All eyes are on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as a strike deadline barrels down the Long Island Rail Road tracks like an express train.
Experts said a massive transit strike in a statewide election year could spell trouble for politicians of all stripes, especially Cuomo, a Democrat. Many expect the governor to step in at the last minute to settle a contract his state agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and unions that represent some 5,400 LIRR workers.
Cuomo has been trying to distance himself from the issue: first putting the spotlight on Congress, then saying the issue was between LIRR unions and "the riders" as opposed to his administration. Further, he also sought to downplay the impact, saying Tuesday a strike would be "a pain, maybe, but not a disaster."
Asked Tuesday if he would get involved in negotiations, the governor said: "Well, let's see how it goes."
If the two sides don't reach a deal by Sunday, workers could strike, shutting down the nation's largest commuter railroad.
Like other labor disputes in recent years, the LIRR dispute sets up nicely for Cuomo -- as long as there is not a crippling strike, analysts said.
"Did anybody really believe that Andrew Cuomo would not be looking for an opening to inject himself" in the LIRR dispute, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "There is too much at stake, politically and governmentally, to let this run off the track . . . He has a chance to reaffirm the image he's very carefully crafted as a guy who gets things done."
Cuomo faces Republican Rob Astorino in this fall's election, with Long Island expected to be a key battleground. Suburban voters typically constitute the swing vote in statewide elections, experts say. And Republicans are putting the onus on the governor. They noted his success with other labor contracts while making clear Cuomo owns the situation, politically.
"I can't see Andrew Cuomo putting himself in a vulnerable position with voters in such a critical region," Levy said. He added that a strike could be "a potential disaster" for unions, business and politicians -- which means the odds are against it actually happening.
Several experts pointed to a similar situation in April when Cuomo stepped in to settle a contract between the state-run MTA and New York City transit union.
In a historical coincidence, Cuomo's father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, ended the last major LIRR strike in 1994 -- also an election year -- by forcing the MTA to capitulate to the unions.
High stakes in election year
Cuomo tried to put the spotlight on Congress last week, saying it could be "pivotal" to curbing a strike. But when his hand-picked MTA chairman, Tom Prendergast, went to Washington, the congressional delegation said they wouldn't get involved.
So far, Long Island and Queens congressmen have sought to downplay their roles and to keep the issue out of Congress, stressing how difficult it would be to push something through the deeply divided, dysfunctional House and Senate.
"I don't think most people see this as an issue for Congress to solve," said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).
Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said they have taken both high-profile public stands and initiated personal discussions behind the scenes to prod negotiators on both sides to reach a settlement.
State legislators largely have stayed out of the fray, though some Republicans have called on Cuomo to settle the dispute.
"Regardless of Congress' jurisdiction, the MTA is a state-funded authority whose chairman is hand-picked by the governor," said Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), while praising Cuomo's negotiating skills. "He must at least try to bring both sides together before saying he can't. Over 300,000 Long Islanders facing a crippling LIRR strike deserve at least that much."
With Tom Brune