TODAY'S PAPER
58° Good Afternoon
58° Good Afternoon
NewsRegion/State

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo runs on his record, but faces controversies

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pictured during a press

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pictured during a press conference on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

ALBANY -- With a knack for strategy, tactics and publicity, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has spent four years in New York's top office scoring key political victories while bruising some feelings on the political left and right with a jamming, authoritative style.

As a result, Cuomo, a Democrat, holds a commanding lead over Republican Rob Astorino in the polls, but receives his lowest job approval ratings since taking office.

A look at the record shows Cuomo, 56, has delivered on some of his highest-profile priorities, including the two he is best known for: legalizing same-sex marriage and enacting the state's first property-tax cap.

At times, he's adjusted quickly to shifting circumstances to enact legislation (guns, income taxes, casinos), overtrumpeted "historic" changes (transparency, ethics), and incorporated others' agendas into his own (prekindergarten, medical marijuana). But he's also fallen short on some items, analysts note, failing to take a stand on natural gas drilling or significantly change redistricting.

"The governor is an extraordinarily strategic actor and also a transactional actor, and with high-priority items, he was very rigorous and very successful," said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. "Other things were clearly of lower priority, which can mean several things. He seems to look at the world in terms of his self-interest. And there doesn't seem to be a coherent ideology or philosophy -- which can make him more effective as a governor. If you are not anchored to positions, you can change those positions."

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, is more effusive: "It's clear that he has been one of the strongest governors in a long time, someone who brings a blend of the policy wonk and the street politician. It's a combination we haven't seen in my professional lifetime. While he hasn't met the mark here and there, what he has accomplished is still well above his predecessors."

Cuomo has offered few promises about what he'd do in a second term. Instead, he said: "I've been governor for four years, people know me, they know my record, they know what we've gotten done," Cuomo said at a recent stop. "They know the state is moving in the right direction, they know that we've made a lot of progress."

Here's a review:

 

WINS, PRIORITIES

Cuomo aligned himself with the right on fiscal issues and the left on social ones, noted Gerald Benjamin, an associate vice president at SUNY New Paltz and longtime state political analyst. That was intentional, he said, giving "fiscal issues primacy."

He cut spending in his first year, then presided over slight growth. He enacted the 2 percent property-tax cap and worked for business tax cuts and tax subsidies, such as a tax credit to lure "The Tonight Show" back to New York from Los Angeles. He neutralized criticism from unions and health care segments by working with the Committee to Save New York, a business lobby that spent $10 million in Cuomo's first year to promote his agenda.

"Dems wanted to support him because he's a Democrat and the Republicans supported him because they liked the program," Benjamin said. "He gave the right a responsible budget. And he gave the left things that didn't cost money."

On same-sex marriage, Cuomo navigated legislative politics to woo four Republicans to vote for it in 2011, when at least three were necessary to pass the bill. (Since then, three of the four Republicans either lost re-election or retired, with the fourth fighting for his political life this year.)

 

NIMBLE SHIFTS

Cuomo at times read the political tea leaves to alter course to enact legislation. For example, he used a budget shortfall to reverse his stance on the so-called millionaires tax in 2011. He went back on a vow to let the tax expire that year and instead revamped all the state's income-tax brackets -- though he set the rate for those earning $1 million or more annually lower than the original millionaires tax and claimed it as a tax cut. At the same time, he cut rates for many middle-income families.

As the centerpiece of his 2012 agenda, Cuomo proposed the "world's largest convention center" at Aqueduct racetrack and a video slots parlor, fueled by a $4 billion investment from gambling giant Genting. When that fell through, Cuomo shifted emphasis to developing seven full-fledged casinos around the state.

In 2013, Cuomo pushed through legislation to tighten gun control laws just one month after the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. Cuomo cut a deal with legislative leaders to pass the law and had rank-and-file lawmakers vote just hours after receiving the proposal in print. The new law tightened the state's definition of an illegal assault weapon, required registration of firearms defined as assault weapons, broadened background checks and increased penalties for gun crimes. But the speed also produced controversy -- thousands of gun rights supporters protested at the State Capitol, and a judge struck a key section that sought to limit magazines to seven rounds.

"When opportunity struck, he struck," Muzzio said.

Other times, Cuomo successfully incorporated other lawmakers' agendas into his own, expanding prekindergarten and authorizing a limited medical marijuana program.

When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed allowing the city to tax its rich to pay for prekindergarten, Cuomo blocked it and outflanked his fellow Democrat by earmarking state tax dollars to cover the costs.

Similarly, with medical marijuana gaining political momentum, Cuomo tried to get in front by proposing a small-scale research program. When lawmakers and advocates said that wasn't enough and pushed for a broad legalization, the governor switched his opposition and negotiated a new law that, while permitting medical marijuana, gave his office control over the program.

 

FRACKING

Cuomo has delayed action on natural gas drilling upstate. His administration floated an idea to allow a technique called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in a five-county area along the Southern Tier only to pull it back until the completion of a health study, which has been delayed several times. Proponents and opponents of natural gas say Cuomo doesn't want to handle the political hot potato before Election Day.

 

STYLE

Cuomo has angered some on the left and the right with a style his critics call bullying and micromanaging.

"The message is clearly conveyed that they have a plan and others will be well-advised to follow the lead," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst). He said Cuomo employed a "carrot-and-stick" approach, though he says after the first year "there was a little more stick and little less carrot."

The governor said hands-on management and success go hand in hand. "You can't have one without the other," Cuomo said recently on "CBS This Morning" while promoting his election-timed memoir. "I plead guilty."

In 2011, Republican Assembly members said Cuomo was so determined to get a unanimous vote on his income-tax proposal he called them at a closed-door conference and threatened to campaign against anyone who didn't support the proposal. It was bound to pass easily anyway. So some wondered: Why the heavy-handedness?

On the other side of the political aisle, Cuomo's tacit support of a Republican coalition with a handful of breakaway Democrats to lead the state Senate angered liberals, who said the move blocked "progressive" legislation. That, in part, gave rise to Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham University professor who challenged Cuomo in a Democratic primary. The political novice garnered 34 percent of the vote and won most upstate counties.

 

ECONOMY

Cuomo has noted that New York has about 400,000 more private sector jobs now than when he took office. Astorino, the Westchester County executive, has said the raw number hides the fact that the state's job growth rate is anemic, trailing almost all other states.

While Cuomo has cut manufacturing taxes, by and large his economic strategy has been about targeted, top-down approaches, analysts said. He sought tax cuts or credits for specific types of businesses, such as yogurt and film/TV companies. He started an initiative to give companies 10 years tax-free if they locate near state university campuses.

In sum, Cuomo has favored the targeted approach -- whereas some critics, such as Astorino, favor broad-based tax reductions rather than singling out industries or locations.

A key part of his strategy seems to be focus on changing the tone of the conversation about upstate New York, trying to fight back on a negative perception that it can't come back economically. The governor often says "the arrows are pointing up" and the state is moving in the right direction.

"He's looking at the upstate cities and trying to do something," Benjamin said. "He's made a serious public investment -- whether it will work or not, we'll see. It's high risk."

Others said the cheerleading isn't backed up by what they see in their communities.

"Forest Labs is leaving my district for New Jersey," said Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), referring to a pharmaceutical company move that will eliminate 325 jobs and transfer another 150 out of state. "That shouldn't be happening if we are to believe the hype."

 

GOOD GOVERNMENT

Cuomo pushed through new laws to require legislators to disclose more about their outside incomes. But the law also installed a new ethics commission that many saw as controlled by the governor's appointees rather than independent.

He promised to support public campaign financing and independent redistricting, but came up with measures that even some watchdogs didn't support.

And he launched an anti-corruption panel, known as the Moreland Commission, to investigate election-law violations. Cuomo said the commission was free to look at any politician, but soon faced complaints that his staff discouraged it from looking at some of the governor's donors. State legislators complained that the panel was conducting a "witch hunt" to force them to support Cuomo's agenda.

Cuomo shuttered the commission after legislators agreed to several new election laws. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has been prosecuting political corruption cases, expressed dismay and took over the panel's investigations. Cuomo defended his closing of the commission afterward, saying he was using it to get legislation passed.

Some said the governor created unrealistically high expectations he could get everything on his agenda after the success of the tax cap and gay marriage. Others said it's clear the good-government measures weren't a priority.

"The trade-offs were: To get the fiscal stuff, he gave away other things -- like redistricting," Benjamin said. But he's quick to add that Cuomo "has been an effective governor."

Some say Cuomo's term has been more hype than substance. "He's gotten some things through, but have we moved the needle in any significant way? Not really," said Assemb. Steve McLaughlin (R-Schaghticoke), a vocal Cuomo critic. "For me, it's a lot of smoke and mirrors with this guy."

Others say the book is still being written. "There's no question that he's gotten some significant things done, some of which escaped his predecessors," Sweeney said. "Time will tell whether it's everything that people hoped for."

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

More news