Friday February 8, 2013

NEW YORK

I have never been a fan of Andrew Cuomo, finding him transparently ambitious and politically Machiavellian. Andrew spent years as his father's faithful, even ruthless, enforcer. Starting at age 24, he helped Mario ascend to and maintain his power in Albany for 12 years. He's always seemed to me to be an aggressive, imperious and hidden politician, who has little capacity for empathy or delicacy.

But no one should ever underestimate Governor Cuomo's political intelligence and skills -- his gift for twisting arms, making deals, and playing bipartisan politics. It's allowed him to transcend party lines and leverage his office to get the New York State Legislature, including the Republican state Senate, to do things he wanted done: two on-time budgets in a row, with none of the usual brinksmanship dramas; ethics reform, the ultimate success of which may be difficult to achieve; reform of the tax code, which progressively raised rates on the wealthiest residents and cut them for millions of married couples earning less than $300,000 a year; and his signature legislative accomplishment -- the legalization of same-sex marriage with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act.

During the last six consecutive months of polls in 2012, Cuomo's approval rating stayed above 70 percent, reaching a record high of 74 percent in the December poll. (His poll ratings dropped in January.) The electorate clearly likes him, especially after his recent tour of trouble spots during Hurricane Sandy, his excoriating of power companies to more rapidly restore electricity, and his push to make the case in Congress for billions in federal aid to troubled areas in the city and Long Island.

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His record as governor has not been without failures. On redrawing legislative districts, after promising to veto lines gerrymandered to benefit incumbents, Cuomo gave in to the legislators. He ended up accepting an ugly, self-serving map filled with districts that have little geographic logic, in exchange for something nebulous -- the Legislature's passage of a constitutional amendment that would establish a bipartisan redistricting commission after the next census.

There is also the justified accusation that he is a politician who plays it both ways -- appealing to conservatives by focusing on spending cuts, capping property taxes and cutting pension benefits -- actions which, whatever their rationale, gained him Republican support. More important was his silence when asked to support Democrats running for the state Senate in the November election. It suggested he didn't mind Republican control of the Senate, demonstrating to the public that he transcended party labels.

However, Cuomo is too politically shrewd and calculating to be predictable. His recent rousing 80-minute State of the State address, which invoked New York as the nation's progressive capital, saw him shifting political direction again. The speech was repetitive and lacked poetry, but it was passionate and committed to a progressive agenda. Cuomo called for raising the minimum wage, "enacting the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation" (which has already occurred), pressing Congress for post-Hurricane Sandy aid and passing a historic "women's equality act." He also called for the creation of a $50 million investment fund to back tech start-ups, and an overhaul of workers' compensation and unemployment insurance programs.

Cuomo's 10-point Women's Equality Act is aimed, in his words, at "breaking down barriers that perpetuate discrimination and inequality based on gender." It includes pay equity, strengthening human trafficking laws, and stopping sexual harassment. All of his agenda is on the side of the angels, and worth passing.

However, though it was a thoroughly liberal speech, it was not a politically risky one, for in New York, women's equality is not a matter of debate, and we already have some of the strongest gun control laws in the nation. The speech, of course, will help Cuomo garner support from the liberal base and attract the women's vote if he plans to run for the Democratic nomination in 2016.

Cuomo is not the kind of politician whose political agenda derives from disinterested idealism, but it is the consequences of political action -- not its motivation -- that makes a difference in the world. Cuomo may not be a governor who stirs the heart or soul, but inhabiting the world of political hacks that by and large dominate Albany (there are exceptions), he is a comparative giant.

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I have a few words to add about NYC's arrogant, administratively competent, socially liberal mayor. In his last year in office, Bloomberg has been willing to voice opinions that he rarely made public in the past, though I know they have always been at the core of his economic vision.

When Public Advocate and likely liberal candidate Bill de Blasio proposed higher local taxes for those making over $500,000 a year, Bloomberg responded that's "about as dumb a policy as I can think of." Of course, Manhattan's rich people are now making 40 times more then the city's poor, but they are billionaire Bloomberg's cohorts, and they are the interest group whose well-being he is most committed to protecting.

I'm not suggesting Bloomberg has ever been a member in good standing of the limited government, low taxation Club for Growth. He is a big city mayor who is committed to a municipal welfare state, but more then any of his predecessors as mayor of New York, he has been entwined with real estate developers -- either encouraging them with tax abatements or refusing to put any brakes on their monolithic building plans.

Bloomberg is an effective mayor, but he is also the uncaring embodiment of New York's love affair with Big Money.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com Overline-

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Andrew Cuomo