The Rise and Fall of King Cuomo

I worked as an Assistant to NY Senator Tom Libous [R] and as a Legislative Assistant to NY Assemblyman Tom McKevitt [R] from 2010 to 2014.

In 2010, the New York State Senate had 30 Republicans and 32 Democrats. On a warm summer day, Senator Libous rose from his seat to introduce a surprise resolution to replace Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith [D] with a Republican. This created commotion in the Senate chamber as two Democrats had struck a deal with Republicans to vote for the resolution. Malcolm Smith moved to recess and cut off the lights and internet, but as much as he tried to stop the resolution it had passed. This came to be known as the “Senate coup.”

If that didn’t sound dysfunctional enough this was coming off the heels of Governor Eliot Spitzer [D] resigning due to paying “up to $80,000 for prostitutes while he was attorney general, and later as governor” and then his successor Governor David Paterson [D] dropping out of his reelection campaign because he solicited an unlawful gift of free New York Yankees tickets and then “lied under oath” about it (at least it wasn’t New York Mets tickets).

With Governor Paterson out of the race, Andrew Cuomo [D] easily won the Gubernatorial election and assumed office on January 1st, 2011.

Governor Cuomo didn’t just step into a political whirlwind, but a fiscal housefire.

New York had the highest debt per capita. New York was ranked 50th in business climate and 50th in economic development because of its extremely high taxes (taxes 66% higher than the national average) and was considered by CATO, the worst state on regulatory policy. ” New York was #1 in education spending, but 34th in results, #1 in Medicaid spending, but #21 in results.

At first, Andrew Cuomo rose to the moment. His experience as NY State Attorney General and as the son of a three-time governor plus his campaigning as a centrist Clintonesque “New Democrat” enabled him to hit the ground running to appeal to the Democratic-majority Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.

He began his term by pointing out to audiences across the state the dire fiscal mess the state was in and the games politicians play to avoid addressing it,

When politicians talk about cutting the budget, a cut is defined as anything less than the anticipated growth. So anything less than the 13% increase is called a cut! All these years when you’ve been hearing they cut the state budget, you thought cut meant cut. Silly you! Why would you think cut means cut? Cut meant they didn’t have as large an increase as they thought they were going to have!

As part of his “charm offensive,” he invited legislators to the governor’s mansion for bagels and policy talks.

He established the Committee to Save New York, a lobbying group that spent millions of dollars on pro-Cuomo advertising and outreach.

He used the media to play tough with legislators. “A source close to the governor” would, for example, leak to the press that an ethics bill isn’t passing the Senate because Senator Nozzolio’s law firm doesn’t want to reveal its clients.

To strengthen the persuasive power of the bully pulpit, he’d use PowerPoint in his speeches.

Governor Cuomo effectively worked with labor unions who have more political power in NY than in any other state. Labor unions represent a larger percentage of workers in NY than anywhere else. Governor Cuomo pressured the unions to accept modest cuts or else he’d unleash Mayor Mike Bloomberg [R] on them. Mike Bloomberg had successfully got passed in the NY Senate a bill that would’ve allowed merit-based personnel decisions in city schools, which would’ve increased their quality, but Andrew Cuomo shot it down in exchange for reportedly getting the United Federation of Teachers to accept modest education cuts.

Cuomo also told hospital lobbyists and the healthcare workers union that he wanted to cut $2.9 billion in Medicaid and largely left it up to them to decide how to cut it.

Another key aspect of Cuomo’s leadership style is how he built close working relationships with legislative leaders. He’d frequently meet with the Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver [D] and the Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos [R] and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous [R]. Compromises were made.

If you think Republicans and Democrats can’t work together then 2011–2013 was a time in New York when they did.

Arguably, Cuomo’s most effective tactic was using a parliamentary maneuver known as “extender bills” to pressure legislators. How it works is the Governor could put forth an emergency spending bill where the Legislature must either vote for it as it is or face a government shutdown.

You really don’t want to [compromise]? Good. Well then I’ll send you a bill. It’ll be an extender bill. You don’t want to do it. Don’t pass it. Shut down the government and then let’s take the case to the people. And I am confident in taking the case to the people. — Andrew Cuomo

With these tactics, Governor Cuomo in 2011 was able to sign into law the first on-time budget since Governor Cuomo in 1984.

New York magazine described Cuomo’s first 100 days as stealth genius.

With a Republican Senate, Governor Cuomo was able to pass same-sex marriage in 2011 on a bipartisan basis, which made NY the largest state to legalize it.

Since New York Republicans were willing to play ball on gay marriage and fight to clean up Albany’s fiscal mess, Governor Cuomo encouraged the formation of the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) in order to help Republicans maintain control of the NY Senate.

Imagine that!

But the great turning point of goodwill was in 2013 with the rushed passage of the SAFE Act where Cuomo used an extender bill to give lawmakers only a few minutes to read the act before voting on it. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Cuomo’s logic was that he needed to rush the bill through because “lives were at stake.” Cuomo defined it as, “the toughest gun control law in the United States.” Cuomo’s favorability rating among Republicans dropped 48%.

Beyond this point, Cuomo moved further left to ward off any primary challenger and to better position himself for a potential run for president. In the meantime though, he’d have to settle for “king.”

In Cuomo’s second and third term, he signed into law a fracking ban, $15 minimum wage, 12-week paid family leave, pay-equity, free tuition at NY public universities for families making under $125,000, marijuana legalization, START-UP NY, raised taxes on the rich, the Reproductive Health Act, and shut down the Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center.

Those are considered his “accomplishments.”

But New York has one of the largest natural gas deposits in the United States and so Cuomo’s fracking ban stopped what could’ve been an economic renaissance for upstate NY, in addition to creating a cleaner future as, “fracked natural gas burns more cleanly than coal and oil.”

His shutting down of the Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center, which supplied NYC 25% of its power, led to the city using even more fossil fuels. The Democratic Party’s refusal to tap into the most important energy source of our times should cause anyone who cares about climate change to #WalkAway.

Cuomo’s phasing in of a $15 minimum wage may sound good on paper like his other policies, but will undeniably force even more businesses, especially upstate, to downsize, automate, shudder up, and/or move away to states where taxes and labor costs are lower and where business owners don’t have to worry as much about being sued for any little thing they might say or do as NY’s law is extremely vague and the courts are notoriously corrupt.

His START-UP NY economic development plan created 408 jobs and cost at least $53 million dollars to promote it.

Cuomo’s Reproductive Health Act legalized abortion at any point in the pregnancy so long as the “woman’s health is at risk,” which “health” and “risk” isn’t defined by law, but by the mother and medical professional. Since childbirth by definition involves health risks then the mother and her midwife (whom the Act now permits to administer abortions) can terminate a 9-month old baby. The law also removed abortion from the criminal code so that, for example, if a baby dies as the result of an assault on a pregnant woman, there would be no prosecution for the death. And in a stunning act of disrespect to 9/11 families, Andrew Cuomo lit the One World Trade Center pink.

This then gets me to what even the left acknowledges are Cuomo’s controversies…

In May 2013, Cuomo used $40 million of federal disaster relief funds to broadcast national TV ads promoting the “New New York” in order to “attract business investment to the state,” but some say it was really about increasing Cuomo’s national stature because as one Democratic ally said, “that’s what gets him going, the national media attention.”

In July 2014, Cuomo directed the Moreland Commission, which was a committee to root out corruption in NY politics, to stay away from investigating things that could be politically damaging to him. In September 2016, Cuomo’s top aide for whom he had considered a brother and his father considered a “third son” was “convicted of soliciting and accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from executives working for two companies with state business.”

In November 2017, The New York Times revealed Cuomo had received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the MTA union and then told the MTA to pay the union whatever they demanded and figure out where the money will come from later.

In February 2018, The New York Times discovered Cuomo had received over $890,000 from his appointees, for which he had signed an Executive Order banning such a practice, but then quietly reinterpreted it. Some donations were made to Cuomo just days after he appointed a donor.

In March 2020, Cuomo required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients. As of June 2020, over 6,000 New York state nursing home residents died of COVID-19. By February 2021, New York had the highest per capita hospitalization rate in the country, but hey, at least he got an Emmy for his COVID-19 press conferences?

In the midst of the media’s growing love affair with the “love guv,” Cuomo siphoned off some of his staff’s time away from addressing the ongoing pandemic to help him write a book praising his “victory” over it (for which he got paid $5 million dollars).

If Cuomo stayed focused on his pandemic response then maybe nine state health officials wouldn’t have resigned?

In January 2021, the state attorney general’s office concluded the Cuomo administration had undercounted COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by as much as 50%. A top Cuomo aide said Cuomo intentionally delayed the release of nursing homes deaths out of fear it would trigger a federal investigation and give a political advantage to his opponents.

In March 2021, the FBI said it was investigating Cuomo for illegally shielding nursing home executive political donors from COVID-19 lawsuits.

And in August 2021, the state attorney general’s office concluded that during Cuomo’s time in office, he sexually harassed 11 women and illegally retaliated against one of his accusers. The Washington Post shared howCuomo’s behavior created a ‘hostile, toxic’ workplace culture for decades,” which I can personally confirm as I had heard from former staff about the toxicity of working there. It was an open secret that Cuomo was a bully, but the liberal elite were still happy to call themselves “Cuomosexuals” because he was their bully.

Ultimately, if you think the main lesson here is that Cuomo was a “bad” governor then you aren’t paying close enough attention.

During the time I worked for the Legislature, virtually every one of New York’s top political leaders was sentenced to prison…

Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver [D]was sentenced to 7 years for corruption. Former Majority Leader Malcolm Smith [D] was sentenced to 7 years for bribery. Majority Leader Dean Skelos [R] was sentenced to 4 years for corruption. Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous [R] was sentenced to 6 months of house arrest for lying to the FBI. He appealed his conviction and because he died of terminal cancer during the appeal, his conviction was vacated (Libous was nothing but a good man to me and ran a professional tight ship even after developing pancreatic cancer. R.I.P.). Congressman Anthony Weiner [D], aka “Carlos Danger,” who was the frontrunner for NYC Mayor was sentenced to 21 months for “transferring obscene material to a minor.” Since 2000, 47 NY state legislators have faced accusations of wrongdoing.

Maybe the problem isn’t so much any one person, but with New York’s byzantine bureaucracy which has been so well insulated against any real reform because the State Assembly has been controlled by Democrats since Watergate! When the state is handing out contracts left and right largely based on political self-interest then it’s easy for a politician to fall into the trap of considering their financial self-interest too. Complexity begs abuse, especially when there’s little accountability.

It’s clear that the way to save New York is by drastically downsizing unions, regulations, bureaucracy, and taxes, but it’s also clear that no New Yorker will be elected Governor on that platform. Governor Pataki was the last Republican to hold statewide office in 2006. And so despite Democrats failing to turn the state around in over a decade they now not only control the Governor’s Mansion and virtually every major institution, but they now also have a supermajority in the Assembly and Senate.

Cuomo was politically savvy enough to understand what the state needs to do, but politically ambitious enough not to do it. Cuomo would’ve easily won a fourth-term if he was just able to keep his hands to himself not despite, but because New York is thee most unequal state in the country (Republicans win the middle-class whereas Democrats win the poor and the 1%).

The conundrum of modern-day New York politics is so long as Democrats get what they want politically they won’t get what they need economically. New York’s best hope may just be a king after all.

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