New Yorkers on Election Day will face a supremely important choice in deciding who should be the state's next governor. Yet the truth is that they have hardly any choice at all.
The Republican candidate, Carl Paladino, is a Buffalo-area builder whose bashing of Albany initially resonated with voters, even if he was going to start the process with a baseball bat. As the campaign developed, however, his shallow ideas and scant proposals suggest the old Catskills joke about the food being terrible and the portions too small. In the campaign's only debate, his weary and inarticulate performance was outshone by minor party candidates. Throughout, Paladino has demonstrated that he's unfit for the office of governor.
On this basis alone, Democrat Andrew Cuomo should get the nod. But Cuomo has earned election for reasons that go beyond simply not being Paladino. Perhaps the biggest of these reasons is the complex nature of Albany's dysfunction, which can easily defeat newcomers.
Thankfully, Andrew Cuomo is no naive crusader, besotted with the image of himself atop a white horse - and condemned to break his lance against the capital's entrenched powers. He understands politics, having served in the Clinton administration, and he knows Albany, having grown up the son of a brilliant politician and capable governor.
Bringing change to Albany will be the new governor's paramount task. Whoever ascends to the job will have to cope with a political climate debased by scandal and gridlock, legislators made nearly invulnerable to voter ire as a result of gerrymandering, and gaping budget deficits that will be increasingly resistant to the fiscal gimmicks the state has grown dependent upon. New York spends more on education than any other state yet its graduation rate from public high school ranks 40th in the nation. Public employee pensions may require billions in unanticipated additional funds. State spending overall is growing much faster than inflation. And New Yorkers bear among the heaviest tax burdens in America.
To tackle the fiscal crisis, Cuomo proposes a cap on state spending and another on property taxes. He's said state government will have to shrink, and that our Medicaid program, by far the nation's most expensive, will have to be cut. He proposes a leaner pension plan for new state workers. And he wants to clamp down on the overtime and other tactics used by late-career employees to boost their payouts in retirement. He also wants gubernatorial control of - and accountability for - the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
His opponent advocates some of the same things in his campaign but his proposals have been overshadowed by questions regarding his temperament and judgment - questions arising from his forwarding of racist and pornographic e-mails and his homophobic comments uttered in a clumsy bid for an endorsement. Cuomo's deep knowledge of the system and his infinitely superior powers of persuasion mean that he is far more likely to make change happen.
The biggest thing a new governor will have to change is the ethical climate in Albany, where a culture of corruption has suffocated democracy. Cuomo has noted that in the past decade New York politicians were likelier to leave office as a result of investigation or conviction than by losing an election. Changing this pattern will require, at the very least, changing how legislative districts are drawn; Cuomo wants an independent panel and promises to veto any gerrymandered redistricting plan.
But change will also require that we make official corruption much more difficult. As attorney general, Cuomo has a record of fighting public corruption, and he advocates tough new laws to limit the influence of money in politics and shine the light of day onto some of Albany's murkiest doings. His proposals include public funding of election campaigns, stricter limits on donations from lobbyists and a requirement that politicians disclose outside income sources, including law clients.
Cuomo seems especially promising for Long Island. He has the sensitivity and experience to work with local officials to situate a Shinnecock casino in a way that upholds the rights of the tribe as well as the larger community, and to bring south cheap hydropower from Canada and wind power from upstate by means of a transmission line that will inevitably face not-in-my-backyard opposition. He's also vowed to name a real pro to head the state Department of Transportation, a post crucial to life on traffic-clogged Long Island. Our hope is that his choice is on a par with his selection of Robert Duffy, Rochester's forward-looking mayor, for lieutenant governor.
Cuomo is right on a host of other issues as well, calling himself - with justification - fiscally prudent and socially progressive. He favors marriage equality for gay couples and the right of women to terminate a pregnancy. He likes charter schools. He opposes the death penalty. He considers climate change a serious threat.
If Cuomo is elected, he'll go to Albany buoyed by the people's hopes, but Albany can't be cleaned up overnight. As he says, his power will come from the ability to galvanize popular support. Yet change really is possible, and it can start with this election. Newsday endorses Andrew Cuomo. hN