Gov. Andrew Cuomo spent most of 2012 in what can often be a shaky second act for politicians following rave reviews of his first year — he was searching for the next big thing. It turns out, the next big thing found him: Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook school massacre.
The Democrat won high praise this fall for his unrelenting tour of trouble spots during the storm, his intense chastising of power utilities to restore power faster and his push to use it all to make his case for billions in federal aid despite Washington’s own fiscal crisis.
Sandy played to Cuomo’s personal and political strengths. And it showed in a renewed energy late in his second year after some of his policy goals laid out in January fizzled. But planning and rebuilding is a trade he picked up as housing and urban development secretary in the Clinton White House — and under the hood of his ’68 GTO or ’75 Corvette.
As he was pushing Congress for uncertain Sandy aid amid Washington’s own fiscal crisis, a gunman killed 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Cuomo immediately pushed with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to strengthen New York’s already tough gun laws and will make his package of bills a prominent part of his Jan. 9 State of the State speech.
“Let this terrible tragedy finally be the wake-up call for aggressive action, and I pledge my full support in that effort,” Cuomo said, careful to strike a careful balance.
“No one is talking about making guns illegal,” Cuomo said. “No one is talking about legitimate hunters and sportspeople. We’re talking about illegal guns. We’re talking about abuse of guns. We’re talking about guns that have no real hunting or sporting purpose.”
Where once 2013, as was 2012 briefly, a question mark, Cuomo has what aggressive executives secretly crave: crises to confront.
First, he must help secure as much as he can of the $42 billion he says New York needs to pay for physical and economic damages and preventive measures before the next disaster.
“The big question — which we don’t have the answer to — is, has there been any effect on revenues from Sandy,” Cuomo said. “The truth is, we don’t know. That would be the largest unknown factor for next year.”
Sandy prompted an immediate spike of 46,000 new unemployment claims, but that trailed off over seven weeks. So far, tax revenues aren’t plummeting despite the massive damage in New York City, Long Island and parts of the Hudson Valley. But that means revenues are merely meeting projections for a continued slow recovery from the recession that was expected to add to a $1 billion deficit even before Sandy hit.
Sandy gives Cuomo a chance to take on an outsized crisis with all the headlines and public support that comes with it, rather than toiling in the more mundane task of implementing earlier victories.
But the governor also has an unfinished progressive agenda he wants to finish, much of it he promised to do in 2012 during his State of the State address, “Building a New New York,” in January.
Cuomo’s other pledges faltered 12 months ago, when he and Republican senators broke their promises not to raise taxes by adopting a millionaire’s tax in December 2011 to raise $1.9 billion. Cuomo, the Senate’s Republican majority and the Assembly’s Democratic leadership also reneged on promises to enact independent, nonpartisan redistricting. Instead, the majorities redrew their own district lines in a notorious process that protects their power for the next 10 years.
That helped Republicans cling to a share of majority power for 2013 as they entered into an unprecedented and uncertain power share with five members of the Independent Democratic Conference. Other infuriated Democrats call it a power grab that will blow up.
Thanks to an apparent win for Republicans in a long-disputed race, the GOP appears to have its own working majority. That threatens progressive ideas like raising the minimum wage and public financing of campaigns from ever getting to the floor.
Cuomo, however, is already showing how he may play off Republicans against Democrats in the Senate to get both his fiscal goals and his progressive goals.
“Gov. Cuomo gets an A-minus or A” for his midterm grades, said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at New York City’s Baruch College. “He altered the zeitgeist, is a savvy strategist and weathered fiscal catastrophe.”
Muzzio credits Cuomo for bringing fiscal restraint to Albany, establishing a cap on property tax growth, leading New York through tropical storms Irene and Lee that battered upstate in 2011 and Sandy that slammed New York City, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley.
“The only negative: Awful redistricting,” Muzzio said.
Cuomo ticked off his 2013 objectives in what he brazenly called his “litmus test” for lawmakers to win his support. They include raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform including voluntary public financing of campaigns, restrictions on police stop-and-frisk procedures that critics say impinge on civil rights, climate change initiatives, further protecting abortion rights, and “limited and highly regulated casinos” to boost jobs and tax revenues.
He’ll add to that in his State of the State.
He didn’t mention the heated question of whether he will allow the expansion of drilling into a huge deposit of natural gas in the Southern Tier using the contentious hydrofracking process.
“As governor, I have specific programs and progressive initiatives that I believe must be continued or enacted,” Cuomo said earlier this month in his stern “litmus test” statement. “I will give or withhold my support based on an individual legislator’s support of those issues.”