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A Post-Cuomo New York?

E. J. McMahon Senior Fellow and Founder, Empire Center; Adjunct Fellow, Manhattan Institute
Nicole Gelinas Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute; Contributing Editor, City Journal
Stephanie Miner Professor, Colgate University; Former Mayor of Syracuse, New York
Michael Hendrix Director, State and Local Policy, Manhattan Institute
Mon, Mar 22, 2021 EVENTCAST

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A Post-Cuomo New York?

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SEE ALL EVENTS
Monday March 22
Monday March 22 2021
PAST EVENT Monday March 22 2021

Andrew Cuomo has been governor of the Empire State for more than a decade. During this time, New York’s chief executive has held a firm grip on power in Albany and over the state’s Democratic Party, not to mention commanding a national spotlight during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But now, in the face of serious allegations concerning his behavior, Gov. Cuomo is under investigation by the state’s attorney general as well as by the legislature as it considers impeachment proceedings. After enjoying sky-high polling numbers and even winning an Emmy in 2020, this year the governor’s fortunes appear to be falling back to earth.

What might New York’s future be post-Cuomo? While it’s too soon to know where investigations will lead, it is not early to discuss the implications of political instability for public policy and governance at the statewide and local level.

Event Transcript

Michael Hendrix:

Welcome to the Manhattan Institute's event on a post-Cuomo New York. I'm Michael Hendrix, director of state local policy. Andrew Cuomo has been governor of the Empire State for more than a decade now. During this time, the state's chief executive has held a firm grip on power in Albany and over the state's Democratic Party, while also becoming a national celebrity during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, in the face of serious allegations concerning his behavior, Governor Cuomo is under investigation by the states Attorney General, as well as by the legislature, as it considers impeachment proceedings.

After enjoying sky high poling numbers during the pandemic, and even winning an Emmy in 2020, this yeah, the governor's fortunes appear to be falling back down to Earth. So, what might the future of New York look like post Cuomo? While it's too soon to know exactly where investigations will lead, it's not too early to discuss the political implications of instability and change for public policy and governance at the state wide and local levels.

So, we've a terrific panel to discuss this question and many, many more. Throughout our discussion, please enter your questions on whatever platform you're watching this on, and I'll wrap them into our discussion.

First up, I'm proud to introduce Stephanie Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, New York. Prior to her mayoralty, she was a member of the Syracuse city council and co-chair of the New York state Democratic Party. She also ran for governor as candidate of the independent Serve America movement and she's currently a professor of political science at Colgate University. 

Next up, we have E.J. McMahon, senior fellow and founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy and a friend of many of us here. McMahon and the Empire [inaudible 00:02:03] both played a key role, a very influential role in fact, getting COVID data from Governor Cuomo's government, suing them for the records. 

And last, but certainly not least, we have Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor for City Journal, and a keen observer of life in New York City.

Thank you all for joining us today. So, as we speak, Governor Cuomo is under fire and under investigation, as we know. Multiple women have come forward with serious allegations concerning his behavior. This has also led to more news stories about the governor's managerial approach, and what's been described as an aggressive and even bullying treatment of other officials and lower ranking politicians, which is where I'll start with our first question. Stephanie, from your experience, are the reports of the governor's management style accurate? And how do they affect the development of policy and inter-governmental relations, from your perspective?

Stephanie Miner:

Well, they're very accurate, and I think you've only seen the tip of the iceberg of these stories. And in our new age, where people text so much, we're going to see more and more confirmation. So where they've said, "Oh, it's just New York tough," you're going to see language that is inappropriate in any environment, much less a professional environment. What I would tell you, is perhaps the most distressing part of that style of management, is that there is no real interest in public policy in the Cuomo administration. The goal is to, what they always use the word optics, it's to maximize optics and make the governor look good, and public policy, if anything, is given a secondary role. And in a time like this, when we have a state that has significant public policy challenges, to walk away from having open public discussion about good public policy, does a disservice to all of us as New Yorkers.

Michael Hendrix:

Right, I mean, this is a remarkable change for the governor, from his approach during the pandemic, constant appearance on television, answering questions. Now, that appears to be the opposite. I am curious though, if this is not new for the governor, why are we only seeing news stories like this appearing now, about allegations and the governor's approach to leading New York? He's been governor for quite a while.

Stephanie Miner:

Well, look, I think part of it is due to E.J and the Empire Center's good work on the nursing home cases. So, when you're talking about death of loved ones, it's really hard to bully and bluster your way out of that. And the Manhattan Center was able to stay focused on the actual data, and then when that data showed what it showed, people start saying, "Wait a second. Maybe there was some underlying truths here about the public policy." And again, it was the string, if you will, the thread, that started unwrapping the whole sweater.

Michael Hendrix:

E.J., I mean, this is a great time to turn to you. You've not only been a part of the process of releasing a lot of these disturbing figures around nursing home deaths during the pandemic, but you also have a great sense of where things stand in Albany. So, a question to you, where do things stand in Albany? We have a budget going down that's being negotiated. How will, most immediately, all of this news affect the process and outcome of those budget negotiations? And then broadly, just give us a sense of where things stand in Albany, what's your sense, what's your feeling there?

E.J. McMahon:

Well, at first, a quick disclaimer. And I appreciate the compliments of the Empire Center and its role in forcing the release of nursing home data and focusing on that issue. I was not principally involved in that, that was my colleague, Bill Hammond, who's a health policy director at the Empire Center. So, I wanted to make sure credit goes where it's due. He's much more involved in that.

In terms of where things stand right now, well, this is a really different environment than we're used to, to say the least. The governor, this governor in particular, out of the five or so governor's that I've watched or paid close attention to in my working life, tends to suck up all the oxygen in the room, in a normal time. He's very much a control freak. He very much likes to dominate the news and to dominate the agenda, and now he's dominating it in a way he would prefer not to.

The reason that it's a vacuum, meaning there's nothing stepping into it, is that the legislature has actually had something that we hadn't seen for quite a few years, until recently within the past 10 to 15 years. There's been a lot of turnover at the state legislature. There's a lot of members in the legislature who were not there 10 to 15 years ago, including a super majority, that is two thirds plus two seats in the state Senate, of Democrats, which there's never been in modern times in both houses. 

However, I don't think anybody would contest the view that they are not united in coherent force, necessarily, and that the leadership there, in both Houses, Speaker Hasty and Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, have their hands full just more or less herding the cats that are gathered around them, and are not seen as strong, much less dictatorial figures like some of their predecessors were. So, with the governor weakened and facing a political onslaught and demands for his resignation, or for his impeachment, for instance, and being under actual investigation and not just for the sexual harassment allegations. He is now a figure on the defensive, which has never happened since he took office 10 years ago. But there's not like there are other forces moving in to the vacuum either, so it's a confused time. Everything is very much in flux at the moment.

Michael Hendrix:

So, it sounds as if there is a power vacuum right now, in Albany. Is that a fair assessment?

E.J. McMahon:

Yes, very much so. I mean, and during that time, we also saw a broader trend, it's not only seen in New York, but particularly in New York perhaps, in which what many of us, at least, grew up with regarding as normal politics, have actually begun to fray and break apart also. Some of the normal and long established political forces and power bases are no longer there, are no longer exerting the level of authority and dominance they used to. So, it's a very splintered political environment in New York right now. The Republican Party has been reduced to its lowest level of influence and relevance, practically, I would say, in memory. Since the Civil War era, Republican Party has not been this weak.

That is neither here nor there, except for the fact that if you don't have a two part, New York has always had a two party system. And even until a few years ago, had a Senate, a working majority, that was under the control of Republicans, in the Senate. It didn't hold any more state wide offices, but it had at least that much. At this point, it's very much one party dominance, but that one party, the Democratic Party, has its own divisions and increasingly, in terms of the members of the legislature, is increasingly not so much dominated as intimidated by a very successful activist class of urban progressives and self-professed socialists, in the case of New York City.

And so, it's a very strange and different time in New York. There are different players jostling toward the spotlight, and there is, again, as you said, there's a power vacuum. If the governor does not somehow regain his prior dominance, there's nobody there ready to simply step in to that role.

Michael Hendrix:

And I think it would be fair to say that for many years, Governor Andrew Cuomo was happy to have a lack of political competition, even create that lack of political competition, until this game changed. Nicole, sometimes we've also seen in prior generations, the mayor of New York City step up and fill a political vacuum in New York, whether it's with the governor or some other portion of leadership within the state before. What are you seeing from Bill de Blasio during this whole experience? What's he doing? Is he recognized as, in any way, a leader here?

Nicole Gelinas:

Well, in polls, and the most recent poll was the [Quinnipiac 00:11:12] poll that came out six days ago, Cuomo's approval rating is still consistently above that of Mayor de Blasio, which is extraordinary. And most New Yorkers do not want the governor to resign, but there is a great geographic divide in that as well, where 50% or upstate voters, for example, would like the governor to resign, but only 37% of New York City voters would like the governor to resign. Also, split across race and gender, with a majority of men actually wanting the governor to resign, and a vast majority of African Americans wanting the governor to stay in office.

So, I think what we see in the city, is a perception that the governor is highly flawed, and not just in the issue of the sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior claims, but also in the treatment of the nursing home data and nursing home management. But New Yorkers are certainly not looking to the mayor to fill any kind of vacuum of leadership that the governor would leave behind, so I think that's part of why we don't see a ground swell of looking for the governor's scalp in the city, because people are naturally wondering what comes next without strong mayoral leadership right now, and without knowing exactly what a post Cuomo Albany approach to the city would look like.

And of course, also going on right now in the city, is a mayoral election. Mayor de Blasio has not helped himself with his leadership style, but also it would not help him anyway in the fact that he is already a lame duck. He has nine months left in office before his successor takes place. So, a very uncertain time in the city, which is partly driving the fact that nobody wants to see more change than is already taking place.

Michael Hendrix:

Just out of curiosity, Nicole, do you think that Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to be governor of New York?

Nicole Gelinas:

I don't think that Mayor de Blasio knows what he wants to do next. He has never shown, in the past, a burning desire to be interested in New York State, outside of New York City, beyond some of the things that he has wanted the Cuomo administration and the legislature to do for New York City. Remember, he ran in 2013 and won on getting the state to raise income taxes in New York City. He did not get that accomplished, the governor and the state legislature, which control income tax policy for New York City, would not let the mayor raise taxes in New York City. So, that was... He took office and had an immediate defeat at the hands of Governor Cuomo.

But if you think about Mayor de Blasio's tenure, he had one big success in his first year, which was getting pre-kindergarten established for all four years olds, later brought down to three year olds. And in the seven years since then, he really has had no big successes to speak of, and nor does he seem to have wanted to try big things and just failed at them. He ran for president. It was only a little bit more than a year ago, that he fail at his presidential bid. Did not seem to have much of a reason for running for president, other than he was bored in New York City. 

So, in terms of some of these rumors that he wants to run for governor, rumors that he hasn't dispelled, I think it's a function of him being bored, not knowing what to do next and at the same time, not wanting to be irrelevant in New York City and state politics. And it's not quite the same thing, because Ed Koch was at a much earlier point in his mayoralty when he decided to run for governor in 1982, but people said the same thing, "Why is Ed Koch running for governor? He knows nothing about life outside of the five boroughs." And of course, he failed pretty miserably at his gubernatorial bid, but at least Koch had a New York City to come back and run when he lost. Mayor de Blasio, if he doesn't run for governor or if he doesn't succeed, not at all very clear at who would want him to do what in New York City.

Michael Hendrix:

It's also worth keeping in mind that when Mayor Bill de Blasio ran for president, he did not earn the highest fundraising totals of any mayor in the presidential race. He was actually out raised by the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. 

E.J., I believe you had a point to raise.

E.J. McMahon:

Well, speaking of Ed Koch's run for governor, which I covered, actually, against Mario Cuomo. He had a rationale, so he knew, he couldn't even pretend to have much interest in the rest of New York state, much as he tried. But he did have a rationale, which he actually would expand on later in life once he could talk more frankly, which was he knew that if he didn't run, that whoever succeeded Hugh Carey, who was pretty obviously not going to run, would be yet another person who ultimately controlled too much of his existence as mayor. Because the governor, essentially, is like a super mayor. He sits over the mayor, in effect, and can control a whole lot of things about the city.

So, Koch's reason for running for governor was, in part, to prevent somebody like Mario Cuomo from becoming governor and then dictating to him or ignoring his pleas for one piece of state legislation or another. And he was at the peak of his popularity, and in fact, was endorsed by the entire Democratic power structure, with just a handful of exceptions. And it was a big upset for Mario Cuomo to beat Koch at the time.

And again, mainly because, I'm going to say it, I was one of the two columnists in the state capital, to actually predict that Cuomo would win. I'm just saying, only because I think among other people, Andrew Cuomo convincingly made the following point, he was then just a kid running his father's campaign. But if you liked Ed Koch, which a lot of people did then, it was at the peak of his popularity, and you lived in New York City, you could keep Ed Koch by not voting for him for governor. And actually, you had an interest in keeping him as mayor and not governor. 

So, it was an interesting historical... It was the flip side of what we see now, which is if Bill de Blasio thought he was presidential material, why wouldn't he think he was gubernatorial material? 

Michael Hendrix:

Yeah. Stephanie, there's a lot of questions from the audience, you can jump in too, but I just want to say that there's a lot of questions from the audience, asking for us to [handicap 00:18:27] a potential race, the competitors that Governor Cuomo would have, or who the replacement would be. I don't know if you have any thoughts to share on that? Who some of the biggest potential challengers are, if not Bill de Blasio. I wonder what your take is.

Stephanie Miner:

Well, I'm happy to get into that, but before I do, I would be run out of town in a rail if I did not remind everyone of the key role that upstate played in Mario Cuomo's defeat of Ed Koch, when Ed Koch said that we all wore gingham and lived on the backs of pick up trucks, or something like that, in Playboy magazine. So, it was like a triple insult to people from upstate.

Look, I think that we are really in the midst of a vacuum, both in terms of governmentally and politically. And generally speaking, if you look historically at what happens in these kinds of situations, you'll have somebody come in who nobody expected to run and be successful. So, could that be somebody who does a good showing the New York City mayoral race? And then is able to say, people say, "Oh, boy, I like that person and what he or she has to say." I think so. 

I mean, if you look right now where Cuomo is on paper, you'd say he's most vulnerable, based on the dynamics of a primary, to a woman and a woman of color, which would lead you to look towards Tish James, who happens to be in the position that people frequently refer to as aspiring governor. But I think it is an open question and I think you're going to see lots of people start to think that, well, maybe this is the time to have a shake up in the hierarchy of state politics.

Michael Hendrix:

Well, and just one quick follow on question. Do you think... this is from Cole, one of the folks watching this. Do you think the pressure on Cuomo to resign would maybe lessen if the governor just announced that he wouldn't seek reelection?

Stephanie Miner:

Oh yeah, absolutely, but we saw that happen with David Paterson. This idea of a lame duck just instantly happens and everybody says, "Okay, the king is dead. Who's going to be the next king?" And all of the loyalty starts shifting. My issue, I have not called on him to resign. I think the allegations are serious, but from my position, I think that having an investigation will help us look at how the system and people within the system enabled these bad things to happen, if indeed they happened.

So, first and foremost, I believe in the rule of law. You should have an investigation into allegations, but based on my experience, I would tell you, for example, what we know about the nursing home issues, let's get an understanding of why the system responded to it that way, and how they were enabled to respond that way and demand that the state fix that. 

Now, I say that, I felt the same way after the corruption became very public with the Buffalo Billion. I mean, I was bitterly disappointed, and continue to be, to see a legislature that responded. They didn't fix the ethics morass. They didn't fix the flawed economic development policy. They didn't fix the corruption. But as E.J. said, we now have a new legislative group that's in there who may be more amenable to making a system work in a way that is more functional than just rewarding personal vendettas and desires.

Michael Hendrix:

Yeah, E.J., what do you think of the value of investigations and Stephanie's point? What do you think, or maybe hope, that they will reveal? Maybe not about the specific allegations, per se, but at the very least, just the nature of how Albany works.

E.J. McMahon:

Well, I don't know if they'll actually reveal, in the strict sense of that word, anything we didn't already now. Now, it's the specific allegations by several individual women about what transpired between them and the governor. Look, to some degree, other than confirming or not confirming the circumstances of dates and times that are alleged, there's no way to confirm specifically what he said in private conversations overheard by nobody. So, as for the other allegations that have been made about the work environment, the governor's management style, that's something that everybody who knows anything about the way that Cuomo administration, the governor works, has known for a long time. None of that is new.

Now, on the nursing home and on the release of the data with the nursing homes, this is very interesting. This is... A trademark of the Cuomo administration, starting very early, was, in fact, governor came in promising he was going to deliver, what I believe the actual quote was, "The most transparent administration in history." Which became something of a running joke, particularly among journalists and among organizations like ours because in fact, no administration in memory has so systematically engineered a process for stone-walling freedom of information requests of all kinds.

The one defense I can offer, in terms of how they handled the data, parsing out nursing home deaths from other deaths in the COVID crisis, is that that's not much differently than they handle any request for information. If any information might conceivably put them, or be interpreted as putting them in a bad light, they stone wall. This has been a trade... This is not something I need an investigation to reveal, this is something quite well known to anyone who has any dealings with the Cuomo administration on any subject.

I think that this came a cropper for him, because they had gotten away with it for so many years. They thought they had, in this case, they discerned that there might be some explaining that needed to be done behind the nursing home data, when they began to get a look at it internally. And they decided they would sit on it rather than reveal it. Now, by the way, if they had begun revealing more of the data last summer and explained why they had done what they did and what role they think it played and the fatality rate, the whole thing would be over by now, in the sense that deaths would have occurred, but they would have explained if they had made an honest effort to appraise how much of the nursing home fatality rate was due to their order to return patients from hospitals to nursing homes. They would have been able to make a case for saying, "We made a mistake. It was a thing we did when we thought hospital capacity... that hospitals would not be able to take patients." Et cetera. 

My colleague, Bill Hammond, has written about this. They could have explained this, not excused it, but said, "We made a mistake, and this was a terrible... we have to learn from this." That is not Governor Cuomo's nature on any issue you can think of, to say, "I made a mistake. I think we miscalculated." He never does that on any subject. And he's characteristically, he tends to over talk his main points, he tends to greatly inflate his description of his own accomplishments. He tends to deny facts that are inconvenient and to inflate facts that he prefers to have people pay attention to in support of his own narrative. Which, by the way, again, as is being noted more now, may also sound to you like some other politician of recent vintage. And these are characteristics of Governor Cuomo. 

And by the way, I, personally, and my organization has been supportive of certain Cuomo policies. Very supportive of some of his early administration policies, particularly the property tax cap which we view as a historic accomplishment. He expanded and supported and defended charter schools, in particular in New York City, against the mayor's attacks to undermine them. And so I say this as somebody who has complimented the governor and supported policies of the governor that I honestly-

Michael Hendrix:

Well, E.J., that's actually a great point, because it brings up something that a lot of the folks in the audience are raising. And Nicole, I want to turn to you on this, for your take. And that's the sense that Governor Cuomo, even if you know who he is, maybe because you know who he is, you see him as a potentially vital resource against the progressive forces gathering in Albany, that he's the bull work against wealth taxes coming in and a whole host of other travails of falling New York City. Do you think that that's a fair take, that he's been useful in that sense? And that if Cuomo leaves, that maybe we have something to fear of who or what takes his place?

Nicole Gelinas:

Oh yes. For his entire 11 year tenure, Cuomo has directed the state budget process. Two years ago, for example, he got congestion pricing enacted through the state legislature and it was an example of the governor using his own information asymmetries to control the legislature. And what do I mean by that? Many people thought that January 1st 2020, that was the date by which congestion pricing had to be in place. That is, New York state would start charging drivers to come in to Manhattan below 60th Street. But actually, this was only enabling legislation, it was not mandating legislation. 

So, Cuomo got the full power to enact and pull the trigger on congestion pricing whenever he sees fit. It could be next week, it could be before all of this happened this year, when many people thought he would be governor for at least another term. It could have been five years from now. So, he took the full power of a very important New York state policy, but also a New York City policy. When we think about previous attempts to enact congestion pricing, when the Bloomberg administration wanted to do this 13 years ago, this would have been controlled by the city of New York, in terms of what are the tolls for people driving in? And what is the money spent on?

But in this 2019 legislation, Cuomo not only kept when and if this happens to himself, but also seized full control over what is a city asset, the New York City streets, monetized them for the state and made sure it was the state that would have power over how that money is spent. So, just a prime example of how this governor is particularly good, or was particularly good, at manipulating both the natural power that the state holds over the city, but also the natural budgeting power that the governor holds over the state legislature. 

So, fast forward to today, what's going on with some of these enormous tax hike proposals? For example, the legislative proposal to increase the top marginal income tax rate by a full third. This would be the biggest tax hike that we've ever seen in the state, at a time when top earners have proven themselves to be very mobile. Many of them are not in New York state right now, they've been at their second or third homes for going on a year. And when large employers have also proven they do not need to have their top earners in Manhattan. Can the governor prevent that? He is certainly severely weakened over the next few weeks in using the usual tricks to make sure that this doesn't happen, or make sure that it is a compromise that people can live with. Something like a nominal, yet another temporary surcharge on top earners that would be more like half a percentage point, rather than three or four percentage points.

So, we'll see, but yes, this is... If there were a time for him to be weakened, this is just the worst time when businesses and mobile top earners want to see some certainty in leadership, in terms of, "Do I recommit and move back to New York City? Or do I seel my New York City house and just avoid all of this uncertainty by doing the only thing that I can control, which is leave the state?"

Michael Hendrix:

Go for it, E.J.

E.J. McMahon:

Following up on that, in terms of the budget process. In general, the governor is in Albany, is supposed to play, or generally expected to play, the role of the adult in the room, regardless of who that person happens to be or which parties are in the legislature. Legislators inherently don't look much further than the next election, if even that far. They have little regard for the long term. They have little regard for numbers adding up to a balanced budget. They, themselves, see that as the governor's job. And it's the governor that's supposed to be the back stop and the person who brings a certain level, a certain multi-year focus to things, and who is supposed to prevent too much irresponsibility from growing in the budget process.

Now, the governor still has his constitutional powers, which are quite strong. The budget in New York is not something that's supposed to emerge from the spontaneously from three people pulling their heads together. He frames it. The budget, basically, is he presents the budget to the legislature and they have the ability to react to it in certain limited ways, which I won't get in to. But when it comes to spending, they can't spend more than him and they can't tax more than he proposes without exposing their own alternatives to his veto. So, his power, ultimately, rests in his veto power.

The Senate Democrats have two more votes than they need to override his veto. Here's where the difference in his power comes in. A secure Governor Cuomo looking, for all appearances, as if he's governor for life, if not for a fourth term at least, is somebody who is a powerful back stop and protector of a member. If you want to get two or three members not to vote for an excessive degree of spending and taxation that's favored by the progressive elements of the party, which are threatening members, openly threatening them, if not behind the scenes open threatening them with primaries if they don't toe the line. The way to do that, is for the governor to reassure members, "Don't worry. I'm with you. You're my guy. You're my senator. I'll be with you, don't worry about it. You know we can't go for this crazy plan." That would be the message that would come to them from the governor in his prime.

Now, if you're one of those members, and again, fearing a primary. And for having worked in the legislature, there's nothing elected legislators fear and want to avoid more than a primary. Even more so than a... a few of them have a contested general election. But a primary, that's a whole different thing. And now, the governor is not there as a counterforce. So, the real test for him is, and I suspect this will be managed just because it's the natural flow of things, is to produce a budget that is not as bad as the budget's each House voted as their one House preferences last week, which are quite extreme, have enormous tax increases and spending increases in them. 

The problem is, if the final budget's only half as bad as what the legislature just voted to do, it's still going to be terrible. I'm not sure how much better it would be, by the way, if the governor was looking forward to a fourth term with no wrinkles, but he has been weakened in that respect, in terms of his long term credibility. That creates a vacuum too, because there is no one, and I mean no one in Albany, in the Democratic side, who openly criticizes and takes issue with the most extreme portions of the progressive agenda. Just as there's long been virtually no one in either party who will push back against the public sector union agenda, particularly the teachers unions. Who are, in fact, ultimately behind a lot of the worst stuff in the budget.

Michael Hendrix:

Well, E.J., hey, I want to give Stephanie a chance to weigh in too, and just maybe shift a bit from the Albany perspective, to just what it's like at the local level. Maybe Governor Cuomo is seeing as being useful to some corners, even if they're not personal friends to a certain legislature. But what's it like as mayor, to deal with Governor Cuomo? Is he seen as equally useful or something different?

Stephanie Miner:

Well, I think right now, you're seeing all of the local governments take a huge sigh of relief because of the huge state and local bailout that the federal government gave. I mean, that has really removed a tremendous amount of pressure. And so, normally, at this time, you'd hear state and local officials wondering about [inaudible 00:36:19], aid to municipalities, it's in many cases, the second or third largest source of revenue that they have. They don't have to worry about that now. They might have a particular program or project that they're wondering will get funded again, they're not worried about that now because the federal government just gave them a huge relief, an unprecedented amount of money to deal with their issues.

I think what you're seeing at the local government level, though, is a recognition of okay, well, how to we proceed forward? Because just like New York City, there is nothing... In a highly regulated, highly taxed state like New York is, there is nothing, virtually nothing, that a local government can do without the state's permission or authority. And so, if you have a state that at best is distracted by the governor's fate, then there's just not going to be progress made on any number of initiatives that county executives or mayors or town supervisors have.

So, there is a sense that, okay, once again, we will be delving into disfunction and the people that we represent, that we see every day in the grocery stores and on our streets, are going to say, "Why does it take so long to get things done?" I will say, though, just in going back though, and I wondered about E.J. and Nicole, your position on this. I think the governor tries to have it both ways. I think that there is probably, through the natural progressive compromise on the tax increase, and then he privately says to constituents, he says, "Hey, you better keep me around. Better donate to my campaign or else look what's coming behind me if you don't." And then he says to the rest of the state, "You need me around to make New York state function. See, it's only because I'm the grown... Look at this huge tax increase that they were going to do. Look at all of this crazy stuff that those children were going to do. I'm the adult in the room and I'm the one who's making sure New York functions." And tries to continue this message of, "I'm just focused on my work and I'm just getting the work done. And p.s., I'm the only one who is and who's capable of doing that."

Michael Hendrix:

Nicole, E.J., what's your take on that?

E.J. McMahon:

I would say, I'll risk saying and let her do the translation because in Nicole's presence, I will not risk trying to pronounce the phrase in French that I've known all my life, but don't speak French. But there's the famous, it think it was Louis XIV, Nicole, after me, the deluge?

Nicole Gelinas:

Right, the deluge.

E.J. McMahon:

And that is the governor's message to his longstanding donor base and to the business community. "Without me, it all falls apart and all these crazy people will be in charge." I absolutely agree with what Stephanie said. He'll have it both ways. And there's another element, which is, I've never seen public employee unions as powerful as they are now, which is really saying something, because when there's a vacuum, they are permanent, in effect. And a lot of this tax and spending agenda, in fact, reflects the priorities of the unions, starting with but not limited to the teachers unions who benefited tremendously from both the stimulus and the budget packages that the legislature favors.

Michael Hendrix:

Stephanie, go ahead.

Stephanie Miner:

Sorry. I also feel like I need to add this in, which is to say if and when the governor and his handlers and everybody starts saying this, I think it is imminently fair and should be asked, "Well, wait a second governor." We are on course, the state is on course to lose at least two congressional seats, maybe a third. For the first time, we have as many people pre-pandemic leaving New York City as leaving upstate. Infrastructure is crumbling all over the state, there are every day in upstate you hear water mains and sewer mains bursting and breaking and interrupting people's lives. 

Nicole is the expert on what a mess the MTA is. It's a mess. That's his MTA, does anybody think in the next four years, he's going to all of a sudden have an epiphany and make the decisions necessary to make it truly the functioning economic development engine that it is? There has been rampant corruption. The only ones that seem to enforce our ethics or lack of ethics is the US Attorney's Office, not the system itself. So, Governor Cuomo, spare me your talking points because the Governor Cuomo of 2010, or the guy who wanted to be Governor Cuomo of 2010, set out a whole agenda. And I'm looking at it now and saying not only have you failed to meet those agenda points, but the state is objectively, which is a word we don't hear a lot in politics, but objectively worse off than it has been.

Michael Hendrix:

Nicole, do you agree with that take?

Stephanie Miner:

[inaudible 00:41:16] that happens [inaudible 00:41:18] slash Mario Cuomo bridge.

Nicole Gelinas:

The only thing that I would add, is if you look at what some people sometimes think of as the private sector, but is not really the private sector in terms of how much it depends on the state government for its funding. Think about the construction industry, both on the management side for the contracts and the union side, these have been big, big supporters of Governor Cuomo. If you think about the real private sector, in terms of financial firms, legal firms, tech firms, all of the companies that are the tenants of all of the empty mid town office towers right now, they have been ominously quiet. I mean, the partnership for New York City certainly makes it clear that this is not the right time to increase taxes on mobile earners. But in terms of do we hear a big bank CEO coming out and saying these things, and saying that the bank wants to recommit to New York Cuomo and wants to be a good corporate citizen, but they simply cannot do so if we raise income taxes by a third at the top rate. You don't hear big financial CEOs saying those things.

And the reason is, they can pick up and leave. There is a clear threshold at which it is not worth it, fiscally, economically. And in some ways, in terms of the future commutes that employees are looking at, the future outlook for protest and disruption in Manhattan, even logistically it is not worth it to keep these huge, huge workforces in Manhattan anymore.

So, I think we should hear the voice that is very quiet right now, which is the direct voice of the CEOs that are making the decision, "Do I recommit a few thousand people or a few tens of thousands people back to New York or do I make this permanent change now?"

Michael Hendrix:

That's a great point. E.J.?

E.J. McMahon:

Well, it's interesting. I have, in my office, I have an old poster from 1970 from Nelson Rockefeller's campaign for a fourth term. His slogan then was, "He's done a lot, he'll do more." Now, and he got reelected on that slogan, running against a terrible Democratic candidate. That would have been pretty much Cuomo's slogan next year, and maybe he still will be running next year, but there is another issue that I think we've all noticed, if you pay attention to chief executives and executive offices, even mayors as well as governors. Third term-itis is a real thing. By the time you're in your third term, like you were describing the situation, Stephanie, the undone work and the problems and the challenges New York faces. And I know, Nicole's referred to a few of them too. The problem is, that once you're in your third term, you own it. Early on, you say, "This is terrible. The previous governors didn't do this well. I'm going to fix it."

Actually, and I saw this happen with Governor Pataki even, is actually even in the second term, they begin to become very defensive. And really, even when they're running for reelection the first time, and the want to tell you how they fixed everything prematurely, even if they've got policies that are helping to fix everything. They want you to conclude that they fixed everything. Now, you're in to this stage where you don't have your first string staff, whatever that might have been. You're not open to new ideas. I've never heard of or experienced any administration that's open to new ideas or fresh thinking by the end of its third term.

What you're mainly open to doing, is telling everybody what great things you've accomplished and getting annoyed when they don't readily applaud on cue when you explain it to them. This is a problem that all governors have faced to varying degrees. And Governor Cuomo had already long since arrived there, maybe a little early. And so the question now, is... I would disagree with one thing Stephanie said. I think some of his first term objectives, to the extent he actually clearly laid any out, which if you look at the voluminous stuff he put out in 2010, there wasn't that much there, actually. It was sold by weight, not by volume. 

But he did accomplish... His attitude was, "I'm going to be Mr. Fix It. I'm going to be a sense of purpose and control." Okay, arguably, he did a lot of those things. The one thing he actually ran on in 2010, was the property tax gap, actually, which he did do. Now, you come to 10 years later-

Stephanie Miner:

[inaudible 00:46:00] Remember part two of the property tax gap-

E.J. McMahon:

Which was mandate [crosstalk 00:46:05] relief, right.

Stephanie Miner:

Exactly. He stood in Onondaga County and said, "This is the first step and the second step is so." And E.J. and I have talked about this, we'll continue to talk about it, because as a perspective of a mayor, a local government official, okay, so you put the property tax cap on. I understand. But you have done nothing to alleviate the pressure that is causing us to raise. No politician wants to raise taxes, really.

E.J. McMahon:

Right, he wanted to [crosstalk 00:46:37]. Real mandate relief would have meant spending his political capital in fights with vested interest. Including, but not limited to, unions. And as you know, by the end of his second, middle of his second year, they were virtually disbanding the mandate relief tax force and had his guy was phoning in threats to the conference of mayors. Not too strong a word, saying, "Shut up about those mandates."

Michael Hendrix:

E.J., I want to jump in here real quick and just say looking ahead to a post-Cuomo New York, whenever that may be, what lesson should we take away, positive and negative, from his time so far in office for who and what should eventually take his place? So, thinking, for instance, thinking in terms of how you lead New York, what policies and priorities you point to and then also just trying to understand how he has dealt with herding the cats of Albany.

E.J. McMahon:

Well, I think one thing he showed and he was able to do early on, for better or for worse, depending on the issue you want to look at. He became governor in a situation in which it was very confused. David Paterson was seen as a weak lame duck, or though by the way, a whole other issue. He actually had closed a magnificent final year in managing the budget issue he faced that year, which he doesn't get enough credit for. But Cuomo moved in to become governor in what was seen as an environment that was almost chaotic, that seemed in which no one seemed to be in control. And remember, it started with Spitzer's shocking sudden resignation a few years earlier. In the heels of the great recession, he filled that vacuum. He was decisive, he was much more understated early on than he became later on. He was more, almost by comparison, a strong silent type compared to now. He did not say nearly as much. He resoluted and very strongly and with great focus pursued an agenda that he accomplished and he actually showed how a governor could be effective early on.

I do think what we learned, as time went on, is just how alienating and discouraging it is to have the attitude he had, which is increasingly in recent years, "It's my way or the highway. I'm the only one around here knows how to do anything right. Get out of my way. Here's the script for you to read from, and if you don't like it, I'll crush you." It's the old Machiavellian strategy, of it's better to be feared than to be loved. Actually, in a democracy, is not actually a good long lasting strategy and does not actually get things done. It gets everybody fearing you, but I don't think it's a way to accomplish things. Early on, he was much more effective and his attitude was different and his approach, it's hard to remember now, Stephanie, you remember then and you would have dealt with him closely as even a vice chair of the party early on. He was somewhat different then, and he was simply a person who had focus and a goal and was determined to get there. And I think that was actually the good example he set.

Michael Hendrix:

And I do want to turn to you, Nicole, just to ask a very similar question, but I wanted to turn back to an audience question here for just a moment. E.J., do you think that there will be other, say, financial scandals that will emerge? For instance, Mario Cuomo bridge, there appears to be issues with it. Maybe there'll be some other shenanigans that are revealed. Do you think that those... Do you foresee any scandals appearing in the foreseeable future, beyond the ones that we've already seen?

E.J. McMahon:

I have no idea, which is another way of saying, "Who knows." Maybe yes, maybe no. I do think that... I had been getting a sense that there were... The Tappan Zee bridge was very much a project, it was a very big project which the governor can point to with pride, but which also was clearly rushed to conclusion, and clearly pressure was put on the contractors to get it done in a way that the governor could claim was on time and on budget. And I wouldn't be surprised if more problems or questions emerge, which though, the governor's in a position to simply blame on the throughway authority, which I would expect fully to happen. 

I would remind you that the same design build contracting conglomerate that's now in the spotlight or possibly in somebody's sights, over the question of whether there were a problem with faulty bolts and prefab bridge plates, is also suing the throughway authority for a significant amount of money. Hundreds of... 800 million? I forget the exact sum, that it says it was not paid for contract change orders and overrun that it incurred while rushing to get the bridge done on the governor's schedule, according to the governor's personal preferences. And that is not unbelievable, in terms of knowing how the governor works.

Michael Hendrix:

Nicole, what's your take on what a post Cuomo New York should look like?

Nicole Gelinas:

Well, in terms of New York City, as we talked about before, we are going to nave a new mayor. It is very possible we'll have a new mayor who does not know how to navigate the state legislature, nor the governor. It is almost certain that it is better for the green new mayor to be dealing with a new governor, rather than be dealing with Governor Cuomo. Only because once we have the new man or woman in town, someone who has just won a fresh election and has a fresh mandate, the governor's natural instinct would be to be very clear, "You are not in charge of New York Cuomo, I am in charge of New York City." So, anything when it comes to New York City tax policy, for example. It is striking that when Mayor de Blasio wanted to raise the city income tax, he wanted it to be under the city's control. The city would decide what the top city income tax would be and the city would decide what to spend that money on.

In all of these new proposals, it would be the state that decides these things. The state, effectively, asserting a lot more control over New York City's tax base, and the state also deciding how to spend the money. So, whenever we see a mayoral candidate, for example, someone like Eric Adams who's doing quite well in the polls, saying, "I want to expand New York City's earned income tax credit to give poor workers a bigger tax credit." He would need the governor's and the state legislature's permission for that. So, the best hope for the new mayor, is a new governor who's also just finding his or her feet and is not exactly sure what his or her priorities are in how to handle New York City.

Michael Hendrix:

And Stephanie, what's your sense on what qualities we should be seeing in the next governor of New York? Again, whenever that may be. What qualities can we take away from the Cuomo tenure, to say, "This is what we want, this is what we don't want," so that we could get a positive, hopeful post Cuomo New York?

Stephanie Miner:

Well look, I agree with what Nicole and E.J. have said. The governor has tremendous political skills and nobody should count him out. I mean, there's a chance that he could run for reelection and could win reelection for a fourth term, which would be very personally important to him. So, I think his strength and leadership, whether it was super storm Sandy, or being able to say, "No, we have to have, we have to renovate the Tappan Zee bridge." That ability to be decisive and look decisive to fix problems is a very good thing. What I would hope, that Governor Cuomo wasn't able to do, was to surround himself with people who were deep thinkers, quality thinkers, and come up with new innovative strategies for how to solve some of these intractable public policy solutions. Because the Cuomo strategy has always been, don't think about it as a public policy issue, think about it as a public relations issue. 

If his demise is seen, or directly related to a failure to be transparent or ethical, in terms of nursing homes, you'll see voters react to that. If it's a failure about the Tappan Zee bridge, you'll see voters react to that. If it is hostile work environment, you'll see voters react to that. So, even in his, if he does have a demise, that's going to impact what the future of New York looks like because in many ways, when you have an executive leaving office, people vote for the next executive as a way to react, overreact oftentimes, to the negative characteristics of the incumbent.

Michael Hendrix:

And on that point, I think this is a good point to end. Whatever and whenever there may be a post Cuomo New York, we've certainly got a good sense of what a Cuomo New York has looked like, and what the lessons learned from that tenure has been. Thank you for this important discussion, for being a part of it. Thank you to everybody tuning in. If you like what you saw, subscribe to the Manhattan Institute. You can also go on our website, browse our research. Please also consider supporting the Institute. We're a non-profit organization. We're dependent on your support. But most of all, thank you to all of our panelists for being a part of this discussion. We depend on you and your insights. Please be a part of this conversation going forward. Thank you again.

E.J. McMahon:

Thank you.

Stephanie Miner:

Thank you.

Nicole Gelinas:

Thank you, Michael.

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