When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said last week that he plans to seek a fourth term in 2022, it was big news. If he won, he’d be only the second New York governor elected to four four-year terms. He’d achieve what his father, Mario Cuomo, did not when his quest for a fourth term was beaten back by George E. Pataki.
And he’d stay in a job for which he is well suited, ignoring the chattering class’ positing that he will flee Albany for presidential runs or a vice presidential nod or a Cabinet appointment.
No one can say how long Cuomo will be governor or whether he will seek other posts. But the idea of him sticking with this job is intriguing. And it reminds me of a politician from my home state of South Carolina who got the right job, kept it while buffeted by pleas to seek higher office, and made a huge difference.
When he was 72 in 2016, Joseph Riley left the job of mayor of Charleston after 40 years. Throughout his tenure, he fielded pleas to run for the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. He did run for governor once, in 1994, barely losing the Democratic nomination, but never strayed again, even as his city and reputation rose. I spoke with Riley, who teaches at the Citadel and runs the Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston, about the power of holding one elected executive position for a really long time.
“If you’re working hard and gaining experience and building relationships, you should become more and more effective,” Riley said on Monday. “You become efficient. Your capacity to solve problems increases. Your knowledge level keeps growing, and you become more creative and innovative. Big problems are easier to solve, not least because you stick around to see them through. You learn what not to do. You put together the right team and find the right methods. If you don’t coast, if you keep going hard, you can really make a difference.”
When Riley took control of Charleston in late 1975, it was dysfunctional and depressed. He brought people together to try to heal a fractured racial atmosphere. He shepherded the city through Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the closure of the city’s naval base in 1994 that people thought might spell the city’s doom. And in the end, he built a jewel of a city, beautiful and prosperous and beloved by locals and visitors alike.
In many ways, the two men differ. Riley is genial, while Cuomo is prickly. Riley is known for give and take, while Cuomo’s theory is that if you scratch his back now, he’ll let you scratch his back again later. But they are both pragmatic moderates with mastery of their domains. And they both take on and complete seemingly impossible projects.
When I came to Newsday in 2010, six weeks before Cuomo was first elected, governance in New York was a national joke. Anyone predicting Cuomo would pass a property tax cap, build a new Tappan Zee bridge on time and on budget, open the Second Avenue subway, move forward on a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, advance East Side Access and start rebuilding LaGuardia Airport, would have been laughed at.
Cuomo can succeed thanks largely to his knowledge of New York politics and people, fostered since birth. That wouldn’t necessarily translate to success in other arenas.
Last week, Cuomo said of being governor, “I would like to do it for as long as the people of the state of New York believe I’m a positive.” It’s certainly the right thing to say, and he’d be wise to mean it.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.