A new Cuomo, an old stunt

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May 20, 2012

Governor’s deal with the GOP is right out of the family playbook

I’ve seen this movie before … there’s like a whole little deja vu going on for me,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo quipped last month when asked by reporters whether he would run for president in 2016 — invoking the memory of constant speculation about Mario Cuomo’s presidential ambitions during his three terms as governor.

Andrew might be reminded that this question comes with the job, not the Cuomo family name, and has been asked of every governor in the past half-century. That is, except David Paterson — and, I suppose, Eliot Spitzer, once he actually became governor. Eliot was widely viewed as a future president only while attorney general and governor-elect.

For many people of a certain age, the real Cuomo family signature moment involved the manner in which Andrew assisted Republicans in their effort to maintain control of the state Senate, despite their rapidly shrinking popularity with New York’s voters.

In 1986, when Mario Cuomo conspired with Republican leaders to protect their majority in the Senate, the GOP was already a minority party in the state by a fair margin. In 2012, when Andrew came to their rescue, enrolled Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a crushing 2-1 ratio. In these instances, first father and then son moved forcefully to frustrate real majority rule for fear of the responsibility it would have imposed upon them and for reasons involving personal aggrandizement.

In 1986, New York was well on its way to becoming a deep blue state. Republican control of the state Senate, which had been firm for every year since 1939 (save 1965), seemed likely to end with the fall elections and the enormous coattails of Mario Cuomo, standing for re-election at the zenith of his popularity.

His expected landslide seemed likely to make him the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 1988 presidential election. Then Mario cut a tacit but transparently obvious deal with the Republican Party. They would mount only token opposition to his re-election and he would not campaign against any Republican senator facing a serious Democratic challenge that November.

The Republicans picked then-Westchester County Executive Andrew O’Rourke as their gubernatorial nominee, and then abandoned him. He was given less than 20 percent of the money available to Cuomo. With that, he was thrashed 65 percent to 35 percent, a record only surpassed by Spitzer in 2006.

Beyond trading majority rule for an inflated plurality in his own election, Mario’s protection of the Republican majority in the Senate provided him with another benefit. It allowed him to continue blaming the Republicans for frustrating his legislative agenda and grand vision for the state. In truth, there wasn’t much vision or programmatic detail, just lots of speeches about New York being a “family.”

Move forward to 2012. The state is solidly Democratic. All its statewide elected officials are Democrats and their overwhelming control of the Assembly closely mirrors the party’s actual support among voters. Republican control of the Senate looks and feels as anomalous as Gibraltar, the tiny British enclave on the coast of Andalusian Spain.

The deal struck this year by Andrew, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to create a 63rd Senate district west and south of Albany County will greatly increase the chances for Republicans to maintain control of the upper chamber this November and possibly well beyond.

The state’s Supreme Court, its Court of Appeals and the Obama administration’s Justice Department were each asked by Senate Democrats to nullify the Cuomo/Silver/Skelos 21st-century gerrymandering compact. They all said pretty much the same thing: The additional seat and the method adopted by Senate Republicans for achieving it are troubling, but within the power of elected officials to inflict on the people that elected them.

Ironically, the Justice Department pointed out that the 63rd Senate district did not dilute the voting power of minority voters within the meaning of the Voting Rights Act. That’s sort of true, because the real dilution is not of a minority, but of the power of the two-thirds majority of the electorate who enroll as Democrats. Their ability to elect a Legislature that reflects their positions and concerns has been frustrated.

Along the way to establishment of the new Senate seat, Andrew broke his commitment to reject any redistricting plan not done on an independent and nonpartisan basis.

His new promise is that New York will come into compliance with the U.S. constitutional mandate of “one person, one vote” after the 2020 census. And once again, a Cuomo is seeking more of a certain type of power while rejecting the capability to really accomplish the difficult things he wants to as governor — assuming such exist.

If the Senate was controlled by Democrats, both Andrew and Shelly Silver would have to contend and negotiate with another power from within their own party. Neither wants to do that. Nor does Andrew, like his father, want the responsibility of governing New York with the stars aligned.

If that were to occur, there would be no more excuses, no more decade-long deferrals on constitutional rule and no more half-loaves characterized as unprecedented and historic breakthroughs.

Yeah, “a whole little deja vu” indeed.



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