By Tom Precious
NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF
ALBANY -– With the Working Families Party set this weekend to decide whether to give its gubernatorial line to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or to someone else more in line with the party’s ideals, the governor has been steering to the left in what some political observers say is a transparent, last-ditch attempt to grab the small but influential party endorsement.
The latest example came Thursday when Cuomo said the coalition-style system that runs the State Senate will be considered “a failure’’ if it does not go along with his idea for a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system. This from a governor who, despite a campaign promise four years ago, let Senate Republicans draw their own district lines a couple years ago to improve GOP chances in key areas of the state. This from a governor who for four years has praised his self-touted accomplishments won with the backing of the small group of breakaway Democrats and Republicans who rule the Senate.
This also from a governor whose own government-funded web site features photograph after photograph of Cuomo at events with members of the coalition. And this, Republicans privately chuckled, from a governor who is running a television ad boasting of his ability to work across the partisan aisle to get things done.
The governor had his best opportunity to force Senate Republicans to go along with his taxpayer-funded campaign finance plan during the budget talks in March. With extraordinary powers given to New York governors in the budget process, Cuomo could have held up adoption of the budget as leverage to try to force reluctant lawmakers his way. But Cuomo insisted from the start that he wanted the fourth on-time budget in a row as a sign of progress in Albany.
Instead, the governor ended up with a pilot program affecting only the state comptroller’s race and only for this year -– a plan rejected by government watchdog groups and even the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli.
Now, just two months later, Cuomo is suddenly making sounds that he will help the Democrats take control of the Senate if the Republicans don’t go along with him on a broader campaign finance plan.
Cuomo administration officials said there was nothing sudden about the governor's warnings on Thursday, noting a 2012 "litmus test'' he issued on 10 policy proposals of his on which, depending on if a legislator opposed or supported them, he would base his political support of that legislator. One of those items at that time was a campaign finance bill; another was his plan to expand the state's abortion laws.
Officials also point to a Huffington Post piece he penned earlier this month about the need for a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system in New York. He said that "to end the session without the Senate majority coalition agreeing to public finance would be a true failure and a lost opportunity.'' The difference is, however, that on Thursday he said the failure to act on a bill would mean that the coalition itself is a "failure.''
About an inch behind the scenes in all this is the Working Families Party, which meets Saturday to pick a gubernatorial candidate. If it breaks with Cuomo and taps a liberal with a name or the right qualifications, the governor could find himself in the fall losing thousands of votesof by left-leaning New Yorkers, of which there are a few.
But does Cuomo face bumps with this path? Will it seem to some voters that he only started the idea of helping Senate Democrats regain control of the Senate when his own political fortunes with the left-leaning Working Families Party was put at risk? Will some New Yorkers recall the last time Democrats briefly held the chamber and the dysfunction that erupted and question why Cuomo might re-form his alliances with many of those Democrats from that period who are still in office today?
And what will this mean for Cuomo’s push for four years to try to convince voters that he can work equally well with Republicans as Democrats?
Senate Democrats in the main Democratic conference note that half their membership was elected after 2010 and that Jeff Klein, the current Senate co-leader who brokered the deal to share power with Republicans, was the floor leader during the time when Democrats ruled the chamber.
A spokesman for Senate co-leader Dean Skelos said the Republican Long Island lawmaker did not have any immediate comment to Cuomo’s “failure” remark. Senate Republicans are under intense pressure from the state Conservative Party, whose endorsement can matter in some of the GOP districts, to not go along with the publicly funded campaign finance plan.
But the other Senate co-leader, Klein, a Bronx Democrat, put out what amounted to a “head-scratching’’ reaction to Cuomo’s comments. Klein, in a written statement this afternoon, said that “in totality’’ the coalition -– his five Democrats and the Republicans -– “has been successful in passing marriage equality, the toughest gun law in the nation, fully funded, full-day universal pre-k and increasing the minimum wage and I’m proud of this string of successes.’’ He said he’d keep fighting for the campaign finance measure until the session ends; Klein and his fellow breakaway Democrats met privately with Cuomo earlier this week to discuss campaign finance and other issues.
More than one legislator has noted the coziness in the past couple weeks between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, despite a rather bumpy start the mayor had in Albany -– and notably with Cuomo -- when he took office in January. Cuomo even put de Blasio’s mayoral seal alongside his on a press release his office put out today for Hurricane Sandy-related event today on Staten Island led by the governor and mayor.
De Blasio, in fact, has been working the phones in recent weeks to try to convince the Working Families Party, with which he has many allies given his liberal credentials, to stick with Cuomo in 2014.
At the Staten Island event, Cuomo told reporters he is “pessimistic’’ that the Senate GOP will go along with his campaign finance bill that many GOP lawmakers say their constituents do not support because it would allow taxpayer money to go to candidates with ideas they do not embrace.
“But it’s not over,’’ Cuomo said of the session that is scheduled to end June 19. And then he came out with a warning, albeit a vague one, about what might happen if the Senate GOP and the breakaway Democrats do not back the campaign finance plan. “If they do not pass public finance, I will consider the coalition a failure. I have said that, I repeat that, and I will act accordingly,’’ he said.
Precisely what he meant by “accordingly’’ was not elaborated upon by the governor.