It is tempting to conclude, in the days after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State speech, that the apple fell very close to the tree. And, indeed, in some obvious ways, it did. Cuomo’s speech last week echoed programs and positions advocated decades ago by his late father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
But there are also distinctions, and they have made big differences in New York, and especially in Buffalo. Anyone who has observed the current governor would conclude that his roots are firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, yet even a cursory examination would show that he is hardly the traditional liberal that his father was.
Would Mario Cuomo have insisted upon a property tax cap? And not only insisted upon it, but pushed it through, then made sure that his own state budgets were limited to small increases? Unlikely. But Andrew Cuomo did.
Neither would it have been probable that the senior Cuomo would have challenged the education industry in New York, including the teachers unions, as pointedly as the current governor has, at least until recently.
Nor did the former governor ever agree to invest $1 billion to help Buffalo get up off the mat, where it had been knocked down by a combination of the catastrophic loss of manufacturing jobs and the high costs of living in New York – costs that Mario Cuomo helped to increase.
Both Cuomos have pushed for state ethics reform, though neither of them in a way that was truly convincing of their commitment or that produced results that made a difference. In some ways, that’s a reflection of how hard it is to change a corrupt political culture, but it also documents a failure of passion. Cuomo-the-younger has another chance to improve upon that record this year – and given the way U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has exposed Albany’s rot to the world, it is the best chance any governor has had in generations, and perhaps ever.
The two governors also differ by personality. Andrew Cuomo seems driven in a way his father was not, for better and for worse. It’s hard, for example, to escape the sense that every action of the current governor is politically calculated and also that he is showing you only what he wants you to see. With Mario, there was a feeling – accurate or not – that you are seeing the true essence of a man who wore his liberalism with pride and passion. Both men had in common a soaring intellect, while Andrew also projects a threatening physical toughness that his father did not.
Still, there is a bottom line here, and that is whatever his weaknesses, New York’s current governor is what the state needed when he was elected in 2010. No Republican could have won the budget battles that Andrew Cuomo did in this Democrat-dominated state, and no other Democrat showed the interest in attacking the critical problems that for years have driven jobs and population out of the state.
Plainly, that work is not done. Accomplishing it will require continued focus on improving education in the state, especially in the Big Five school districts, including Buffalo. It will also require finally bringing to heel the corrupt political culture that has long subverted New Yorkers’ hopes for broad-based prosperity. However interesting the comparisons are between the two Cuomos, the current one still faces challenges that he must meet if the state is to thrive in the way it should.