ALBANY – Meet the “extreme conservatives” from Western New York, the politicians who by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s definition and suggestion might have “no place in New York.”
They serve in the State Legislature and have names like Maziarz, Gallivan, Young, Schimminger and Goodell.
After the governor publicly railed last week that “extreme conservatives” who don’t share his views on three topics – abortion, gun control and gay marriage – are out of step in this state, his aides were quick to note that the governor’s words were directed not at state residents, but politicians who he suggested are persona non grata in the Empire State.
Yet several members of Western New York’s delegation, which has been supportive of Cuomo the past three years on a range of issues, fit that definition, even though they have backed his public relations efforts to bolster his standing among Western New York voters. In fact, he has regularly invited many of these same legislators with “extreme” views on his three litmus test issues to Buffalo-area events that he sponsored so they could play the roles of political celebrities.
These lawmakers were not thrilled by the governor’s remarks a week ago Friday, nor the post-remarks spin of his aides.
“I, for one, am very comfortable being a New Yorker,” said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat whose views on the three issues places him squarely in Cuomo’s “extreme conservative” column.
“It was a poor choice of words,” added Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican who voted against the gay marriage and gun control bills and opposes abortion.
If Cuomo believes the firestorm over his comments is dying down, he might not visit the district of Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Erie County Republican who represents an area that stretches to Rochester.
“I’m hearing quite a bit. Constituents in my district were very offended by his comments. They thought they were inappropriate. They believed him to be very closed-minded,” Ranzenhofer said.
Are these lawmakers really extreme?
For the Republicans in the bunch, they might actually be considered extreme moderates, or maybe leftists to voters in red state states like Texas or Oklahoma or South Carolina.
Several of those making Cuomo’s “extreme” list have supported expensive state government programs and state budgets with spending increases blowing past the rate of inflation. A number have, at some time or another, voted for tax and fee hikes. They’ve OK’d protections for the environment that businesses might not always like.
Most have supported an array of programs for poor people, with services such as housing or legal assistance, that some far-right residents might label as handouts.
The radio statement
The governor made national headlines a week ago when he said on a public radio station: “Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”
The governor’s office has insisted that his comments were taken out of context and that his words were meant to describe the views of conservative politicians, not conservative residents. But that explanation drew the wrath of some residents, if comments to The Buffalo News are any indication, who wondered why New York should be attractive to them if they can’t vote for a full range of candidates.
The governor’s office has further said Cuomo is a Second Amendment supporter and gun owner and believes there is room for views across the liberal to conservative spectrum in such a diverse state and that he was expressing a view that an “extremist” agenda is not “politically viable” in New York. The governor himself said he is “fine” if politicians want to be “anti-gay” and against gun control and abortion expansion laws but that they are out of touch with the vast majority of New Yorkers.
The administration has also noted that Cuomo is a Catholic, a point that did not stop Buffalo Catholic Diocese Bishop Richard Malone from making his own YouTube video to describe Cuomo’s radio statement as a “rant” and called it “the best example of extremism I’ve heard for a long time.”
Local delegation record
Looking at voting records over the years, the Western New York delegation as a whole, with some exceptions, can be considered more right-leaning than many other delegations from other parts of the state.
On Cuomo’s extremist litmus test, Ranzenhofer voted against the gay marriage bill and the SAFE Act, and while he says he supports existing abortion access laws does not back Cuomo’s effort to extend them.
Ranzenhofer said Cuomo’s comments were ill-chosen for a chief executive of New York.
“To try to pigeonhole people on one side or the other, whether the left or right, people are individuals and they have their own opinions. To say we’re not a diverse enough state or broad enough state to encompass a wide range of opinion on the continuum of opinions I thought was very inappropriate,” he said.
One Republican who is a two-thirds “extreme conservative” under Cuomo’s definition is Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence, who favors abortion rights but voted against Cuomo’s bills to legalize gay marriage and strengthen gun control laws.
“My initial thought was how petty and ridiculous. It makes no sense. New York is so diverse in so many ways, not just in ethnicity, but in ways of thinking. For him to make a statement like that, to me, kind of point that he really doesn’t understand what New Yorkers are like,” she said.
“We are a reflection of the people of the state. If we have candidates who are pro-life or pro-gun, it’s because they’re a reflection of people living in New York State,” Corwin said.
She also said Cuomo set back his own rhetoric about working with all parties and people of differing views as he has suggested as recently as his State of the State address a few weeks ago.
“I’m concerned with the whole political environment that is moving into this stereotyping of the other side, drumming up people to hate others who don’t think like them, and I think that’s a really bad direction for our state to be moving,” Corwin said.
As they stood in a hallway outside the Senate chamber this week, Maziarz and Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, carefully pondered their reactions to the governor’s comments that have become well known to all lawmakers at the Capitol. Both are abortion opponents and both opposed the gun and gay marriage bills.
“I thought they were inappropriate, and I was glad to see he immediately started backing away from those comments,” said Maziarz, one of Cuomo’s go-to lawmakers on Western New York issues.
“I’ll take the governor at face value what he meant,” Gallivan said of the explanation that Cuomo’s comment was a reference to New York being a moderate state and that statewide candidates with extreme conservative positions have a hard time getting elected. “But it seemed like a poor choice of words that offended some people.”
Gallivan added, however, “If he meant the words he said, that’s problematic.”
Cuomo’s comments have been sweeping newspaper columns across the country, as well as social media and cable television talk shows.
“What Andrew Cuomo said is, truly, a scandal,” wrote Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and current Wall Street Journal columnist who is the featured speaker at the state Conservative Party’s annual meeting in Albany on Monday.
“It’s a scandal if he actually thinks it – that those who hold conservative views on abortion, gun rights and marriage are extreme, anathema and have no place in the state. It is a bigger scandal if he feels he has to talk like this because his party’s going left, its intractable (and extreme) base picks presidents, DeBlasio-ism is the future, and if he wants to appeal he’ll have to be in his comments what he says he decries: extremist.”
Out to defend Cuomo this week was Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York and a liberal Democrat. The mayor told reporters Thursday that he interpreted Cuomo’s remarks to be about “an extremist attitude that continues the reality of violence in our communities or an extremist attitude that denies the rights of women does not represent the views of the people of New York state. We all understand there’s a right to free speech. I wouldn’t disagree with that nor would Gov. Cuomo. But I think he’s saying the attitudes of the people who want to continue the status quo on guns, challenge or deny a woman’s right to choose, does not reflect the values of New Yorkers. So I think he was absolutely right to say what he said.”
In Chautauqua County, nearly as far as one can get in the state from New York City, one conservative Republican lawmaker observed that there are more signs on people’s lawns calling for repealing of the SAFE Act than there will be for his own re-election campaign.
“My constituents were shocked by the comments, of course, because Chautauqua County, much like the rest of upstate, is fairly conservative,” said Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Jamestown Republican who differs with Cuomo on abortion, gun control and gay marriage.
Goodell said no matter the post-remarks spin, residents whose opinions differ from Cuomo on some still-burning social issues were insulted and troubled and people have been surprised that Cuomo did not personally try to later explain them or heed the call of some to apologize.
“Obviously, that statement was the antithesis of tolerance. It was an unfortunate statement. I’m sure he’s regretting it. We certainly regret it,” he said.