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In 1st re-election year, Cuomo has work cut out

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks before Nassau

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks before Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano before he is sworn into office for his second term by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Feinman at Bethpage High School in Bethpage. (Jan 2, 2014) Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo enters his first re-election year facing an array of challenges, among them bruised relations with state legislators, a new New York City mayor who will try to push him to the left, and growing fiscal problems in municipalities across the state.

Moreover, if Cuomo is trying to position himself as a presidential candidate for 2016, there could be pressure to win even bigger in November than he did in 2010, when he got nearly 63 percent of the popular vote and won 51 of the state's 62 counties.

"Clearly, this is a huge year for him," said Doug Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. "You've got the governor's race and all the calculations that underlie a governor's race. And then you have to ask: Is it a pure governor's race, or is it a governor's race plus president in 2016 or 2020? It's all those elements."

'Highly unusual' position

Politicians and political experts say Cuomo, who will deliver his State of the State address Wednesday, has many things going for him as he prepares to run for re-election and maybe position himself for bigger things.

He enjoys good public-opinion ratings and has nearly $30 million in his campaign account. Polls show him far ahead of any Republican hopeful.

Cuomo in his first year in Albany scored high-profile accomplishments, including legalization of same-sex marriage and implementation of New York's first property-tax cap. He said he achieved 90 percent of his agenda in 2011, and, in fact, the following years have seen fewer big deals.

Cuomo has held the line on state spending for three years and, in 2013, became the first governor to toughen his state's gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. However, the rush resulted in at least one error -- restricting to seven the number of rounds in a gun's magazine -- that a federal judge struck down and Cuomo and lawmakers later had to fix.

He says his three on-time state budgets show Albany is no longer "dysfunctional," but changes to ethics laws haven't been as far-reaching as campaign finance reformers had hoped.

Former Assemb. Richard Brodsky said Cuomo, in his three years in office, has adopted a successful "triangulation" approach.

"On social issues, he's left-left-left," the Westchester Democrat said. "On taxes, he's consistently aligned with the traditional right."

That approach will determine how Cuomo is viewed on a national stage -- far more than the governor's vote total in November, Brodsky said.

"It's either a stroke of genius or it's going to kill him," said Brodsky. "He's staked out a position that is highly unusual."

The challenges ahead

Cuomo already has previewed what likely will be his key 2014 agenda item: an income tax credit to offset property tax hikes in some instances. Democrats and Republicans have reacted warmly, signaling a compromise won't be too hard to reach.

The governor also is expected to tout a taxes-technology-tourism theme as way to build the state's economy.

He'll have to deal with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to raise taxes on high earners to expand prekindergarten programs in the city. Many analysts think Cuomo will find a way to direct aid to his fellow Democrat to expand the programs without a tax hike.

A growing number of counties, towns and villages are under fiscal stress. Last summer, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, designated 24 municipalities as fiscally stressed, with patterns of deficits and too little cash to pay bills. By fall, the number had jumped to 38.

Cuomo has offered help through a fiscal restructuring board he created. Just two municipalities have taken advantage of the offer so far.

Cuomo also will have to deal with state legislators after he spent much of the fall attacking them for failing to pass any of his campaign-finance proposals.

Cuomo launched a special commission to investigate political corruption. That led to a tense fall in 2013. Cuomo accused legislators of failing to act in the face of several indictments and convictions of lawmakers. Lawmakers said Cuomo was trying to bully them and that his commission's investigations amounted to an "illegal use of executive authority."

The relationships could be patched up. Typically, state lawmakers try to have fairly peaceful legislative sessions during election years and avoid high-profile skirmishes. If that holds true, Cuomo's two biggest concerns -- the economy and Hillary Clinton's presidential intentions -- will be things he has limited control over, said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff.

"On the content side, he has to worry about the economy and whether we move in a favorable direction," Miringoff said. "On the political side, the big question is what Hillary Clinton does. And that's not something he determines. But he can position himself and keep his options open."

Clinton is by far the Democratic front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination. Others, such as Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, likely won't make a run if she does, experts said.

Miringoff said he expects Cuomo to spend 2014 "checking off a list of things he did, in fact, do, to remind people." Cuomo likely will use a "Rose Garden" election-year strategy in which the incumbent tries not to engage challengers or draw attention to the election but instead recap his record.

Experts size up election

Cuomo's once sky-high approval ratings dropped in the aftermath of the gun law and have ebbed since. According to Siena College, his ratings hit an all-time low in November, with 44 percent saying they approved of the job he's doing and 56 percent opposed.

But in the same survey, 51 percent said they'd re-elect Cuomo while 41 percent said they would prefer someone else. Still, the survey said Cuomo has a 39-point lead over Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the most prominently mentioned potential Republican candidate to date.

Cuomo easily defeated Republican Carl Paladino in 2010 but took his lumps in Western New York, with Paladino trouncing him in Buffalo and surrounding counties. Since then, the governor has spent a lot of time in the region as well as upstate, promoting tourism, state universities and his economic initiatives.

"Western New York is an area he wants to win badly," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. He said Cuomo this year will try to "make Western New York and upstate New York feel even more included in everything he does."

Sheinkopf and other analysts downplayed the notion that Cuomo has to improve his 2010 showing to help his national profile. All he has to do, they said, is to win re-election by a comfortable margin.

"As long as he's not within five points of his opponent, it won't matter," Sheinkopf said. "It just can't be a razor-thin victory."

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