Cuomo, a lone wolf, pivots to build coalition

Political observers say there could be any number of reasons for governor's newfound collegiality
Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a news conference at Battery Park in Manhattan on Jan. 21, 2018.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a news conference at Battery Park in Manhattan on Jan. 21, 2018.

It was not the content of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s joint announcement with Govs. Philip Murphy and Dannel Malloy that was surprising so much as the fact that it was happening at all.

In declaring Friday that he would join with Murphy and Malloy, the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut, to sue the federal government over the constitutionality of its new tax law, Cuomo was advancing a pledge he had been promoting for weeks.

But the framing of the announcement — as the work of a coalition of blue-state governors, sprinkled with declarations of friendship, neighborliness and mutual admiration — was a departure for a governor who usually operates alone, positioning his state as an island unto itself.

Political observers said there could be any number of reasons for Cuomo’s newfound collegiality. Some said the potentially devastating economic impact of the federal tax law had jolted him into action; others pointed out that Murphy’s election was the first time Cuomo had had a Democratic partner across the Hudson River.

And amid persistent speculation that Cuomo might be eyeing a presidential bid, some saw the move as a way of building his national profile and burnishing his liberal credentials, by throwing his lot in with Murphy, who ran on a progressive agenda.

“Not even presuming that he has national ambitions, it broadens the scope of his attention,” said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College in New York. “It’s regional, but you build up a national constituency by building up regional alliances first.”

Timothy Gilchrist, who served as senior adviser to two governors, David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer, said that while independent streaks are a hallmark of most state executives, and in particular of New York governors, Cuomo struck him as more independent than his predecessors.

“When you’re the governor, you don’t really think you need help from anybody,” Gilchrist said, adding that Cuomo’s independent streak is “part what governors do, and part Gov. Cuomo.”

The collaboration on the promised lawsuit, which the governors said was likely to be filed in a few weeks, may have more political impact than legal. Alphonso David, the governor’s chief counsel, conceded that the collective nature of the lawsuit did not much advance its legal standing.

The three governors plan to argue that the federal tax law’s cap on state and local deductions singles out Democratic states and tramples upon states’ rights to self-governance. That argument could be made for New York or New Jersey or Connecticut alone just as well as for the three together.

Still, the more states that sign on to the lawsuit, the stronger the argument that states are being negatively affected, David said.

Because residents in many Democratic states pay high amounts of state and local income taxes and property taxes, the cap on deductions for those payments can cause their federal tax bill to rise sharply.

Cuomo has been signaling for months that he planned to collaborate with other governors in fighting the tax law, convening a conference call in December with Murphy and Gov. Jerry Brown of California to denounce it.

And he has publicly joined with the leaders of other states before, for example in soliciting federal aid after Hurricane Sandy or pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.

But his contact with other governors has traditionally occurred behind the scenes.

Although Cuomo and Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, worked together publicly on some infrastructure projects, most notably the Gateway Tunnel, the two men did most of their negotiating in private, Christie said last year.

“We made a deal with each other six years ago that if either one of us really wanted something to happen, at the Port Authority or someplace else, we pick up the phone and we call directly,” Christie said.

When Cuomo’s outreach to other governors did make headlines, it was not usually for its notes of happy solidarity. In 2011, Cuomo’s then-secretary, Steven Cohen, called Malloy’s secretary to tell him that his office operated on “two speeds”: “get along, and kill.” (A spokesman for Malloy on Friday said the two men were “close colleagues” who had developed a “strong working relationship over the years.”)

There may yet be opportunities for skirmishes between Cuomo and Murphy. While the two men have maintained frequent communication since Murphy’s election in November, mostly regarding the tax bill but also as part of a dwindling group of Democratic governors — only 15 in the country — Murphy falls to the left of Cuomo, a moderate, on several issues. Murphy is a staunch proponent of full legalization of marijuana, including for recreational use, an issue on which Cuomo has been more skittish.

Both observers and aides to Cuomo predicted that the governor would continue to partner with leaders in other states, not only against the tax law but also on other topics, such as immigration reform or climate change.

David said greater collaboration was a natural response to a hostile, Republican-led federal government. Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant, said it would amplify Cuomo’s bully pulpit and increase his clout among other Democratic governors.

Either way, Cuomo benefits.

“For the governor to be associated with such an effort and being the center of gravity of this effort,” Muzzio said, “it’s good policy, and then it is good politics.”

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