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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Dean Skelos sits silently during Cuomo speech

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, cuts a

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, cuts a ribbon to unveil a skylight over the Senate staircase at the Capitol in Albany. (Jan. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

ALBANY - Dean Skelos, the State Senate's top Republican, drew almost as much notice here for sitting stonily through most of Wednesday's annual State of the State address as former Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey did for standing inexplicably through a previous one.

At points where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's audience stood or sat applauding different passages -- as when he nearly shouted his positions on women's equality and guns -- Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), often seen as a Cuomo ally, stayed seated and appeared to inspect his tie.

Some spectators took this as a sign that Cuomo, often hyped as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, has shifted his emphasis from more Republican concerns to Democratic causes. "He circled back to liberal, and went to meet his dad, Mario," state Conservative Party chairman Michael Long said of the speech.

Members of Team Cuomo set out to dispute such impressions. "Whoever is talking about a leftward tilt here doesn't know what Andrew Cuomo has cared about his whole life," said a close ally who declined to be identified.

Many of his 2013 goals have been on Cuomo's agenda before.

One of these -- an appeal for a minimum wage above the federal minimum -- was counterbalanced by calls to reform workers' compensation and unemployment insurance in ways that could be labeled fiscally conservative, a Cuomo aide argued.

If a change has taken place, it may just be that the state's fiscal picture has stabilized over the past two years, the aide suggested. That's consistent with a favored political comeback narrative -- reflected in the Cuomo message's title, "New York Rising" -- in which an incumbent inherits a mess and then brings improvements.

But practical politics may be at work. Over the administration's first two years, Skelos had majority-leader status and thus the ability to rule out initiatives such as the minimum-wage hike. Now, Skelos' conference is supposed to be in a "coalition" with a spinoff Democratic caucus led by Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who also was onstage Wednesday and applauded key Cuomo proposals.

How the new Senate power arrangement will work remains to be seen. But it might mean that more of the governor's "progressive" proposals will pass, an aide said.

Cuomo's address took a humorous turn when he talked about an imaginary Adirondack boat competition, illustrating it on a screen with cartoon caricatures. Skelos and Klein were pictured rowing the same craft -- first in one direction, then back the other way. Cuomo mock-urged the characters on the screen to paddle in the same direction.

All State of the State speeches are part stroke-fest, part wish-list, part political infomercial for the incumbent governor -- no matter if it was GOP Gov. George Pataki speaking in 1996 as the audience watched McCaughey stand, or Cuomo in 2013 orating while spectators watched Skelos sit.

The big difference may be that the unstated message of a Senate leader has more meaning than any stunt by a lieutenant governor.

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