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Analysts: Cuomo's third term can be blessing, curse

He has a Democratic Legislature for the first time and he's mentioned as a 2020 presidential contender.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives on stage

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives on stage after being reelected during an election night watch party hosted by the New York State Democratic Committee, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in New York.  Photo Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

ALBANY — The road ahead for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo begins when he’s sworn in for a third term in office in January.  With a Democratic-controlled Legislature for the first time. And with his name on a long list of 2020 presidential contenders.

All three could be a simultaneous blessing and curse, analysts and legislators said, a day after Cuomo cruised past Republican Marc Molinaro to win re-election.  

“The blessing is that he’s got a better chance to get all the things he says he wants” legislatively with Democrats in control, said Bob Bellafiore, who was press secretary to former three-term Republican Gov. George Pataki. “The curse is there’s no bad guy to blame” for falling short and “he loses the buffer against the more extreme elements of his own party.”

To be sure, Cuomo is in a strong political position after routing the Dutchess County executive, 59 percent to 37 percent, according to final but unofficial totals. In September, he drubbed actress Cynthia Nixon in a Democratic primary — in sum, crushing challengers from the left and right despite his overall low approval ratings in public-opinion polls.

The wins clear the way for Cuomo to continue an agenda he says will be focused on rebuilding the state’s infrastructure and enacting progressive policy measures. And it will give him a platform for presenting his administration as a bulwark against President Donald Trump’s agenda.

In a radio interview, the Democrat said his first legislative priorities will be to enact a state law that codifies abortion rights provided under the milestone Roe v. Wade decision and a new gun-control bill and laws to make it easier to vote in New York.

All had been blocked for years by a Republican-led state Senate. But the GOP majority was swept aside Tuesday by a Democratic tide  that appears to have flipped as many as eight Senate seats. Though some races aren’t finalized, Democrats could go from a 32-31 disadvantage to a 39-24 advantage. So a huge spread gives the party lots of leverage, the governor said.

“When you have a larger mandate electorally, the other officials know you’ve literally come into government with a stronger hand,” Cuomo said on WVOX, a Westchester County radio station.

But it also will require some shifting for the Democrat.

For eight years, he governed with Senate Republicans, who helped him enact fiscally conservative budgets and a landmark property-tax cap. He butted heads with Democrats who wanted to push spending and expand state programs. At times when progressive measures were blocked, Cuomo could “triangulate” and point the finger at Senate Republicans, said Jeanne Zaino, an Iona College political scientist.

“He’s now facing a new Albany,” Zaino said. She noted that rank-and-file Democrats have wanted to go  further than Cuomo on expanding financial assistance for college and enacting tougher campaign-finance laws, among other things.

“What does he do if the [legislative] Democrats keep their promise and send up a single-payer health-care bill in January?” wondered Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic state assemblyman from Westchester County. “It’s going to be a very difficult place to navigate.”

In addition, Brodsky said the governor must grapple with “how to pay for everything,” from fixing the crumbling subways to airport upgrades he’s announced around the state during his second term.

At the same time, the Democrats’ huge Senate victory broadens their conference — adding a slew of newly elected Long Island and Hudson Valley suburban lawmakers to what had been a New York City and upstate urban-dominated group. That might keep the lid on spending, some observers said.

“A significant bloc of the new Senate majority is suburban Democrats and, yes, he’s going to have to balance upstate, downstate and suburban needs,” said Kevin Law, CEO of the business-backed Long Island Association. “But I don’t think it will be as big a chore as pundits think. What his message will be is ‘we need to have a strong economy and control our finances if we want the ability to do progressive things.’”

During the campaign, Cuomo said opposing Trump’s agenda would be his top priority and his victory speech Tuesday centered on blasting the president. He’s said to have presidential ambitions and his campaign and speech did little to change the perception. But he’s one of many on a very long list of potential Democratic candidates who will have to decide in 2019 whether to run in 2020.

“I would guess that the governor has presidential ambitions on his mind,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton University professor and historian who analyzes national politics. “He believes himself to be one of the candidates who could offer a rare blend of a liberal policy record in certain areas, experience in governance and a belief in pragmatism, and the kind of tough partisan approach that will be needed to defeat” Trump. 

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