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Cuomo a 'closer' in LIRR talks, as widely predicted weeks ago

Lead Long Island Rail Road union negotiator Anthony

Lead Long Island Rail Road union negotiator Anthony Simon, left, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast announce a tentative deal in Manhattan averting a LIRR strike, on Thursday, July 17, 2014. (Credit: Charles Eckert)

People in transit offices, labor unions and political circles expected weeks ago that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would stride into the spotlight before Sunday's strike deadline and close a deal to avert shutdown of the Long Island Rail Road.

They had good reason to believe that. Events had followed that script back in April, when the LIRR's parent organization, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, reached a new contract agreement with its New York City Transit workers. There, the governor emerged in the role of indispensable broker -- even if he'd already been signing off on the MTA's actions from behind the scenes.

But Cuomo fiercely resists ceding control of the narrative. So even if the LIRR negotiations were to play out as predicted, he directed attention away from his own actions, for a while.

"It's actually Congress that can end a strike and impose a settlement one way or the other," he declared July 7. "So right now it seems that Congress is pivotal to what happens here . . . Congress can order a settlement, Congress can order mediation, Congress can order arbitration, Congress can do almost whatever they want, because they are in control of the resolution of the strike."

Then MTA president Thomas Prendergast, a Cuomo appointee, visited the nation's capital to hear the rather obvious response that Congress wasn't about to do anything at all.

Meanwhile, Anthony Simon, the United Transportation Union leader, declared "the MTA is pushing us toward a strike." As late as this week, the MTA cited a "gulf" between the sides.

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo 20 years ago prodded the state-created MTA to accede to certain union demands to end an LIRR strike that had already commenced.

As this week began, current Gov. Cuomo seemed reluctant to feed anyone's impression that he'd cave in to avert an election-year strike. He openly challenged the idea that an LIRR walkout threatened a potential disaster.

"We've had strikes before and we've survived," Cuomo said. "This is not a disaster. A real pain maybe, but not a disaster."

So was the Democratic governor saying a strike was no big deal? Was he bracing us for a service shutdown that was really up to the unions?

Well, that was on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the message sharply shifted.

As talks resumed at Cuomo's urging, a strike looked less likely. And as a strike became less likely to happen, it was all right to make it sound intolerable, and Cuomo said: "We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters."

After a final late round of talks, and with Cuomo openly in the picture, they reached a settlement.

Everyone stayed "on message" for Thursday's announcement. Cuomo lauded "compromise by both parties." Simon called the deal "definitely about the riders." Prendergast called it "fair and reasonable."

The old "closer" script had played out again -- with no hostages, no disaster, and no election-year strike blowback for this Cuomo.

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