Experts: Cuomo ethics controversy won't stir voters

Cuomo speaks at a news conference in Manhattan Cuomo speaks at a news conference in Manhattan on June 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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ALBANY -- While good-government advocates and political opponents are criticizing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over a report that he improperly interfered with his corruption commission, some experts said the issue at this point isn't likely to anger or shock voters.

"It doesn't translate easily into a scandal people are going to be up in arms about," said Lee Miringoff, a political science professor and director of the Marist College poll.

"This is not enough to change election outcomes," agreed Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "It doesn't establish a nexus or chain of causality that demonstrates illegal behavior yet, certainly not in the executive, as far as I can tell and as far as I have read."

On Wednesday The New York Times reported instances in which Cuomo and his top aide, Lawrence Schwartz, strategized with the Moreland Commission, which Cuomo created and promised would be independent. The report cited internal emails indicating the administration dissuaded the commission from issuing subpoenas and investigating big donors and supporters of Cuomo.

Cuomo has insisted he and his top aide weren't meddling but providing necessary advice to the commission, which by law reports to him. They insist no entities related to Cuomo were given a pass. Cuomo wouldn't comment Thursday.

Cuomo's political opponents, Republican Rob Astorino and Zephyr Teachout, who is challenging Cuomo in a Democratic primary, have called for Cuomo to explain himself or resign.

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"Mr. Cuomo has perpetrated one of the greatest breaches of public trust in New York history, and that's saying something," Astorino, the Westchester County executive, said Thursday.

But Astorino's lack of funding, lack of an extensive campaign support organization in the heavily Democratic state, and lack of name recognition might hurt his ability to make his message resonate with voters, even if they are listening.

Suburban voters, dominated by Long Islanders, are critical to any strategy to defeat Cuomo, who has strong poll numbers and an almost unassailable campaign fund.

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Cuomo had $35 million in the bank as of July 15, after raising $8.5 million and spending $6.8 million over the last six months. Astorino had $2.4 million, after raising $3.4 million and spending $1 million.

"Unless somebody in the administration is led away in handcuffs or indicted on something that would strike a typical person as unambiguously wrong, I don't see this having a major impact on the campaign," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.

"In a place like Long Island, where Cuomo has managed to be seen as a force for good in terms of recovery from Hurricane Sandy and heading off the Long Island Rail Road strike, this story won't dissuade many people about their feelings for him as a leader," Levy said.

Miringoff, Benjamin and Levy agree that all could change if U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has picked up the unfinished Moreland Commission investigations of legislators, indicts someone within the Cuomo administration. Bharara has criticized Cuomo's scrapping of the commission in exchange for a political deal with the legislature to achieve some ethics measures.

"If other people aren't going to do it, then we're going to do it," Bharara said of investigating government corruption, speaking on the PBS program "Charlie Rose."

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Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll said the long-term impact of the issue depends on whether it is kept alive by newspaper editorials and more news stories with more developments.

"Does it become water cooler conversation? It hasn't reached that point by any stretch of the imagination," Greenberg said. "Could it? Absolutely. Will it? Who knows?"

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