ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pivoted more than once in his eight years in office.
He cut spending, got a property-tax cap passed and vowed no new taxes amid the lingering effects of a recession in 2011, his first year in office, angering progressives. But later he embraced a "millionaire's tax" they backed to bail out the state's finances. When the economy recovered, he was "Bob the Builder," as one aide called him, as he launched ambitious plans to rebuild bridges, airports and roads.
He was the “students’ lobbyist” when he battled the state's powerful teachers’ unions over evaluations and testing, but then backed down. He opposed a $15 per hour minimum wage for New York City, then implemented it administratively by sidestepping the State Legislature. He thought Donald Trump could be good for New York because the newly elected president was a resident, but he now makes his opposition to President Trump the centerpiece of his re-election campaign.
To critics, the record shows Cuomo has taken positions only when the political winds change. For others, it shows the Democrat has skillfully and pragmatically adapted to every economic, social and political change that’s occurred over his eight years as governor — even moving left as the Democratic Party shifted in that direction — and built a record that has him poised to win a third term in office. It's also a record that has kept him in the mix of potential 2020 presidential candidates.
“He missed the great revitalization of the Democratic Party, but he’s recovered beautifully,” said Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman from Westchester County, referring to the party's shift to the left. “We ask politicians to change. Then as soon as they do, we blast them. You can’t have it both ways.”
As he campaigns for a third term — which would match his father, the late Mario Cuomo — the governor hasn’t offered much in the way of plans for the next four years. Instead, he’s sought to shrug off such questions by saying an election is like a job interview and when you go to one, you talk about your achievements. It's all about the record.
That, combined with talking about Trump, has been the basis of his campaign. He’s also barnstormed the state handing out grants for sewers, treatment clinics and dog shelters, and cutting ribbons at baseball stadiums — events that, while technically not campaign events, have served to boost his profile just ahead of Election Day.
He’s largely tried to ignore the Republican candidate, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, agreeing to a single debate.
But when he talks about his record, allies say Cuomo has much to brag about.
“There’s been some really good things happening for Long Island,” said Kevin Law of the business-backed Long Island Association. He rattles off the 2 percent property tax cap, commitment to a “Third Track” for the Long Island Rail Road, help for hockey’s New York Islanders to return to Nassau County and money for a high-tech “research corridor." He’s not concerned about lack of specifics for a third term.
“I don’t really see any significant change from where he’s been for the last eight years,” Law said.
“When something happens, the governor’s office is on it,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a fellow Democrat who adds sewer and septic upgrades to Cuomo’s Long Island list. “You don’t even have to call Albany — they’re already on it.”
But progressives haven't always been in Cuomo's corner. They were frustrated by his tardiness on minimum wage and other issues, and angered by a lack of effort to flip the State Senate to Democratic control. That lack of enthusiasm showed up at the polls when Cuomo drew 841,396 fewer votes in 2014 than 2010 — a 29 percent dip — although he still coasted to re-election.
This year, some backed actress Cynthia Nixon in September’s Democratic primary.
One of Nixon's biggest backers, Working Families Party executive director Bill Lipton, said Cuomo only made “short-term political calculations” and lacked a “long-term commitment to a progressive vision.”
After Nixon entered the race last spring, Cuomo moved on several fronts. He worked to unify fractured Senate Democrats, restore voting rights to parolees, ban plastic shopping bags and tiptoe toward legalizing recreational marijuana. Critics called it the “Cynthia Effect.” But some of Cuomo’s shifts, on minimum wage and college tuition, came before her candidacy and could be more tied to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and rise on the left wing of the party.
Cuomo once threatened 10,000 union layoffs, then made labor peace with the public-sector unions. The AFL-CIO declined to endorse him in 2014; it has this time.
His wide-ranging infrastructure plans, including replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge and upgrading LaGuardia and other airports, won support from private-sector labor. He raised college tuition, then expanded access to a “free tuition” program for some.
“He pivoted,” Brodsky said of Cuomo’s second term. “He became pro-minimum wage, pro-union. So his record by 2018 … was progressive.”
Supporters said the governor got the timing right on all those issues.
“Gun control, [same-sex] marriage, minimum wage, paid family leave were all hallmark pieces of legislation that he was able to get passed at the right moment,” said Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs. “You have to find that moment and you have to put together the pieces. It’s complicated. And you are always going to have some on the left who are disappointed.”
Cuomo's push to legalize same-sex marriage, ban natural-gas drilling and toughen gun laws after the Sandy Hook school massacre were widely supported.
But his hard-charging, controlling style won few friends. Nixon often called him "Andrew the Bully." New York Mayor Bill de Blasio labeled him "vindictive." It's part of why even though he has a 22-point lead over Molinaro in the latest Siena College poll, Cuomo's "favorability" rating is 50 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable.
Molinaro and others have focused on another part of the Cuomo record: Two corruption trials earlier this year resulting in the conviction of Joseph Percoco, the governor’s former top aide, a former state college president and a handful of Cuomo campaign contributors.
The convictions centered on bid-rigging and bribery schemes involving high-profile Cuomo administration projects in the Hudson Valley, Syracuse and Buffalo. It’s been the major black eye for Cuomo in his eight years in office and revealed a "culture of corruption," according to Stephanie A. Miner, a Democrat and former mayor of Syracuse running for governor on an independent line. The governor himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.
For his part, Cuomo has either ignored Molinaro or sought to paint him as a Trump acolyte. The governor has focused far more of his campaign against the president. Cuomo has bashed Trump on immigration, gun laws, hurricane recovery aid for Puerto Rico and his appointment of conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who, in the governor’s view, threatens abortion rights. Especially since the recent mail-bomb threats, Cuomo has attacked Trump’s rhetoric.
Cuomo has downplayed the idea of running for president, saying he's committed to serving another four-year term. But Democratic insiders say of course the governor is trying to keep himself well positioned — as a "progressive who gets things done" — if circumstances open up for him. Republicans say that's why Cuomo has shifted to the left in his second term. The incumbent himself appeared to outline his case — or that of a generic pragmatic Dem — in a recent interview with New York Magazine.
“Is there a lane for a person who has governed a complex state and actually accomplished more left positions than any other state?” Cuomo said. “I would hope so, otherwise the Democratic Party has lost touch with reality. ... You’re going to have to beat [Trump] with an authentic, reality-based alternative who says, ‘We can do this.’ I don’t have to be the candidate, but somebody needs the playbook..."
Here’s who is running for governor on Nov. 6:
-- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democrat.
-- Marc Molinaro, Republican.
-- Howie Hawkins, Green.
-- Stephanie A. Miner, Serve America Movement.
-- Larry Sharpe, Libertarian.