Andrew Cuomo's Biggest Rival Won't Be the G.O.P.

It's Shelly Silver and the old-school Dems in his race to Governor

Andrew Cuomo's Biggest Rival Won't Be the G.O.P.
Morgan Schweitzer

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.

Andrew Cuomo
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Andrew Cuomo
Shelly Silver
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Shelly Silver

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With additional research and reporting by Gavin Aronsen, Michael Cohen, Cat Contiguglia, Scott Greenberg, Alana Horowitz, Bill Kline, and Jenny Tai

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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.

Cuomo has hereditary charisma and a Wall Street and Albany record as attorney general that has sent his poll positives higher than any other statewide official. Just as, nearly three decades ago, Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo undercut a sitting Democratic governor, Hugh Carey, to clear the path for his own candidacy, Andrew Cuomo, abetted like his father by probing reporters, has forced incumbent David Paterson from the race. The Paterson demise has freed Cuomo to skip a primary message aimed at liberal Democrats and go straight to November, buttressed by a fiscal plan so appealing to Republicans and independents that he is winning surprising endorsements and may even be backed by some members of the Senate Republican minority. Steeped in the ways of the capitol as his father's closest adviser from a very early age, Cuomo could arrive in Albany in January with a historic electoral mandate.

But Silver never leaves his trench, and he knows that every member of his Democratic assembly conference has his own trench, a district whose lines he crafted for their protection, making them impervious to the grand sweep of charisma and history. This collegial cocoon feeds off contempt for editorial pages and every other contrary voice, all of whom, including governors, are seen as transient irritants, while the assembly sits behind Albany stone, locked in lifetime sinecures, meting out "good" on their own terms and in their own time.

While the dailies have noted the underlying tensions between these two, no one has tallied the casualties if the Cuomo platform prevails. Reporters have observed that Cuomo's demand for full financial disclosure of every legislator's outside earnings and clients is an attack on Silver, who engineered the passage of an ethics bill a few months ago that explicitly exempted lawyers from the client disclosure Cuomo demands (Paterson vetoed it anyway). Almost every section of Cuomo's detailed platform is a challenge to Silver's:

-- Silver's assembly has appointed two of the last three state comptrollers, including the current one, Tom DiNapoli, who was selected by majority vote of the legislature when the only other comptroller since 1993, Alan Hevesi, a former assemblyman close to Silver who actually won two statewide elections, had to step down after pleading guilty to a felony. Cuomo wants to require succession elections rather than continuing to allow Silver's minions to fill vacancies. Having exposed massive fraud in the management of the state's $130 billion pension fund, Cuomo also wants to end the sole trusteeship, joining the other 47 states that have boards or multiple levels of control over pension investment decisions rather than a single trustee, the comptroller. This Cuomo reform and others will hem in the comptroller, which Silver has come to view as an outpost of the assembly majority. DiNapoli's spokesman told the Voice that he could support a board if the new law protected the fund from "raids" to plug holes in the state budget.

-- Cuomo wants an independent commission to draw new legislative lines by 2012 and vows to veto any plan "that reflects partisan gerrymandering," precisely what his father refused to do when his Senate Republican allies drew self-serving lines in 1992.

-- The Cuomo platform includes an ethics commission that ends self-policing by the legislature, dramatic reform of campaign finance laws that have filled Silver's trough, a threat to veto legislative, member-item pork, and a constitutional convention and commission that can end-run the legislature and fundamentally alter power relationships in the state.

-- Focusing laser-like on the state's $52 billion Medicaid budget, Cuomo vowed to stop "the current politicized system" for setting reimbursement rates for any particular form of medical care, charging that "the legislature micromanages rate changes." He also wants to aggregate pharmaceutical purchases by creating a "pharmacy benefit management agency" that would take control of these plans away from duplicative and costly union administration, shutting down a powerful source of labor patronage.

-- Cuomo has effectively nixed the Ravitch plan, which Silver encouraged and supported and would have allowed the state to borrow billions over the next three years to help close the budget gap.

-- The probable new governor plans to strip the legislature of its authority to reorganize the more than 1,000 state agencies, employing nearly 200,000 workers, and set up a commission "directed by business leaders" that will "right-size it." He says that "decades of evidence proves that the Legislature is incapable of exercising such authority in other than a piecemeal fashion," and that governors in 31 states have the powers he will seek. "If governors are to have the responsibility of running the State's agencies," the Cuomo book declares, "they should have the power and authority to do so."

-- Deriding the legislature's onetime favorite economic development program, Empire Zones, Cuomo will replace it with one that rewards new hiring automatically rather than dispensing tax credit benefits to businesses politically. He also announced his opposition to $3 billion in "directed capital funding" for projects covertly selected by legislative leaders.

-- Cuomo's support of lifting the cap on charter schools, fiercely opposed by the teachers' union, has already helped push Silver to back a bill that could lead to 260 new schools across the state, positioning New York to possibly qualify for hundreds of millions in Obama's Race to the Top education reform funding. Silver had already blown one deadline for this funding in January and appeared willing to miss a second June 1 deadline, but, pushed by Cuomo (the only real recruit for charters since January), the speaker consented to a new cap. He put so many conditions in the bill, however, that the state may still not compete effectively for the Obama bonanza.

-- Undergirding all of this is Cuomo's stern warning that he won't endorse any candidates who don't pledge publicly to back his reform plan. "I don't sign anybody's pledges," Silver told the Daily News. His excuse was that pledges "are fixed in time," and, of course, Silver prefers to float in time, only making decisions when the clock is about to stop ticking, just as he recently did on the final business day before a new charter law had to pass. Voice calls to DiNapoli, all five candidates for attorney general, and the two U.S. senators on the November ballot, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, turned up only a single potential Cuomo running mate ready to sign his pledge, Kathleen Rice, the AG candidate he quietly favors. Cuomo even deleted some of his key reforms, like the elimination of the sole trustee for the pension plan, from the list of pledges, but DiNapoli declined to say he'd sign it anyway, suggesting that he's more bound by another pledge, the one he made to Silver in some secret assembly fraternal ritual. After we sent the one-page pledge to Westchester assemblyman Richard Brodsky, the AG candidate Silver backs, he barked: "When Andrew wants my thing on it, I'm sure he'll send it to me and I'll read it then." The pledge promises to become the dividing line between Cuomo's party and Silver's.

-- Cuomo is even keeping the Working Families Party at a distance, despite its intricate ties to Silver. If he doesn't agree to run on its ballot line, the party may lose the line, since its gubernatorial candidate must get 50,000 votes every four years to retain its ballot position. Silver associates are already playing the race card on Cuomo, who picked Rochester's mayor, Bob Duffy, as his candidate for lieutenant governor, completing what is the first all-white state Democratic ticket since 1990. The WFP may run a minority candidate against Cuomo, and its legislative allies may pass a bill giving the party a permanent line, blurring the 50,000-vote requirement. No one seems to notice that Silver picked one of the white candidates on the statewide ticket, DiNapoli, and that he persuaded Paterson to install his lifelong friend, Jonathan Lippman, as the state's chief judge, despite the fact that a sitting Latina judge had superior qualifications. Nor is Paterson blamed for the white candidate that he contributed to the statewide ticket, Senator Gillibrand.

As sensible as much of Cuomo's plan appears to be, especially at a time when more New Yorkers than ever consistently blast Albany in the polls, his approach to taxes would expose him to the same withering attack on Reagan Republicans his father made. "God helps those whom God has helped" was Mario Cuomo's refrain about tax cuts for the rich. Now his son, the man who exposed the gargantuan bonuses Wall Street continues to pay, is against taxing them.

The Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank partially funded by unions, issued a telling report a couple of months ago that pointed to two giant pots of income worth taxing, at least as long as the downturn cripples state revenues—namely, Wall Street's record $61 billion profit in 2009, and the top 25 hedge fund managers who earned more than a billion apiece last year. Neither Cuomo nor Silver, who usually channels the FPI on tax policy but includes Wall Street in his downtown assembly district, has taken up any of the institute's suggested revenue sources. Cuomo's book footnotes another FPI study, which proves that the state and local tax burden falls heaviest on the middle class and is kindest to the rich (those earning between $33,000 and $56,000 pay 12 percent of their income in New York taxes, while those earning more than $3 million pay 9.4 percent). Yet he does not cite this study for that purpose and never discusses how he will attack economic inequality in his program.

Indeed, Andrew Cuomo's book and 21-minute video contain a crisp statement of his core beliefs, and they are resoundingly liberal, from same-sex marriage to preserving the safety net, but the list does not include any commitment to progressive tax policies or even to maintaining the temporary restructuring of the state's income tax that Silver and the WFP spearheaded last year. Their three-year surcharge raised state taxes on the wealthiest and created two new brackets, suspending a regressive system that had every New Yorker who earns more than $40,000 a year in the same, expansive bracket.

Cuomo, who appears to borrow his tax policies from the pages of the New York Post, gave the paper critical quotes after the tax increase passed, calling a hike when the economy was down "a frightening combination." The current $9 billion budget gap would be $14 billion if that tax hike hadn't become law. Not only is Cuomo silent about that hike now, but Silver omitted it from his list of legislative achievements in his convention speech. Lazio has already used the expiring surcharge as one of his prime critiques of the Cuomo program, putting pressure on Cuomo to abandon it regardless of the fiscal and fairness impact on state government. If Cuomo continues to mimic Clintonian triangulation, he may wind up letting the surcharge and the reformed brackets die.

It is one thing to challenge the unions on pensions, Medicaid excess, and charters, but quite another to walk away from their demand that revenues respect ability to pay. Mario Cuomo beat Koch in part by depicting him as a Reaganite on taxes who moved to repeal a levy on multimillion-dollar real estate deals while trying to reduce cost-of-living increases for workers.

Cuomo's inequality evasiveness isn't limited to taxes, however. The high point of his convention speech, which brought blacks and others to their feet, was his poignant portrayal of the disparities in public education: "You can go to schools on one side of town and they will take you to first-graders who are on the Internet," he boomed. "And you can go to schools on the other side of town and they don't have a basketball net." He did the same with Pentium processors in one school, and metal detectors in the other. He concluded with a declaration that "discrimination is alive and well" in New York, on education, housing, employment, and other fronts.

But Cuomo doesn't mention the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit in his platform or speeches, though the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled in 2006 that the very inequity Cuomo is describing is chronic in the state's school aid formula and has to be corrected. The lawsuit dragged on for 13 years, appealed endlessly by Pataki, but even after the New York City plaintiffs finally prevailed, the legislature and Paterson have stopped implementing it, preserving allocations that penalize the state's poorest school districts. The only obvious blow that Cuomo refuses to throw at his legislative punching bag, though, is its crushing refusal now to sustain the effort toward equalizing school expenditures.

Paterson even suggests delaying full implementation for another decade, freezing the status quo of suburban advantage at the cost of short-circuited urban futures. Silver and Sampson, two city legislators, have so far appeared to acquiese in this virtually invisible conspiracy, determined to hang on to the suburban seats Democrats control. It is fast becoming the state's shameful secret, and Cuomo appears unwilling to tackle it, even as his proposal to cap property tax increases, which fund local schools, is likely to heighten disparities.

These omissions in the Cuomo plan are, no doubt, as calculated as the inclusions. And they say as much about the candidate, who, as he moves from Memorial Day parades in Queens to tense sessions with the Working Families Party, can't help but hear the echoes from his father's courageous 1982 campaign.

"It's a business that can make you forget—at least in the frenzy and heat of the campaign," Mario Cuomo wrote in his published diary, "who you are, what you are and what you're supposed to be. Because the goal is so dramatic, the pursuit of it so complete, unless one is very careful, everything else is eclipsed. That happens in life all the time: a temporary delight can be so tempting that it makes us forget a greater good. The attraction of a victory offered in the campaign—what it offers the ego, if not the soul—can be a powerful distraction from the greater good. The greater good for me has to be to remember that anything which is not an expression of love—or silence—is probably wrong."

wbarrett@villagevoice.com

Previously: "Andrew Cuomo and Fannie and Freddie," How the youngest Housing and Urban Development secretary in history gave birth to the mortgage crisis by Wayne Barrett.
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