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Dude, Where’s My Governor?

by David King on April 27, 2011

He did it! He did it! He cowed the Legislature and they swallowed his budget with barely any restorations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered on one of his many campaign promises, and now . . . he is taking a break.

Cuomo ran on being anti-Albany and anti-Legislature, but during the Legislature’s two-and-a-half-week break, Cuomo has been conspicuously absent. The legislators have a neat excuse: They have to return to their districts to tend to constituent matters and to politic. Cuomo, on the other hand, does not. His constituents are not centrally located in either of the two places he has spent almost all his time these past weeks: his home in Westchester and office in New York City.

As he demonstrated with the budget, our tough-guy governor has the ability to lead on legislative issues. He gets the stone rolling with so much force that it simply bowls over any one standing in his way. No matter what you think of the merits of the budget or the legislation he supports, we know he has the ability to hammer it home.

So why isn’t he out there spending the political capital he built up with his budget performance to drive home his positions on other important policy initiatives? Cuomo’s stated priorities include ethics reform, same-sex marriage, independent redistricting, a property-tax cap and rent regulations. It is quite a laundry list of contentious issues, so why isn’t the governor priming the pump, pushing on legislators publicly to get them ready to do his bidding, or at least touring the state to raise support for his agenda? Well, for one, the governor probably doesn’t think he needs much more of a boost on the popularity front. Opinion polls show a favorability rating somewhere above 70 percent, and the budget took up so much media space that the governor’s people probably think his success is still reverberating with the public.

During the budget process, Cuomo resisted pressure to make other issues—rent regulations, a property-tax cap—part of the budget deal. In the past, it was an easy way for the governor and the Legislature to negotiate contentious issues in private and shove them through quietly. So it would seem that Cuomo was doing the public and open government advocates a favor.

And yet Cuomo, as best anyone can tell, is negotiating privately with legislators on ethics reform and other sensitive pieces of legislation. Backroom negotiations are a decidedly “Albany” thing to do, and Cuomo was supposed to be the guy who stopped all the Albany shenanigans.

When Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver indicated earlier this year that he thought a deal on ethics reform was close, Cuomo shot him down. “We’ve had positive conversations with both the Assembly and the Senate. The conversations have proceeded further with the Assembly; they are ongoing with the Senate. But as I’ve said before, this isn’t a game of horseshoes. Getting close doesn’t count. Either you pass a piece of legislation or you don’t pass a piece of legislation,” Cuomo told reporters. That was April 6; since then we’ve heard a whole lot of nothing.

Cuomo reportedly has also been spearheading efforts to publicly push for the legalization of same-sex marriage. After the stinging defeat of the marriage equality bill in the Senate last year, advocates want to make sure everyone is on the same page. Cuomo made the promise during his campaign that he would legalize gay marriage, and he seems to be the logical choice to lead the effort. But so far it is clear only that Cuomo has advocacy groups and celebrities like Lady Gaga putting the message out to the public. Cuomo reportedly has had backroom negotiations, but it’s not clear where the bill stands now. Republican senators have commented that each legislator in their conference would have to vote his or her conscience. That indicates that they are not all on the same page. Yet in the past the Republicans have managed to vote in lockstep on contentious issues.

So does any of this mean Cuomo is doing a good job or a bad job? No. It only means that Cuomo is not the man he made himself out to be in the campaign. He is the ultimate Albany insider. He hasn’t been busy during the two weeks the Legislature has been out of Albany because he functions as a classic Albany politician; he makes backroom deals and negotiates with the Legislature. Why would he need to be out in public, campaigning for the issues he supports? Those battles will be won and lost in the backroom. Cuomo knows that because he has chosen that route. He grew up in Albany under his father and learned how to play the game. He may have campaigned against the Legislature, but he is the master at stroking members’ egos and maneuvering them into place.

Cuomo isn’t the people’s governor. He has his own agenda, one that won’t be dictated by polling or the will of the people. He wrote it all up in his playbook, which no one bothered to look at before he was elected, and he sees his election as a validation of everything that was inside that policy manual. He will now mechanically try to achieve everything he can in the way he knows best: the backroom. Right now the backrooms are empty. Everyone is off in their districts and Cuomo, it seems, is taking a break. When Cuomo and the Legislature return next week there will be under two months left to get his campaign promises through the Legislature. Something tells me the backrooms are going to be very busy.