He has lots of promises in his books that he needs to fulfill and it all depends on where he decides to spend his capital," Horner said.

The good government group Reinvent Albany issued a report in last month entitled Executive Orders that offered examples of executive orders Cuomo could issue to begin reforming the state. On ethics, they encourage Cuomo to start in his own office -- the executive branch. The group called on Cuomo to issue an order that would require his top staffers to put their ethics disclosure forms online, allowing voters access to information about their investments and other connections. Other measures would require ethics training and limit executive staffers political contributions.

Preparing for a Fight?

Cuomo told the New York Times in a pre-election interview that he does not plan to have a contentious relationship with the legislature, but if history is any indication, major ethics reform won’t pass without a major struggle.

Meanwhile, things may have gotten a bit easier for Cuomo in the Senate, where it seems almost certain that Republicans will be in the majority. The senate Democrats spent their two years in the majority wracked by dysfunction and scandal. The Senate Republican conference is seen as a well-oiled machine and soon-to-be Majority Leader Dean Skelos has said that he is on the same page with Cuomo. "Cuomo and I are in synch," Skelos told The Post. "His issue is going to be getting Speaker Silver on board. What he’s indicated since the election is very much in line with the Republican Senate majority. He wants no taxes and to cut spending, and that’s our theme. We're supportive of his property-tax cap. We should work very well together."

Whether Skelos' support of Cuomo extends to sweeping ethics reform is yet to be seen. Calls to Cuomo’s and Skelos’ offices were not returned.

Albany Watches, Waits and Worries

Photo by B. Campbell

It was quiet at the Citizen Action headquarters on Central Avenue in Albany Tuesday night. "We just have a few people out there closing up some polling places," a young woman said as she stacked campaign fliers. Staffers and volunteers had just finished phone-banking Arbor Hill and West Hill, the heavily minority section of Albany. Citizen Action wanted to make especially sure that voters who came out to support Obama in 2008 would make the trip to the polls again this time. The group's activists said they were pleasantly surprised that everyone they reached out to from their lists had already voted.

Perhaps though, they should not have been surprised. Probably no place in the state would be affected as much by yesterday's state elections than Albany. It is, of course, is a town that survives almost exclusively because of state jobs and is considered a bastion for unions. And it also is a place whose name has become almost synonymous with dysfunction and the seamy side of government.

Pre-Election Jitters

Citizen Action staffers were pushing especially hard to get support for State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, running for attorney general. Polls showed him in a dead heat with Republican Dan Donovan, and upstate supporters in Citizen Action worried that Schneiderman hadn’t reached enough people. The group is part of a large network of unions and activist groups that support Schneiderman and worked with him closely in the past.

On Monday, Andrew Cuomo made a last-minute stop in Albany with Schneiderman in a bid for votes. With polls looking close, Schneiderman was thought to need more of a Cuomo boost. Cuomo took the opportunity to defend the city of Albany, saying that Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings was tired of hearing "Albany" used as a derogatory term. Ironically, most of the crowd was made up of union members; both Cuomo and Paladino have used "union" as a dirty word during their campaigns, promising to cut labor contracts and fire state workers.

At Democratic headquarters Jennings, a confidant and die-hard supporter of Andrew Cuomo, strutted about waiting for the returns to come in. Through most of the election season, the slate of candidates in Albany, which is known for its Democratic machine politics, were thought to be safe. Then came a surge of Republican support and a misstep by Sen. Neil Breslin. Breslin had been pulled over and was administered a sobriety test which he passed. No breathalyzer was given. A Breslin spokesman denied Breslin had been drinking but later, in an interview with a Times Union reporter, Breslin said he had had "a couple" glasses of wine before driving home.

Some Democrats worried that they could now lose his seat as well as one or two Assembly seats. As election night began, Democrats seemed nervous.

The news came quickly that Cuomo and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer were likely victorious. And soon after came word that all the Albany-based incumbents in the legislature also were winning. All remembered to thank the labor groups that were in charge of getting out the vote. "It is no mistake that all of the candidates thanked labor tonight," said Albany County Democratic Chair Dan McCoy.

The union members know all too well that Cuomo as well as Paladino are have been pledging to do battle with labor. Off the record, a number of legislators worried that David Paterson has been doing Cuomo’s "dirty work" by starting to lay off state workers this year. They fretted over Cuomo's stance that labor must make concessions and openly wondered whether Cuomo would run into a brick wall in trying to battle unions.

A few staffers and politicians considered whether Cuomo might like to see a Republican Senate, which could prove more amenable to his budget cuts. It is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his loyal Democratic majority that is expected to battle Cuomo over reductions in services. Some Assembly members were already sniping at Cuomo -- albeit off the record.

The Senate in the Balance

Meanwhile, in surrounding counties, Democratic challengers to long-term Republican Senate incumbents waited to see if they could pull off major upsets. Earlier in the year it seemed that Sen. Roy McDonald, who replaced former Sate Majority leader Joe Bruno, and multiple-decade incumbent Hugh Farley in Schenectady County were vulnerable. Democrats led by Sen. Liz Krueger touted the two female candidates challenging the Republican incumbents as part of the 16 Percent and Rising initiative. But neither woman was successful.

The Democrats grew more disappointed as the night wore on and the numbers crawled in. They fretted over the attorney general’s race and wondered whether Cuomo had done enough for Schneiderman; most of them griped that he he had abandoned DiNapoli, who he did not endorse.

The numbers kept creeping up for both Democrats. Schneiderman won. DiNapoli declared victory in the wee hours of the morning, but his opponent, Harry Wilson, issued a statement saying he planned to wait for absentee ballots and a possible re-canvassing.

As the night went on, the fate of the State Senate became less and less clear. As of this writing, the Senate was in a dead heat, 29-29, with four districts still being contested. The 7th, 37th, 40th and 60th districts were too close to call.

In the city, in a bit of an upset, Tony Avella defeated Republican Sen. Frank Padavan, and Democrat Joseph Addabo won a hotly contested race against Republican Anthony Como. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the race between Democratic Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer and Republican Bob Cohen in Westchester is too close to call. The Senate could go to either party at this point -- or end up split 31-31. Republicans have declared that they are in charge of the Senate, while Democrats counter that they are. Whatever happens, it is likely that there will be recounts and legal challenges that could leave the fate of the Senate in the air for months.

Regardless of who controls the Senate, very little will have changed in New York. In the end, the "throw the bums out" rhetoric did not make much difference. Democrats who were in charge retain control of all the major state-wide offices, and they still enjoy a large majority in the Assembly. The question now is whether the Democrats will act any differently now, with a new governor, than they have in the past.

"Were you at all worried?" a constituent asked a Democratic legislator as they discussed the Tea Party movement as the victory party at the Polish American Citizens Club wound down. "This is Albany. I wasn’t worried for a second," the politician said, and chuckled.

Cuomo Puts Labor in a Headlock

New York unions
Workers rallied again proposed state budget cuts in Albany in 2009. Public employee unions have resisted many efforts to reduce spending, but Andrew Cuomo vows he will push back.


Andrew Cuomo has declared war on unions -- and union leaders are simply grinning and bearing it. With the state facing a cratering budget deficit, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have made it clear that they expect major concessions from labor unions, and a property tax cap and will not raise taxes.

Cuomo’s intentions were clear earlier in the year, but the attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate had not made his intentions so public and plain as he did in an interview with the New York Times that ran on Monday.

In that interview, Cuomo said he intends to run a permanent presidential-style campaign against labor unions, so that he will have the leverage to initiate spending cuts and negotiate contracts that they will almost certainly resist. Cuomo detailed how other New York governors have been brought to their knees in budget negotiations by public campaigns launched by unions. Cuomo will now try to use that strategy against them.

Despite Cuomo’s general anti-labor stance some unions have endorsed Cuomo and raised money for him -- others have declined to endorse in the race. Supporter or not, labor hopes that, despite Cuomo's plan to campaign against unions, he will treat them as partners rather than enemies.

Trying to Get Along

Unions have varied in their approach to dealing with Cuomo, who is perceived as the inevitable next governor. "There are two different approaches," said Dick Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers. "Either you endorse a candidate because you think they will better serve your interests, or you endorse them because you think they will be the better leader. In this case it is fairly easy, because Mr. Paladino is the other choice. And that is what some unions did -- they endorsed based on Mr. Cuomo's history as a leader."

Concerned with Cuomo's plans to initiate a property tax cap and cut spending and frightened by Paladino, United Teachers decided not to endorse. A property tax cap would likely limit a key source of funding for school districts outside New York City, something the state teachers union will not sign off on.

"Our positions are not aligned with his," said Iannuzzi of Cuomo, "It’s not just about the person but the policy."

Iannuzzi noted he is willing to work with Cuomo -- but wants to be treated as a partner.

"We hope to have an open, honest relationship with the governor," said Iannuzzi, "He is a man of his word, and I believe he thinks that I am."

Steve Madarasz, spokesman for Civil Service Employees Union, agrees about the need for cooperation. Cuomo sent labor leaders copies of The Man Who Saved New York, a biography of former Gov. Hugh Carey, but Madarsz said, "The Cuomo camp is involved in some revisionist history. Hugh Carey came in bullish and tried to dictate terms to labor, but he learned quickly that it was more effective to bring people to the table and treat them with respect."

"If people come in looking to work together to find solutions for the state we want to do that -- that is what we do," said Madarasz, "but if they come in and try to dictate terms, we are going to be prickly. We have had success in local government where we are approached about negotiating new terms to help everyone. Nothing is easy, but it works a lot better to treat everyone as partners than if someone comes in calling names and trying to bully us around."

Madarasz said that neither Cuomo nor Paladino "has said or done anything to earn our endorsement."

Another Tact

Other major unions including the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Public Employees Federation have endorsed Cuomo. Service Employees International Union 1199, which represents health care workers, is seen as having a strong relationship with Cuomo. Lobbyist Jennifer Cunningham, a former service employees vice president, is one of Cuomo's top advisers. The union has donated over $50,000 to Cuomo-Duffy 2010 over the last two years.

1199 also is perceived to be more aggressive and effective when it comes to battling cuts than the teachers or civil service employees. It launched devastating ad blitzes to fight health care cuts proposed by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Gov. David Paterson. The barrages of commercials didn’t always stop the cuts, but they severely damaged the reputations of the governor’s who felt their wrath.

Whether it spurred their support -- or is the effect of it -- 1199 workers also do not seem likely to be hit as hard by Cuomo's cuts as members of the other unions. Many of the service employees do not work directly for the state government but rather for private and public hospitals and health care agencies that receive money from Medicaid. While Cuomo supported Paterson’s recent order to lay off 2,000 more state workers, an action that directly targets civil service employee members, and plans a property tax cap that would likely hurt teachers, his promises to reform Medicaid are not perceived to be as sharp or particularly harmful to SEIU1199.

Anti-Union Campaign

How is it that both mainstream gubernatorial candidates are running against organized labor? After all more than 2 million New Yorkers -- or about a quarter of the state's workers -- belong to a union, the highest rate in the country, according to the AFL-CIO.

For one thing, Cuomo has been moving to the right since his run for attorney general in 2006. Secondly, Paladino is seen as such a long shot, one who has alienated many members of his own party as well as Democrats, that Cuomo has not needed to organize the traditional Democratic base. Business groups and their supporters have convinced many New Yorkers -- rightly or wrongly -- that raising taxes will drive more businesses and families out of New York. Without more revenue the state must lay off workers -- union members -- to balance its budget. Many critics charge that, rather than looking for solutions to the state's fiscal woes, labor leaders pressure legislators into increasing taxes and packing the state budget with perks for them.

The Working Families Party -- backed by labor unions -- felt it had to sign off on Cuomo’s policy plans, including a proposed austerity budget, because without Cuomo they could have lost their ballot line. Therefore, they did not raise any sort of fuss about his direction.

"People say, 'Vote for Cuomo on the Working Families Party Line,'" said Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate for governor. "Well, they collapsed; they accepted his austerity plan. If anyone wants to send Cuomo a message they better vote Green."

In the eyes of most unions, Paladino, who has called for a 20 percent spending cut, is even less palatable than Cuomo. Plus few take him seriously. That has left many feeling they have little choice but to work with Cuomo rather than battle against his election.

Assemblymember John McEneny, who represents Albany County with its many state workers, said he was disappointed that Cuomo backed Paterson's order to layoff 2,000 more workers. In his mind, the state could do more to offer early retirement packages to reduce its workforce.

He also expresses some skepticism about the idea that high taxes are driving the state into the ground. He points to states like Nevada that are suffering far worse economic downturns then New York. "Other states with low tax rates and that provide a low amount of services to their citizens are doing worse than we are," he said.

Hawkins says he has been invited to more union meetings and to speak to more crowds than ever before, because people want to know if there are alternatives to Cuomo's austerity budget. New York City Councilmember and Freedom Party candidate Charles Barron also touts his plan to avoid major job cuts and to increase taxes on the rich; it is said that he wants to draw the city’s minority vote away from Cuomo.

Hawkins has proposed reinstating the stock transfer tax -- a move he says would generate a $7 billion dollar surplus. Opponents of the measure say the action would instead drive investors and companies out of New York. Further, Hawkins supports returning to the kind of progressive income tax structure that New York had in the 1970s so that the rich would pay "more of their share."

These tax changes would save New York from the austerity budget proposed by Cuomo and Paladino and allow the establishment of a Works Progress Administration style authority that would put any New Yorker who needed a job to work. Even politicians opposed to major cuts, generally dismiss Hawkins’ ideas as pie in the sky. But Hawkins says his proposals are very much based in reality. "People know we have provided jobs to people before. The emergency jobs program created by Roosevelt worked," he said.

Hawkins said the major party candidates have not even discussed these proposals.

"The lack of discourse between the two major candidates has opened doors for me," said Hawkins. He does not expect to get elected, but the behavior of the major candidates is helping better establish the Green Party. "I understand some people wouldn't want to endorse the little Green Party, but I think we are increasing our foundation, and people will want to in the future. There is a real opportunity for us this year."

Next Year

Cuomo’s success against labor is far from assured. Cutting jobs to save money will have effects on people beyond the laid off workers and their families. With jobs go services, and labor unions will be quick to rally the public to their defense. They will also likely have Assembly Democrats and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver there to back them in budget negotiations, and they will be able to fall back on legal action and arbitration should things not go their way.

Major contracts with the state will be up in the spring, negotiations will start, and that will be the real test of whether Cuomo plans on pushing unions into a corner or working with them as partners.

Small Staff, Lack of Funds Hamper Donovan Campaign

Dan Donovan
Photo courtesy Daniel Donovan
Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared at Dan Donovan's side when he announced his candidacy for attorney general but that has not assured Donovan's success.

When the general election campaign for state attorney general began, Republican candidate Dan Donovan seemed in a strong position. He had a record as a prosecutor, a moderate image and the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and people in the financial industry with lots of money to give. His opponent, State Sen. Eric Schneiderman entered the race as a career politician with an ultra liberal record and rhetoric to match.

Now, though, Donovan's campaign seems to be foundering. The Staten Island district attorney trails in the polls and lags far behind Schneiderman in fundraising. He has little staff and a campaign operation that appears disorganized. Donovan pulled all his television ads for this week and still has not aired an ad in Manhattan.

The Donovan campaign and state Republican officials still say Donovan will prevail on Election Day and point out that any Republican running in heavily Democratic New York will encounter obstacles. Polls have shown Schneiderman's lead shrinking and that a substantial number of voters remain undecided in the race.


Contrasting Campaigns

"I would say it's a real David vs. Goliath story," said a source close to Donovan's campaign. "They have all the unions and special interests," said the source, referring to Schneiderman. "We have a lot of grit and heart (and coffee); in reality, it's probably the best reflection of the candidates themselves."

Schneiderman’s campaign has around 12 full-time staffers not counting consultants. That is twice as many as Donovan’s. Donovan's press person, Virginia Lam, openly admits that Schneiderman's camp has more "trackers than we do staffers." (Trackers keep tabs on the public appearances of the opposing candidate and look to capture gaffes on camera.) Donovan has only six full-time staffers, aided by consultants and volunteers. Schneiderman has four press staffers -- with upstate and downstate spokespeople. Donovan only has one spokesperson.

Schneiderman's staff isn't the only thing that is larger-- so is his personality. He is known as a hyperactive overachiever and thought of as an outspoken, master debater.

Donovan is soft spoken and direct. Some say shy. Donovan staffers describe their boss as a "salt of the earth" kind of guy.

Sources close to Donovan’s campaign say that his work style is very much reflected in his staff. "They are of the 'work hard, keep your head down' mentality," said one source. "No glory, just get the job done right. It very much mirrors Dan's own approach to the job."

As the race for what some consider the most powerful elected position in New York State hits the back stretch, some wonder if what was once thought to be a very winnable race for Republicans is getting further out of reach. It may be a "David vs. Goliath" story, but in politics admitting you're outnumbered and outgunned usually spells doom, not triumph.

Republican Chairman Ed Cox puts the David vs. Goliath theme in a different perspective. "It is David vs. Goliath because this is New York; the state is hugely Democratic. Dan is running against the odds, as are most Republican candidates, so Schneiderman is going to be Goliath and Donovan is going to be David. He will be the one holding a slingshot."

Donovan may be having trouble drawing enthusiasm because the man at the top of the ticket -- Carl Paladino -- is neither moderate nor doing very well in the polls. Donovan has tried to avoid speaking about Paladino.

The Money Race

Donovan was supposed to be well funded; he has the backing of Bloomberg, who is known for supporting Republican candidates with his financial power. Bloomberg has given Donovan's campaign over $30,000, and Donovan has hired Bradley Tusk, who worked on Bloomberg's 2009 re-election campaign.

But as the Observer reported Bloomberg's support has not sparked a bonanza of other donations for Donovan. The campaign reported having only $400,000 on hand at the end of September -- half of what Schneiderman had -- and after Schneiderman finished the grueling and costly Democratic Primary. Bloomberg will host another fundraiser for Donovan next week.

With just under two weeks left until Election Day Donovan’s, campaign decided to go without any television spots this week. At the same time, a Siena Pollof "likely voters" found Schneiderman leading Donovan 44-37.

Schneiderman's campaign pounced on the news. "On the same day it was revealed Dan Donovan was forced to pull his ads from TV for the entire week, the first Siena poll of likely voters in the race for attorney general shows Donovan needs to make up 7 points, with just 13 days to go," read the release issued by Schneiderman’s campaign.

A source close to the Donovan campaign countered that taking the ads off the air for the week was part of their strategy.

The campaign bought ads everywhere but Manhattan after the Sept. 15 primary, then planned to stay off television before returning to televison across the state, including Manhattan for the last 10 days, according to the source, who added that Schneiderman also had a reduced television buy the previous week.

"They have their strategy, we have ours. We need the push at the end, because turnout is what will determine this race," the aide explained.

Democrats say Donovan has been spending his campaign money on fund raising consultants that have not done him much good.

The Donovan campaign, though, portrays Schneiderman’s operation as the one in trouble because, according to a recent release, "independent and undecided voters are trending overwhelmingly for Dan Donovan."

"Team Schneiderman is clearly in chaos and disarray with the knowledge that even with a 5-1 voter registration advantage, a financial advantage ... and their disgusting attempts to scare women and minority communities with weak and baseless attacks -- they still can’t stop the tidal wave of momentum for District Attorney Donovan," the release continued.

eric schneiderman
Photo by David King
Eric Schneiderman

Running from the Middle

Schneiderman was supposed to be too liberal to beat the middle-of the-road Donovan -- even his opponents in the Democratic primary said that.

"Anyone would look moderate standing next to Eric," said Sen. Steve Saland of Poughkeepsie as he waited for Donovan to show up at the Pougkeepsie Republican Victory Headquarters on Tuesday. "The view from Manhattan is different from just about anywhere else in the world, except maybe San Francisco," he continued, noting that he thinks Schneiderman appeals to minorities in the city and extreme Manhattan liberals.

Donovan paints Schneiderman as a part of Albany’s corruption problem. His campaign attacks Schneiderman for being elevated in life by his rich father and for being beholden to the unions that have backed him and donated to him.

"Certainly the public service unions haven't endorsed me. They don't want to see me as the next attorney general. They’ve had a good grip on Albany for the last decade -- and my opponent has been part of it-- they want to have a good grip on the next AG," Donovan said.

Last week, Schneiderman appeared in Albany to receive the endorsements from union officials. Dennis Hughes, president of the AFl-CIO; Tom Comanzo vice president of PEF and Larry Bulman of the Pipe Trades Association all personally endorsed Schneiderman. Schneiderman was asked about his close ties to unions and how that might affect his relationship with Andrew Cuomo, who has said that, if he become governor he intends to make the kinds of cuts that unions will not like.

"This is a tough time for everybody," Schneiderman told reporters, adding that union members don't want "pie in the sky. They’re just looking for practical solutions."

Cox characterizes Schneiderman as a career politician whose political future figures into all of his calculations. "Dan would never do something like Eric did with Al Sharpton and say that he will have an annex for Sharpton’s idea of justice. He would not make that kind of political move," Cox said, referring to Schneiderman's comments when Sharpton endorsed him.

While Donovan paints Schneiderman as too close to some special interests, Schneiderman has focused on Donovan's connections to another group: Wall Street. During a debate, Schneiderman seized on Donovan’s assertion that he does not plan to be the "sheriff of Wall Street." Donovan said he didn’t want to be the "sheriff of anything."

The New York Times recently reportedthat one in four dollars of the money Donovan has raised can be traced back to $17 billion hedge fund Elliot Management that is overseen by Paul Singer a staunch defender of Wall Street.

Schneiderman has also taken Wall Street money, but it does not dominate his contributions.

Both men say they will make fighting corruption in Albany a priority. Schneiderman touts the fact that he led a committee that recommended the ouster of disgraced Sen. Hiram Monserrate. The Donovan campaign says Schneiderman only did it after Monserrate had been convicted on a misdemeanor charge. They say Schneiderman worked hand in hand with Sen. Pedro Espada as well as Monserrate until it was politically expedient not to.

To fight corruption, Donovan said, "We need someone who has worked 15 years as a prosecutor, who has no ties to Albany, hasn't served their last 12 years there like my opponent and may have to investigate the people he has served with and has relationships with."

Donovan said he wants the attorney general's office to oversee all corruption cases in Albany, and would increase transparency and monitoring of member items.

"Partisanship has no place in the office of the chief warrior for the people of the State of New York," said Donovan.

Schneiderman has said he will make fighting corruption a top priority for his office and backs the creation of a public financing system for state races.

The Final Days

The candidates have confirmed one remaining debate to take place in Albany on Monday. Donovan’s campaign has complained that Schneiderman has backed out of or refused to take part in other forums and debates. They wonder why Schneiderman, who is known for his skills as a debater, would not want to debate. Pundits note that avoiding debates is the behavior of a candidate who assumes he is the frontrunner. Schneiderman's camp says Donovan has dodged proposed debates on Wall Street

"Mr. Donovan has rejected multiple debates on Wall Street issues," said Schneiderman spokesman James Freedland, "including one scheduled earlier this month in Syracuse, because he knows it must be hard to defend his hands-off approach to policing corporate corruption when New Yorkers are losing their homes and life savings due to white collar crimes."

Cox said that he thinks Schneiderman probably has a lead among voters right now: "They are both in the 40 percent range, but undecided’s are going to go with Dan."

If that does not happen, Donovan may not be all that disappointed. Some Republicans indicate that Donovan already has the job he wants. One Republican in the know said that Donovan needed convincing to run and would take a $40,000 pay cut if he were to become attorney general.

"He already has his ideal prosecutorial job, but going after corruption in Albany means so much to him that he is doing this," the source said.

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