MELVILLE – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday left his party’s convention on Long Island in the same place he arrived: leading in the polls, sitting atop a huge pile of cash for his campaign and enjoying a large Democratic voter enrollment edge over Republicans.
But after four years in office and having to make – and sometimes not making – difficult decisions, the governor also has some fence-mending to do if he is to rally Democrats – from liberal to right-leaning – behind him in November for the kind of re-election numbers he wants.
Cuomo appeared to acknowledge his desire to get along better with fellow Democrats, convention participants said, as he faces an opponent this time who is politically savvy, personable, quick on his feet, comfortable before TV cameras and live audiences. Unlike Carl Paladino, Cuomo’s opponent four years ago, the GOP candidate this time around, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, already has proven he can win over Democratic voters, including Latinos and key suburban swing voters.
During his time in office, Cuomo has had run-ins with Democratic legislative leaders, rank-and-file lawmakers, party leaders especially in Erie County, public employee unions, and groups representing everyone from government watchdogs to environmentalists and teachers.
But one statewide Democrat who has had his share of battles with Cuomo since 2011 said the convention gathering in Suffolk County did result in a feeling of some unity.
“As often happens with Democrats, whatever internal differences there may be, when you contrast it with the opposition, if they win and what they would do, that’s always a very powerful tool for Democrats to come together,” said State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Nassau Democrat.
That the party is controlled by and serves Cuomo was apparent. Team Cuomo decided who and when people spoke at the convention. The governor’s face and his alone graces the home page of the party’s web site. And it was Cuomo who chose to announce his lieutenant governor selection – Erie County’s Kathleen C. Hochul – on Wednesday, which ended up big-footing the convention speeches by DiNapoli and State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
But DiNapoli said Cuomo’s advisers “showed a real willingness to be inclusive at the convention.” He noted they gave a prime speaking spot to State Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who called for help in efforts to regain control of the Senate. Senate Democrats privately complain that the governor has in the past hurt their efforts to oust Republicans for the leadership.
Still a raging question is whether the tiny but influential Working Families Party will endorse Cuomo. Some of its members, led by public employee unions, are furious with Cuomo over battles on everything from state agency cuts to teacher evaluations.
Danny Donohue, president of the biggest state workers union, recently called Cuomo a “moron.” And he wasn’t speaking in advance of the convention.
But Stephen Madarasz, a spokesman for Donohue’s Civil Service Employees Association, said the union has been upset with Cuomo over its collective bargaining deal, the state’s 2 percent property tax cap, the governor’s tax-free program for new businesses at college campuses and a new pension tier for newly hired workers.
“You’ve seen a lot of things that have happened over the last few years that really make it a challenge to try to place a lot of trust there,” he said of public employee unions’ relations with Cuomo.
The Legislature’s most powerful Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has had his own on-again, off-again relationship with Cuomo, and he was showing signs of on-again in the minutes after Cuomo ended the party’s convention Thursday.
“He stands well with the party and there’s no place else," Silver said of the governor. “If you look at the opposition, if any public employee union thinks they’re going to do better with the Republicans, then they ought to get new leadership.”
Cuomo “did what he had to do” to accomplish such tasks as closing a major deficit, he said, while agreeing to a large state aid increase for public schools.
“Teachers should be very happy with him,” Silver said of a group that has been protesting Cuomo.
Long list of critics
But the list of Democrats Cuomo has battled is a long one. Besides feuding with state lawmakers and unions, Cuomo got involved in a bitter power struggle in the Erie County Democratic Party and lost. He battled Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who was his handpicked state Democratic Party co-chair after she questioned his fiscal policy plans.
Some female lawmakers say he has not pushed hard enough to have the State Senate pass the Women’s Agenda package of bills, including abortion expansion.
Government watchdogs say he messed up a couple years ago with a redistricting plan and came up short with a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system, which recently was put in place only for the comptroller’s race without any input from DiNapoli.
Environmentalists protested in force outside the heavily guarded convention hotel – no one without an invite or room reservation even got onto the grounds of the hotel – as they shouted their unhappiness over Cuomo’s indecision on whether to ban or allow natural gas fracking.
Cuomo’s staunchest backers believe he is still a viable 2016 White House contender and, to keep it that way, he needs to score a big victory this fall by capturing areas such as Western New York that he lost four years ago.
In a packed hotel ballroom Thursday, Cuomo and Hochul accepted their party’s nomination to head the fall ticket against Astorino and his running mate, Chemung County Sheriff Chris Moss.
Cuomo was nominated by two men representing two factions of the state Democratic Party: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, from the party’s left wing who fought with Cuomo this year over policies, and former President Bill Clinton, a moderate who named Cuomo his federal housing secretary.
“New York is a better place than it was just four short years ago," said Clinton, a resident of Westchester County, said in a videotaped message.
Cuomo then spoke for 28 minutes, relatively short for him, and went through the litany of what he considers his top accomplishments: rebuilding infrastructure, cutting a deficit, giving new attention to upstate, and passing gay marriage rights and one of the nation’s toughest gun control laws. It was a clear attempt to rebut Astorino’s campaign theme that New York is “losing” under Cuomo.
“Government wasn’t working,” Cuomo said of the time when he took office four years ago. Today, Cuomo said, he is confident he can look any New Yorker in the eye “and say we did what we were going to do.”
He boasted in his speech of the special attention he has given Western New York, including a promise to spend $1 billion in the Buffalo area on job creation.
“It’s an investment that will pay dividends … I am proud of the investment we made in Western New York,” Cuomo said.
Hochul’s dual roles
An hour earlier, Hochul was nominated to be his running mate. Among those touting her choice was U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who recalled her brief time serving with Hochul in the House, and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
When it was her turn to speak, Hochul spent much of her time talking about Cuomo’s economic accomplishments in Western New York – a clear signal that the governor plans to use her to help turn around his poor showing in the region four years ago.
“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to get out there,” Hochul told a cheering crowd.
Hochul’s speech also was intended to show she can be Cuomo’s attack dog, as she went after Astorino on several fronts. Without naming him, she said Astorino had “declared war on Buffalo” with his remarks questioning the soundness of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program. She said criticizing the program is like criticizing the Bills or Sabres to people in Buffalo.
After her speech, Hochul left the stage to the song “Shout."
Cuomo took no questions from reporters, unlike Astorino, who at last week’s convention spoke to treporters several times over the course of two days.
Cuomo likely figured he didn’t want to step on his own speech while Astorino is looking for ways to build up his name recognition.
Immediately after the convention, Cuomo took a flight from Long Island to Cooperstown to join President Obama at the Baseball Hall of Fame to tout tourism as an economic development tool.The themes of the two campaigns are drawn in simple terms and based on Ronald Reagan’s old “Are you better off now than you were four years ago’’ mantra. Astorino insists the state is “losing” versus winning, while Cuomo said he will run on a record that has brought numerous – and he says positive – changes to Albany.
But Cuomo sought -- in a dig at a state Republican Party that would otherwise be seen as far-left in other parts of the United States – to give New Yorkers a political scare, saying they face the prospects of an “ultra-conservative social agenda’’ taking over Albany if Astorino wins. “This is a choice about how we see society, and our vision of how we relate to one another,’’ he said.