Cuomo scares the crap out of me. He always has. To me, there's nothing more dangerous than a liberal who knows how to get things done. But New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo takes it one step further - he'll also do and say whatever it takes to win.
Until now, his Machiavellian style has served him well. But his zeal to be President may, in fact, be blocking his view of an unexpected road to the White House.
If Cuomo boldly attacks corruption today - if he passes this Leadership Test - he clears a narrow path to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democrat Primary. Right now, he's got none.
Cuomo's presidential aspirations are transparent to everyone on the planet except, perhaps, the Governor himself and those paid to drink and serve his KoolAid. You know the type: "Andrew's not thinking about 2016" rolls off their tongue as easy as "this budget doesn't raise taxes," "the SAFE Act required a message of necessity," "after the tax cap comes mandate relief," and "New York is open for business."
The New York taxpayer-funded TV ads airing in Iowa and New Hampshire - the ones lauding Cuomo's accomplishments as Governor - have nothing to do with politics, either. As Mike Whelan, CEO of Iowa-based Heart of America Group, told me, "I thought I fell asleep and woke up years later, like Rip Van Winkle. You mean Andrew Cuomo made New York better for business?" (Of course not.)
When he is not exhibiting what New York Magazine writer Chris Smith blithely calls his "mastery of talking past inconvenient questions and facts," Cuomo is deftly seizing opportunities to build his reputation with important Democrat primary campaign constituencies. And it's working for him.
Cuomo had an icy relationship with most LGBT activists in the state until Carl Paladino's campaign stumbled at a Brooklyn synagogue. Within hours, Cuomo had breathed energy into a complacent community and the experienced activists propelled his campaign. Capped with a Marriage Equality law months later, LGBT primary voters are his forever.
After the murders at Newtown, Cuomo shoved the most constrictive gun laws in the nation down the State Legislature's throat. The move cost his astronomical approval rating dearly, but with a 57 percent approval rating today he is strong in a state where most voters think limiting Second Amendment rights is a good idea. This also helps the Governor immensely in a national party where gun control is a mantra.
But Cuomo is wounded, slightly, and he is showing signs of being a mere mortal. Not even Republican State Senator Jesus H. Christ could beat him in 2014 - but 2016 doesn't look quite so inevitable anymore.
When Cuomo was playing the media coyly before his 2010 governors race, talk of how he would earn White House qualifications was rampant in Albany. If he could set New York State's fiscal house in order, surely Cuomo could run as a fiscal reformer. It all made a great deal of sense, until it didn't.
Cuomo's first budgets were remarkable to some, including me - they came in balanced, free of tax hikes and reliance on familiar gimmickry. But his third and especially his fourth and most recent budget have been a lurch to the left. There are precious few spending cuts. Local governments which bought into Cuomo's 2011 two percent property tax cap are drowning in red ink while the unfunded mandates he promised to cut continue. Even a business group which bankrolled the governor's agenda to the tune of $16 million in 2011 and 2012 have stopped writing checks.
Now, new Albany corruption scandals have hit and filled the sails of the USS Ambition. A Quinnipiac poll this week showed that a whopping 87 percent of New Yorkers consider corruption the be a serious problem. Almost half of us consider the problem "very serious." New Yorkers haven't agreed this wholeheartedly since Peter Minuit ripped off Native Americans for Manhattan.
I actually got excited for a moment when a Cuomo insider told Fred Dicker of the New York Post that Cuomo was considering ousting Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as a first step in reaction to the recent scandals. As fast as the ink on Dicker's story dried, Cuomo himself was backpedaling. Cuomo's staff quickly labeled the Dicker story completely false.
I'm no fan of Fred Dicker for several reasons, but if Dicker said he got the story from a reliable source in the Governor's office, that's a fact. Dicker has a direct line to Cuomo, even though their relationship is strained as of late. And the Governor's message operation is so tight that no insider would dare speak without Cuomo's approval. That just doesn't happen.
So here's what happened: Fred Dicker was told Cuomo might go after Silver, maybe even by Cuomo himself. But the balloon burst before breakfast and the Governor of New York retreated briskly from the only bold move that would surely pass his Leadership Test. Instead, Cuomo is proposing weak sauce that will never address political corruption:
"Cuomo released a second phase of campaign reform proposals: creating an elections law investigator with subpoena powers; making candidates collect signatures from voters to gain access to any party line on the ballot; and changing enrollment rules so that voters (or candidates) can switch parties 90 days after re-registering."
Not even his elections law investigator has teeth: the top campaign cop will be beholden to the governor in an independent agency, a combination sure to fail. Instead of heightening investigatory powers on ethical matters with the Attorney General where they belong, Cuomo craves control of that enforcer. Even the liberal Times Union editorial page said "this seems to be more about a governor's power than good government."
Without going after Speaker Silver, the only profound action sure to change the dark way Albany does business, Cuomo could empanel a Moreland Act commission: a century old law that allows the executive branch to probe the actions of any part of state government. But Cuomo won't do this, either, because he believes the move will upset a legislature he needs to help pass his remaining agenda.
Sitting in the bleachers, I recognize the formation for the play Cuomo is calling on corruption: he's lining up to kick a field goal when he needs a touchdown.
Perhaps Cuomo views his abortion expansion bill as far too important to squander. Insiders say he looks at the legislation as a hedge among women in his race against Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Cuomo's polls also show public campaign financing is a vital issue among Democrat primary partisans. (I've not seen it show up prominently on recent polls.)
Maybe his advisors are telling him that, as a product of Albany, he's not a credible voice for reform. Yet all the polling Republicans did against him in 2010 - and the failed attempts we made to tie him to corruption during the campaign - prove Cuomo's voice is as good as any.
If the Governor neuters Sheldon Silver, installs a Moreland Act investigation and roots out corruption, the feat would transform his presidential possibilities.
As the New York Times' inimitable Michael Powell wrote this week, Cuomo has gone all wobbly on corruption:
"...the governor sounds a bit plaintive of late. As [Cuomo] complained: "If someone says, 'Well, we need a system where no one does anything wrong,' then they're talking about a utopia.' Here, the governor can rest easy. New York is at no imminent risk of utopia."
With the play clock running out and Cuomo lined up for a field goal, New York is also at no imminent risk of losing our governor mid-term, either. Because the upshot is simple: as his Leadership Test finally presents itself, if New York Governor Andrew Cuomo kicks on corruption that's just political malpractice.