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It’s Cuomo versus his own party

ALBANY – During a routine reading of a resolution in the Assembly chamber a couple of weeks ago, the clerk mentioned Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. That name-dropping elicited boos from some lawmakers. Then a round of laughter. In earlier times, someone in the Cuomo administration might have tried to find out who in the Democratic-dominated Assembly would dare boo the Democratic governor. Nowadays, it would be a long line of antagonists. The governor has a problem – a Democratic Party problem. And it goes far deeper than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Democrat who Tuesday went public with blistering complaints that Cuomo has worked against residents of his city, not shown leadership, and engages in vendettas against those who criticize him.

And no longer is the grumbling coming mostly from Democrats in the Senate, who have heard Cuomo’s promises to help them take over the chamber from Republicans come and go. Add to the list of unhappy Democrats:

• Assembly members, who have raised concerns that Cuomo, especially at the end of the session last week, joined with Senate Republicans to oppose their Democratic agenda.

• Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who has suggested that Cuomo failed to deliver on ethics and campaign finance law changes.

• State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who has suggested that the Cuomo administration wastes economic-development money.

• And if Cuomo enjoys close relations with Democratic U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, one wouldn’t know it from their public schedules over the last 4½ years.

Once relegated to whispers, a growing number of Democrats no longer are afraid to publicly take on Cuomo. They say two factors are at work: what de Blasio described as an “accumulated experience” in dealing with the governor and the realities that Cuomo’s poll numbers have been diving and his re-election last year was less than overwhelming.

Anxieties by supporters

Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said Cuomo has advanced an agenda that includes a focus on economic development and socially progressive issues.

“The fact that those on the left – as well as those on the right – have disagreed with us at times is nothing new. However, Washington-style gridlock serves no one, and that is why the governor for the last five years has built consensus and delivered tangible results that moved this state forward,” he said.

Yet Democrats say they are done with Cuomo’s “with me or against me” style of governing, as well as his political threats, personal shots, freeze-outs and angry phone calls.

“We need a real partnership and actual accomplishments on the issues that Democrats feel are important,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said last week when asked what Cuomo needs to do to repair Democratic relations.

Cuomo cut the Senate’s top Democrat out of key, closed-door talks over this year’s $150 billion budget, though she was invited to accompany Cuomo and others on a less-than-24-hour trip to Cuba.

“The governor was elected with great expectations. He has fulfilled some of our expectations, but there have been some disappointments,” said Assemblyman Nick Perry, D-Brooklyn, who also said he appreciates that Cuomo has a far wider constituency to consider than individual lawmakers.

If the governor’s team is keeping a stiff upper lip about Democratic relations, the situation has Cuomo loyalists worried. They talk of another recent governor, Eliot L. Spitzer, who also had problems with fellow Democrats.

In interviews over the last week, key Democrats say 2015 is turning out to be Cuomo’s most challenging period in office as he walks the tightrope of serving as governor in a diverse state and also titular head of a left-leaning Democratic Party. They say their unhappiness is more complex than complaints by liberal Democrats that he is too cozy with Republicans and some deep-pocketed business interests.

The governor’s supporters also sound anxious.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, who last year was co-chairwoman of Cuomo’s re-election campaign, said that she personally likes Cuomo but that he “really could afford better working relationships with Democrats.”

“Some people feel like he works against them, and that is a negative for our party,” she said, “and I think we could probably get so much more done if it didn’t always have to be one way.”

The worsening situation is affecting policy, such as New York City rent control and a range of education matters.

Peoples-Stokes, for instance, said she supported efforts to give tax breaks to help prop up struggling nonpublic schools as a way to give parents more choices for their children. But a nasty mailing and robocall effort aimed at Assembly Democrats, pushed by Cuomo surrogates, backfired and helped kill the proposal, the lawmaker said.

During budget talks earlier this year, Cuomo took the rare step of asking for, and receiving, an invitation to meet with Senate Republicans in a closed-door party gathering. He asked for a similar meeting with Assembly Republicans but was rejected.

He did not address Assembly Democrats.

“I think he should realize he has allies, but you have to work with them. He just needs to come to work,” Peoples-Stokes said.

A few years ago, a top Democrat said the best strategy in dealing with Cuomo was to just stay out of his way.

That was before Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout got more than a third of the vote in last year’s Democratic primary against Cuomo.

And before nearly a million fewer Democrats voted for Cuomo in his 2014 general election victory than his 2010 race.

And before his lowest-ever drop in the eyes of New Yorkers in several polls this year.

Questioning commitment

DiNapoli, the soft-spoken state comptroller from Nassau County, has a job that includes auditing state government.

To be sure, he has issued critical audits during Cuomo’s first term. But none rose to the level of his audit in May of this year that lambasted as wasteful the hundreds of millions of dollars Cuomo’s administration spent on advertising to promote economic-development programs, including the governor’s signature StartUp NY initiative.

Like many other top Democrats, DiNapoli has never had a close alliance with the governor. He also declined in an interview to discuss the governor’s standing with Democrats.

But on his audit of Cuomo’s StartUp NY program, DiNapoli was unfazed that he took on one of the governor’s most-touted efforts.

“I’m proud to say we call it straight. We didn’t want it to be viewed as a political document, because it wasn’t,” he said of the StartUp audit.

“I certainly have felt no need not to look at something just because it might be the pet project of the administration. When something is there and it deserves to be looked at, we’re not going to shy away.”

Schneiderman, the attorney general who some believe wants to someday be governor, hasn’t been shy about moving himself from under Cuomo’s shadow this year.

He also has never been personally close to Cuomo.

And it has been a two-way street. The governor recently said he was going to write an executive order giving Schneiderman the authority to investigate shootings of civilians by police, a decision that government sources say the attorney general first learned about from a press account.

Both Schneiderman and DiNapoli have challenged Cuomo this year. When Cuomo was under fire over deletion of government emails, the attorney general jumped in to say his office was not following the Cuomo path.

More recently, Schneiderman went public in strongly worded speeches suggesting that Cuomo had failed to deliver on important ethics and campaign finance law changes. He declined to comment this week.

De Blasio’s sharp comments Tuesday about Cuomo were remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the two Democrats have sought to characterize their differences as the natural tug of war between the mayor of the nation’s largest city and the governor of the fourth-largest state.

The mayor accused Cuomo of being an agent for Senate Republicans at the expense of New York City policy wishes. He accused Cuomo of extracting revenge to those who challenge him or seek to advance their own ideas over Cuomo.

De Blasio questioned Cuomo’s commitment to Democratic philosophies, telling NY1 that the governor engages in “transactional” politics and later telling City Hall reporters that Cuomo failed to act “in the interests” of New York City schoolchildren, their parents or those in need of affordable housing.

Last year, de Blasio tried to help Democrats take control of the State Senate. The governor, in order to win the backing of the small but influential Working Families Party, promised to help in that effort, too.

But Democrats say he sat on his hands and preferred to keep the GOP in power as a way to improve the odds of passage for some of his more-centrist policy plans.

In 2012, the governor had already given the Senate GOP a big break when he went back on a campaign promise and let them draw new district lines to protect their majority.

During state budget talks, Cuomo invited the leader of a small breakaway group of Democrats into private budget talks, but left out Stewart-Cousins. Senate Democrats issued near-daily public complaints about the snub.

New to Albany, Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, said that there are many reasons for Cuomo’s problems with his own party. “He’s in the first six months of a second term. He picks unnecessary fights with key Democratic constituencies. His poll numbers are down, and his favoring of the moneyed interests of the state has made it easier for rank-and-file Democrats to stand against him,” the senator said.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who was a Cuomo adviser during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, said the governor’s relations with fellow Democrats are not unlike those of his father, the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. “The truth is, all Cuomos have had a Democratic Party problem,” Sheinkopf said.

Both Cuomo governors sought to display party independence and were willing to endure Democratic criticism for not helping Democrats, for instance, to take over the Senate, he said.

“The Democratic Party is much more on the left. The governor has been much more of a centrist. It’s an automatic conflict,” Sheinkopf said.

Moreover, he said, Andrew Cuomo has understood the importance of statewide general election politics and the need to woo upstate and suburban voters and not just, as some Democrats might in the past, relied on a New York City-only base.

Asked how he would advise Cuomo, Sheinkopf said, “He stays the course and comes up with a legislative agenda that engages the Assembly Democrats as well as the Senate Republicans and politically he isolates the New York mayor.”