By Anna Merlan
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When Andrew Cuomo's father ran for governor in 1982 against a rightward-tilting Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo called himself "The Real Democrat," lined up the teachers and other public employee unions, and overcame a 38-point gap in the polls on his way to three terms at Albany's helm. He attributed his stunning primary and general election wins—he also beat a billionaire Rite Aid Republican managed by Roger Ailes—to "the traditional Democratic coalition."
Today, with 78-year-old Mario at his side and in his ear, Andrew Cuomo, who helped orchestrate his father's victory as a 24-year-old campaign manager, calls himself the leader of "The New Democratic Party," and is running against elements of the coalition that put his papa in power. Citing a projected 500 percent increase in state pension costs since 1998, Medicaid costs that are twice the national average, the highest per-pupil school expenditures in America, and the top property tax burden, Cuomo has unveiled a 224-page program that is as much a reproach as it is reform, as shocking a shot at his own party, and its union base, as any party leader has ever taken.
It's also a shot at the embodiment of the traditional party, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, who was installed by his colleagues when Saul Weprin, who'd become speaker with Cuomo's support, died suddenly in 1994. Even as Cuomo ran for a fourth term that year, Silver, determined to show he wasn't as cozy with Cuomo as Weprin, thwarted initiatives the governor thought could help him win. With Cuomo's loss to Republican George Pataki and a continued GOP hegemony in the State Senate, Silver then became the only Democrat in Albany that mattered, the niche he occupied through 12 Pataki years. Even now, the 66-year-old Silver remains at Albany's apex, transcending a crippled governor, David Paterson, and a narrow, unpredictable Democratic majority in the Senate.
Shrewdly comfortable in the shadows, Silver, who has represented the Lower East Side since 1976 and is the longest-tenured Democratic speaker in New York history, built an assembly majority that reached a record 110 seats in 2009. For the first time, though, he is now losing seats, having dropped to 107 in special elections this year. An Orthodox Jew who backs same-sex marriage, the elastic Silver adapts, ingratiates, and compromises as deftly as an Albany leader astride such a diverse Democratic conference can. He weathered one coup a decade ago, and mixes just enough muscle and mensch to get what he wants out of a 150-member body of caged egos and blatherskites, each straining for their elusive moment in the klieg lights.
Faced now with a gubernatorial candidate openly challenging the orthodoxies and interests that undergird his already dwindling, but still overwhelming, majority, Silver trekked to the podium of the recent State Democratic Convention and smiled through 17 Cuomo mentions in a 10-minute speech, all the while trying mightily to spell out how much his "Old Democratic Party" had done. So proudly tone-deaf that he speaks only in chesty monotones, Silver actually said that Democrats "are overcoming" the challenges the state faces "one by one," adding that "we have already accomplished much," a defiant assertion from an alternate universe. Four days after Cuomo released his point-by-point book detailing his promised takedown of the legislature, Silver blithely declared how happy he was to welcome "new leadership that appreciates and respects the legislative process for what it is, the very heart and soul of democracy."
A day later, Cuomo appeared at the same Rye Hilton in Westchester, with Silver, Senate Democratic leader John Sampson and most Democratic legislators having already returned to Albany and underscored his differences with his party even as he accepted its gubernatorial nomination. At the end of a recitation of the problems afflicting New Yorkers, he said, "People turned to government because they believe government was going to be there to help.
"The state government that was supposed to be part of the solution," he said, "turned out to be part of the problem. And that is undeniable and irrefutable. As we sit here today, there is still not a state budget that is done. Today's approach requires fiscal prudence, requires competence and performance in government." Though the delegates and galleries cheered Cuomo at times, they sat on their hands when he dissected a government controlled at every level by Democrats. How, after all, can you applaud a litany of your own calamitous and continuing failings, especially coming from the man just chosen as your leader?
The Silver/Cuomo debate may prove more compelling than the one sleepy Rick Lazio promises. If Cuomo's extraordinary poll numbers hold, the tug-of-war between old and new Democrats, yanking the same rope in starkly different directions, may have more to do with shaping state policy than any GOP sideshow. As loud as the complaints were for months about Cuomo's protracted policy reticence, it's now Silver and his union allies that have gone silent, offering no response to an unprecedented blueprint that challenges them on ethics, taxes, spending, pensions, and even the legislature's ability to map its own districts.
The State Constitution bars anyone who bets on an election from voting in it, but that doesn't apply to these two forces of nature, neither of whose names will ever appear on a ballot opposite the other. Every insider's dollar is on Silver, who is expected to stall and submarine one proposed reform after another, adopting only the ones he has so diluted that Cuomo will be left with little more than an empty declaration of victory.