Gov. Cuomo (photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)
Have an issue you want addressed in Albany? Perhaps you’d like the state to legalize your new multi-million dollar venture into the “sharing economy” -- one that terrifies existing business interests and labor unions; maybe you want to change the protections offered by New York’s civil rights laws; or maybe you want in on the hundreds of millions of dollars the state allocates to economic development programs. No matter the issue, you’re going to want Governor Andrew Cuomo, the most powerful person in New York, on your side.
Cuomo, a Democrat known to get his way in Albany, is revered by many for being able to dictate terms to the state Legislature on controversial issues and accomplishing what could not be accomplished by others, once he sets his mind to it.
But while the governor sometimes has his own pet issues that he pushes with intensity, he often doesn’t come along easily on a cause. And if campaign finance filings are any indication, Cuomo doesn’t often move without significant campaign donations either before or after the fact. A lot of the time the notoriously prickly governor, whose administration has been known for its “get along or kill” approach, won’t get behind an issue without a fight. But taking Cuomo on in any public way comes with serious risk and can have major consequences.
Those, whether deep-pocketed or not, interested in seeing the governor support an issue he is not immediately draw to must wrestle with the best approach to lobbying Cuomo.
As government is a continuous stream of policy and program decisions, there are no shortage of interested parties pushing their causes, and the governor often has the final word, legislators, labor groups, lobbyists, and others often must decide what combination of tactics is best to convince Cuomo to back a proposal.
Gotham Gazette spoke to a number of lobbyists and heads of issue-focused campaigns about what a successful lobbying effort needs in order to get the right kind of attention from Cuomo.
As this article is published, public education advocates are finishing a walk from New York City to Albany to push for school funding and the governor continues to weigh whether to sign a bill that could crush Airbnb in the state. These are just two examples of current issues where people are trying put pressure on the governor to act. For the former, teachers-union-backed advocates have jousted with Cuomo to the point of hostility. On the latter, those who want to see Cuomo sign the bill regulated Airbnb have mostly left him alone publicly, while Airbnb has more outwardly sought to make its case for a veto.
Looking ahead to 2017, there will be no shortage of issues where interested parties will be trying to convince the governor and the Legislature to act one way or another, from upstate Uber legalization to the cap on charter schools and much more.
To court just about any elected official, you need at least one of: a ground game, as in grassroots supporters willing to demonstrate publicly and able to grab media attention, or at least the appearance of one; a money game, as in the ability to show that your cause has the attention of large campaign donors; and a behind-the-scenes game, as in the ability to influence insiders, which many include consistent, even constant, lobbying and contact with key administration officials. The ground game and the money game usually indicate, to varying degrees, that you have some semblance of solid rationale to your proposal.
Along with these basics, lobbyists have to consider the nuances of Gov. Cuomo’s personality and long history in politics. Known as a master strategist, Cuomo is also seen as flexible on many of his political stances because he, like many governors, tries to combine being socially liberal and fiscally conservative. The key with Cuomo is often showing him how the proposal fits his image and gives him a chance to be big and bold. Cuomo is not shy about wanting to be first on issues.
“People have to be very sensitive when they deal with the administration,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which often pushes the administration on reform. “They have to be very careful not to come off as a threat to the administration because the administration is a unitary organization. The governor deals with politics and policy directly, in a way that is unseen in other states. When a group works with him he likes it and when groups work against him, he hates it.”
Cuomo likes, of course, to move on things when he’s ready to, and when they make sense for him politically and for the state generally. He is keenly aware of his political standing among key constituencies and of what it takes to remain in power.
There’s a long line of lobbyists willing to lament off the record about being “put in the penalty box” by the administration for one public statement or another: a quote that was too sharp, a press release that was too pointed. For some the penalty is being denied access to the administration for a period of time; for others penalties mount and they end up with an outright ban. “It's as though you no longer exist to them,” one lobbyist told Gotham Gazette. “They forget your name and encourage everyone else to do the same.”*
With six years as New York’s chief executive, it's become clear to a number of lobbyists that the best way to get Cuomo onboard with a policy proposal is to present a campaign that has everything: grassroots supporters who can promote an issue and also make life miserable for the opposition; big-money donors who can support major campaign efforts; and a lobbying apparatus that works behind the scenes to sway legislators.
“If you are going to confront this Governor and any Governor, really, you have to show public opinion is with you,” said Horner. “And if the donor class is upset it can also move the administration. Put both together and you’ve got something.”
Cuomo has made his name as Governor by joining with these type of efforts, from marriage equality to the minimum wage. Including several recent examples, the governor does appear susceptible to loud outcry by a group of advocates, whether it is on police killings of unarmed civilians, allocating affordable housing funds, or a moratorium on fracking.
“The most successful lobbying efforts in New York combine grassroots supporters with major donors,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, also a government reform group.
When Cuomo ran for Governor in 2010, he was far from an outspoken supporter of marriage equality, but early in his term it became clear that several major donors were interested in advancing the policy behind the scenes, while activist groups were more than willing to press the issue publicly. Essentially, it would also give Cuomo a chance to make big, national news.
A vote on marriage equality had failed by inches under Gov. David Paterson and advocates weren’t ready to give up. Cuomo initially feared the same kind of embarrassing result that befell Paterson -- left standing on the state Senate floor with dissapointed legislators.
According to two sources involved in the campaign, Cuomo saw the opportunity to lead on a national issue while endearing himself to his liberal base at the same time he was angering other parts of that base by advancing fiscally conservative measures.
When Cuomo decides he wants to accomplish something - no matter how much cajoling it takes to get him there - he goes after his goal aggressively.
The Cuomo administration and a number of wealthy donors, including hedge fund managers Dan Loeb and Cliff Asness, quickly began the work of wooing Senate Republicans to their side, and by June 24, 2011 Cuomo had the votes he needed to pass marriage equality in New York. The administration monitored the floor vote in the Senate obsessively, interjecting at times to ensure Senate Republicans would not renege on their promise to bring the bill to a vote and to show sensitivity to the Republican members who had made what would be a career-ending decision to vote for it.
The proceedings were so tightly choreographed that most Senate Democrats who supported the bill were not allowed to speak about it. When the final votes were cast Cuomo took to the airwaves to claim credit for a successful campaign that a year before he seemed uninterested in.
Donations from grateful supporters of marriage equality swept into Cuomo’s campaign coffers before and after the vote. The Empire State Pride Agenda gave Cuomo $60,000 in May 2011; Loeb gave Cuomo $19,367 in 2012; and a number of marriage equality supporters organized high-dollar fundraisers for the governor.
The governor has repeated these kind of issue campaign takeovers in years since, showcasing the power of his elected position with the virtually unmatched will and desire for big accomplishments possessed by the officeholder.
“I got the sense that within the right national political moment anything is possible with the governor,” one veteran social justice advocate told Gotham Gazette of Cuomo. “It is on the table as long as he is the first to do something.”*
That feeling was reinforced in 2015 when Cuomo suddenly paired with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) “Fight for $15” to champion a minimum wage increase he had once dismissed as fantasy. Cuomo was working alongside some of his biggest critics from the left, like Michael Kink and Citizen Action and other Working Families Party members, while touring the state in a recreational vehicle paid for by unions. The governor, who at times in the past was the target of angry Fight for $15 rallies, was now attending them and hosting streaming video of them on his website.
Labor groups poured nearly $2 million into the Mario Cuomo Campaign For Economic Justice - most of the cash from SEIU and its various committees and affiliates.
SEIU is also a consistent donor to Cuomo’s reelection campaign and the campaigns of his allies.
The Fight for $15 had gotten the governor on board after showing a groundswell on the issue, with the power of active and deep-pocketed labor unions, and in the wake of an embarrassing challenge from the governor’s left in his 2014 re-election. Big name Democrats were also taking up the issue and becoming heroes to significant blocs of Democratic voters.
While large public campaigns that involve the governor have clearly been effective, perhaps the most impactful lobbying of Cuomo is done almost completely out of public eye.
Multiple lobbyists point to Cuomo’s relationships with 1199-SEIU, the powerful hospital workers union, and Jennifer Cunningham of the firm SKD Knickerbocker as ideal arrangements for an issue-focused organization and a lobbyist looking to move their agendas in New York.
Cunningham has been labeled “The Most Powerful Woman in Albany” and was an adviser to Cuomo during his early years as Governor. Cunningham and 1199 annihilated Paterson’s ambitions to run for election in 2010, unleashing a brutal $1 million a week advertising campaign in response to his proposed $3.5 billion cut to the state’s Medicaid program.
Cunningham declined to comment or be interviewed for this article.
Cuomo has handled the union much differently than many others, giving it a seat at the table when cuts are proposed and rarely, if ever, having any public conflict with it.
“They are the most powerful lobbying force in the state,” marveled one lobbyist. “They combine labor and management and are extremely sophisticated. They are so powerful you don’t have to hear about them until they have to crush someone. There is no fight with them because it's like, ‘Godzilla is in my closet. Do I need to let him out to stomp on you?’”
Most lobbyists and issue groups don’t have an operation anywhere near the scope of 1199-SEIU, and over the last two years smaller advocacy groups have been confronted with how to lobby the administration on limited resources.
For groups pushing for criminal justice reform and for state government to fund supportive and affordable housing, for example, lobbying the administration in a friendly manner failed initially and they took the risk of confronting the governor publicly.
Shelly Nortz of Coalition for the Homeless said that 2014 efforts to get the Cuomo administration to deliver on supportive housing funding. The group continued to pressure Cuomo, working with and praising Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo’s rival, for his supportive housing initiative in 2015, and then getting more and more vocal calling for Cuomo to do what they said was his part.
The Coalition and its allies were encouraged when Cuomo prioritized funding to fight homelessness in his 2016 State of the State address, but when the governor and the Legislature failed to agree on how to distribute it, Nortz’s group kicked the public pressure campaign into high gear.
“We’ve been having a presence outside the governor’s office,” Nortz said of regular rallies to call for release of the funds set aside in the state budget. As the group and other members of the NY/NY Housing coalition have issued press releases and done interviews on the subject, sometimes harshly criticizing Cuomo, the governor’s office has reacted in various ways. At one point, an administration spokesperson said that the governor hadn’t intended to sign the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would distribute the housing funds this year and instead expected to do it next year.
After being rebuffed, the administration tried a different path: releasing an MOU approved by the administration, essentially to move the ball into state legislative leaders’ court. The MOU wasn’t signed by either legislative leader, but it was an indication that the administration was squirming under the pressure brought by housing groups.
Nortz acknowledged that most small advocacy groups can’t manage to turn out the kind of presence housing groups have to pressure the governor. She said she is unsure how effective their efforts have been given that the MOU remains unsigned. “It’s reminiscent of 2014 in a lot of ways,” said Nortz. “There is talk but there is no agreement.”
Criminal justice reform advocates describe having to pull Cuomo forward kicking and screaming to ensure oversight by a special prosecutor in instances of police killings of civilians. In 2015 the governor felt pressure from the mothers and family members of civilians killed by police, black and Latino legislators, and major advocacy groups. Unable to move the Legislature to action during session, activists didn’t let go, instead amplifying their calls for the governor to do something.
On July 8, 2015 Cuomo announced an executive order giving the Attorney General jurisdiction to investigate police killings of civilians. The move angered many conservatives and law enforcement officials across the state, but pleased many activists and elected officials, especially legislators of color, many of whom joined Cuomo at the signing of the order.
Advocates involved in the push say they believe they were successful in moving Cuomo because the governor is particularly sensitive about his most concentrated voting base, which consists of African-Americans from New York City. Furthermore, Cuomo was able to claim that he was “the first” governor to take action on what was coming into focus as a major national issue.
While the executive order was a victory for advocates, their momentum has stalled since. Cuomo has acknowledged that he would like to see legislation to make a special prosecutor permanent in such cases, but he has not pushed the issue with the Republican Senate Majority, where opposition lies.
A number of lobbyists say this is a typical result for a lobbying effort that confronts and calls out Gov. Cuomo. “They got something but they didn’t get all of it,” said one long-time lobbyist. “You can rattle him and force him to move to stop the bleeding but it isn’t the best move in the long run.”
Advocates, legislators, businesspeople, and lobbyists who don’t have a direct line to Cuomo or a long-standing alliance are often faced with that risky question of when to go at the governor with an aggressive public relations campaign. They can pay off wildly or they can put you on the governor’s bad side -- sometimes both.
Business lobbyists say confrontational campaigns are their absolute last resort with any administration, but note that smaller issue-based groups don’t have a wealth of options at their disposal.
Efforts to expand newer, technology-based businesses like Airbnb and Uber have set the stage for what some lobbyists say will be “heavyweight showdowns” with the well-established hotel trades and taxi lobbies, respectively. As Cuomo weighs whether to sign a bill that would be damaging to Airbnb, both supporters and opponents of the bill have struggled some with how to cajole him in their direction, especially around how much public pressure to mount.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation into the Governor’s economic development programs has put considerably more scrutiny on how lobbyists and those with business before the state use donations to get the attention of the governor and his closest allies. Fear over corruption was triggered because major developers, including two charged by Bharara, made major donations to Cuomo’s reelection campaign within months of winning major economic development contracts with the state. Bharara has also charged three of Cuomo’s allies with working to fix bids for the contractors they prefer. Cuomo has denied knowledge of the alleged arrangement and he has not been accused of wrongdoing, but it is his campaign that benefited.
New York lacks the conflict of interest laws that limit campaign contributions from groups with business before the state. A July report by Politico New York showed that most of the donors to Cuomo’s campaign have business before the state, or interest in pending legislation. Cuomo has always claimed that he makes decisions on the merits.
*Note: due to a mistake on the part of Gotham Gazette, attempts to reach the Cuomo administration for comment for this article did not reach the intended party. Cuomo's office should have been afforded to opportunity to respond to the questins at hand in this article, including certain allegations, and we apologize for the error. A prior note that indicated Cuomo's office did not respond to a request for comment was removed after it became clear that requests for comment did not reach representatives for Cuomo. After making this realization in communication with Cuomo's office, Gotham Gazette offered the Cuomo administration an opportunity to comment.