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Analysis: As Cuomo campaigns, his perks let him fly high

ALBANY – It doesn’t have the private quarters and sprawling space of Air Force One, but Grey Rider does a fine job of ferrying Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to official events across the state in short hops, often of less than an hour.

As Cuomo looks out his window, he might even be able to see Rob Astorino, his Republican opponent in the governor’s race, driving on the Thruway or on some back road in a Chevy Suburban that has put on 32,000 miles crisscrossing the state since the spring.

Up above, the state’s Beechcraft Super King Air 200 turboprop plane along with a state-owned helicopter that Cuomo has at his disposal are just two of the visible tools, funded by taxpayers, that are helpful to a governor facing re-election. Those aircraft are supposed to be used only for government purposes, but the state air fleet’s political benefits are obvious: Cuomo is able to hit numerous events in a day, traveling across a big state by air, while Astorino, with a campaign bank account just a blip of Cuomo’s, is fighting road traffic.

The air service, which is legal because the governor is doing state business, is just one of many ways state government helps to promote Cuomo’s re-election bid.

State initiatives – from redevelopment of Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo to a billion-dollar-plus World Trade Center in New York City – can be rolled out on his own timetable during a campaign season.

Then add the official Cuomo political campaign operation, which has raised $45 million.

Next add the unforeseen crises that the head of state government must confront – think Ebola – which mute pesky attacks or major policy unveilings by a challenger, desperately trying to get media attention on a given day.

Add it all up, and incumbency becomes a powerful tool in a candidate’s re-election, and Cuomo knows how to use it well.

It’s nothing new, of course, and it’s not limited to Democrats. In the days of his father, three-term Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, there was a term coined – “kicking money out the airplane door” – to describe the timely announcements of state money going to assorted communities for assorted projects across the state as Election Day approached.

Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, who denied Mario Cuomo a fourth term and went on to serve three terms himself, inherited and embraced the concept. But Andrew Cuomo, thanks to an improving national economy, has ratcheted up the state government’s dispensing of money this fall.

The Cuomo administration was asked to respond to a question about the advantages of incumbency. The administration did not respond directly to the question, but said the governor spends his time working to fix tax and budget policies, create private-sector jobs and make commitments to help the Western New York economy. That is another way of saying Cuomo is just doing his job.

But he has carefully timed some news events, such as the announcement of the $750 million RiverBend project in South Buffalo in late September that is supposed to bring 3,000 new jobs, his new plan for combating sexual assault on university campuses or his trip to Afghanistan last month to talk about anti-terrorism efforts.

And last Thursday night, the governor was quick to act on breaking news: the state’s first Ebola case. By early Friday, Cuomo was talking about Ebola as a guest on several national morning television news shows.

“By virtue of being governor, he can raise issues that are timely with regard to the business of the state. Those type of things can work to his advantage in the course of a campaign. … Unlike his opponents, who can only talk but not act on ideas, he can give orders and expect them to be carried out,” said Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University.

Consider the first three weeks of October. Cuomo’s office either announced new money for projects – or reannounced funds for previously committed projects – that totaled $1.98 billion. Every key area of the state, every key constituency group, was touched by the state announcements.

There was money for farmers, money for domestic violence prevention efforts, and money for businesses. Housing groups got new money, as did emergency services dispatchers, developers, businesses in the import and export business, small towns and big cities.

Several were in Buffalo, an area that Cuomo wants to win after his loss in 2010 of all Western New York counties.

In the category of “reannouncements” was the groundbreaking at a downtown Buffalo hospital and the first phase of the redevelopment of the Richardson Olmsted Complex, as well as completion of a SUNY Buffalo State gym renovation.

New York City had the biggest announced project: a $1.6 billion bond sale to complete 3 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

Astorino said that there is no mystery to the timing of the money awards coming out of Cuomo’s office.

“You can hardly recognize him in his red suit and white beard going around the state playing Santa Claus, thinking he can buy off every community with taxpayer money,” Astorino said in an interview.

Astorino, who insists that the state’s economy still faces deep structural problems, believes that New Yorkers will see through the announcements and have a different reaction than Cuomo may want.

“What he’s doing is shifting the burden all over the place,” Astorino said. “I’m not so sure it’s going to help his campaign because people see it for what it is: It’s a phony, fraudulent administration for Andrew Cuomo.”

Cuomo is adept at fine-tuning government operations to assist his political campaign.

“You control the government, so you know what you’re going to roll out. You know the constituents you want to touch. You have the polls, and you have the mechanism of state government,” said one Democratic Party insider who has been involved in a number of statewide campaigns and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Take the official bill-signing process. When the Legislature left town in June, it left the governor hundreds of bills to be acted upon. By agreement, individual bills are sent to the Governor’s Office when his staff asks for them. That permits Cuomo to time the signing of a popular bill, or the veto of one that might grab headlines. That is a scenario that played out every month since June.

The Democratic strategist familiar with the ways of Albany gave an example typically used by governors in election seasons: Say a governor wants to appeal to veterans in an election year. The governor can set the date for a bill-signing event for legislation that in some way will make veterans happy. Since he sets the timing, his staff has the luxury of time to invite the ideal veterans organizations to surround a governor with veterans as he signs the bill, then gives out the pens used to make it official – while a photographer on the government payroll captures the ceremonial pomp and ensures that those veterans gets autographed copies of the photos.

Next, consider the yogurt industry, which Cuomo has pumped up with state money to make New York the nation’s top yogurt producer.

Lawmakers approved a bill June 11 making yogurt the official state snack. It was not sent to Cuomo until Oct. 9. Five days later, Cuomo signed it – just hours before the start of a dairy and yogurt industry “summit” by thankful industry executives thrilled that Cuomo was giving another PR boost to their product.

Lost on some perhaps was that the idea of yogurt becoming the state snack came from a fourth-grade class in Genesee County – not Cuomo.

For some campaign events, Cuomo has used private jets, paid for by his campaign or given as “in-kind” contributions by donors, according to campaign filings and Federal Aviation Administration records.

How much Cuomo has used state aircraft in the campaign season isn’t clear. The Buffalo News had tracked the governor’s flights using service. But the State Police, citing security reasons, had the flight-tracking service earlier this year stop posting any information – such as a map showing the whereabouts of the plane and takeoff and landing times. Now, getting information about the governor’s use of State Police aircraft means waiting for his office to post on the governor’s website information about his past schedules. But the posts are months behind. The most recent schedule posted was for activities last April.

That month, he used a state plane and helicopter five times. Often, the craft departed or returned to an airport in White Plains, which is near his Westchester County home. For instance, on April 2, he took the Grey Rider plane for a 35-minute flight from Albany to Long Island for official business, which included a meeting with the Newsday Editorial Board on Long Island. At 3:45 p.m., he departed, with a couple of passengers, security detail and pilots, for a 10-minute flight to White Plains.

On April 8, he hosted a beer and wine summit at the Executive Mansion in Albany and held a series of staff meetings. At 6:55 p.m., he departed in a state helicopter from its pad next to the Thruway Authority in Albany for a helipad along the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan. The one-hour flight was to New York “to continue state business,” which that night meant a working dinner with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

With a phone call, Cuomo’s office can reserve a sprawling state-owned theater near the Capitol and fill it with people cheering for the governor as he speaks on stage – as was done Oct. 1 when Cuomo announced more state contract opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.

And Cuomo has a State Police security detail, which can come in handy to keep away protesters, such as opponents of the controversial natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, who like to show up at his events.

Even the Department of Labor, whose workforce is mostly paid for with federal funds, joins in when releasing monthly employment reports that reflect Cuomo’s tenure. Either in the second or third paragraph, the agency sets a time stamp for how far back it wants readers to be able to compare job-growth numbers.

They don’t set it to the recession, or even for an arbitrary 10-year look-back. “Since the beginning of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration” is how the Labor Department official sets its historic comparison period.