The federal corruption charges brought against the former confidantes of Governor Andrew Cuomo should be a wake-up call for his often spineless rivals: sooner, rather than later, it will be time to strike.
Cuomo, New York’s undisputed political hegemon (sorry, Chuck Schumer), has seemed all but unbeatable. Now U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has Joe Percoco, who was once like a brother to Cuomo, and Todd Howe, a lobbyist and a former high-ranking aide, in his crosshairs. This means progressives should start dreaming about 2018, when the governor will try for term three to match his father, the legendary Mario Cuomo.
Until yesterday, any primary challenge looked like an uphill slog, thanks to the gobs of campaign cash Cuomo could raise and dump on the sap who has something to lose, unlike the gleeful Zephyr Teachout, a no-name law professor who challenged him in 2014 and garnered a surprising 34 percent of the vote. Teachout, now running for Congress, could launch another protest candidacy, but there is another serious player waiting in the wings were he so inclined: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Two of the last three governors, Cuomo included, served in the powerful law enforcement role, and the steadfast if milquetoast Schneiderman has been the least high profile of the bunch. A former state senator from Manhattan, Schneiderman has quietly bolstered his progressive bona fides by bringing a lawsuit against Trump University, securing multi-billion dollar settlements from JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America for their roles in the housing crisis, and fighting to be appointed a special prosecutor for killings by police. He also brought charges against Howe and a State University of New York president allegedly involved in the bid-rigging scheme Bharara’s office is scrutinizing.
For all the theoretical leverage he holds over Cuomo, he’s often been bullied: to undercut the attorney general’s office, Cuomo created a new state agency, the Department of Financial Services, and reportedly chided him for wearing eyeliner (Schneiderman reportedly has glaucoma).
The two have gotten along better in recent years, but Cuomo cultivates no true allies. All friends are enemies waiting to be made unless they lose their backbones, which most in Albany quickly do. No one in the history of the state, outside of maybe Nelson Rockefeller or Robert Moses, has been more adept at steamrolling people. In two years, that could all change.
Bharara, for all his plaudits, has a tendency to showboat and overreach. But the complaint is plenty damning and a guilty conviction of Percoco would loom large over the Cuomo administration because Percoco, the governor’s longtime enforcer, was such a close aide. Were the Working Families Party, which betrayed its liberal mission in 2014 to endorse the triangulating Cuomo, to nudge Schneiderman into a Democratic primary and throw their full weight behind the effort, Cuomo could be frightened for the first time in his political life. He will be forced to hustle for votes, something he barely did in either of his gubernatorial bids, preferring to blanket the airwaves and sit back in his soulless dreadnaught of a campaign. White liberals would be enthralled with Schneiderman; blacks and Latinos could be more of a haul, but Schneiderman speaks fluent Spanish. A staunch ally of organized labor and a Democrat in good standing, he could at least talk some unions (maybe not risk-averse 1199 SEIU) into throwing in their lot with him. The Teachout vote would be guaranteed.
Cuomo is plenty cognizant of a challenge from the left. An alarm bell sounded in 2014 and he paid it some heed, rushing to pass a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave. He ditched his childish crusades against public sector unions. On the fundamentals, he’s still Cuomo: he won’t make any effort to help Democrats retake control of the State Senate, allowing Republicans to snuff out progressive reforms when it suits them. Schneiderman, if history is any indication, wouldn’t play those games.
But it remains to be seen whether Schneiderman can muster the killer instinct needed to run in a bloody statewide Democratic primary against an all-powerful incumbent. Like most elected officials, Schneiderman is overly risk averse. That, when all these terrible headlines pass, may be Cuomo’s saving grace.