When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo notched his ninth Western New York appearance over six weeks in 2013, Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Dottie Gallagher-Cohen offered a telling observation about the area’s frequent visitor.
“You’ve been here so often I almost think you should get a place here,” she quipped during an event that July.
The governor appears to have no need for local housing in 2018. At a time when the words “Buffalo” and “Billion” are linked in negative headlines across the state, Cuomo’s westward forays are proving far less frequent – even in this election year.
State records indicate the governor has made only one trip to the state’s second-largest city since November, and none since April.
Cuomo has also found himself doing public events for as many days in the Caribbean as in Western New York the past 10 months.
His absence coincided with the months leading up to a federal trial that ended with the guilty verdicts of four men involved in state economic development projects, including Cuomo's signature Buffalo Billion program.
But there is another factor: Cynthia Nixon, the activist challenging Cuomo in a Democratic Party primary in a contest that has been heavily New York City-focused.
State records also show:
• Cuomo has visited Buffalo only once in 2018, an April 19 event at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. While the governor’s upstate travels have decreased, he has traveled to New York City and downstate more frequently. The shift occurs as he encounters a stiff primary challenge and he attempts to rally downstate’s huge concentration of Democrats for the September showdown.
• The governor, who lives in Westchester County, spent all or part of 98 days in New York City (where he maintains an office) during 2018, with many of those days peppered with public events in one or more of the city's five boroughs. That is up 12 percent from the same period when he last ran for re-election in 2014. That does not include days when his schedule listed his whereabouts as "New York City area," which for the governor could be anywhere from Westchester County to the eastern tip of Long Island. Cuomo has had a public schedule during 15 days so far in 2018 on Long Island, nearly double the number from 2014.
• He spent 15 days this year in upstate counties, including some that were for private fundraisers for his campaign with no public events scheduled on the same day in the visited county, such as a recent high-end donor event at a golf course in Saratoga Springs. That is down more than 40 percent from the same time period in 2014. It does not include time he spent in Albany, mostly without public events, at the state Capitol. In 2018, he has so far spent much more time in Albany than during the same period in 2014, with the vast majority of those days absent from public events.
• So far in 2018, Cuomo has not visited Onondaga County, home to the state’s fourth-largest city, Syracuse, and origin of several charges pertaining to the just concluded Buffalo Billion trial.
• Cuomo’s 2018 schedule remains light on local visits compared to the last election year of 2014, when he traveled to Buffalo six times between Jan. 1 and July 19.
• The governor has traveled to the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean six times (including a trip slated for Monday) since Sept. 15 – which is as often as he has been to Western New York for public events in that time period. Five of the Caribbean trips have been to Puerto Rico, where he returns Monday, to lead his administration's hurricane-relief efforts for the island and to criticize the federal government for what he calls an inadequate response to the destruction there.
When he does travel to Western New York, Cuomo touts his economic development efforts as a success story, and his local events typically center around state-sponsored programs aiming to create jobs in an area long viewed as economically depressed. Usually his staff summons a friendly, invitation-only audience to his Buffalo appearances that are isolated from potential protesters. There he emphasizes the progress he notes under his administration.
His program at the new UB medical school on April 19 – his only local visit over almost nine months – typifies his Western New York speeches.
“You see the difference now. You see it in this building, you feel it in the town,” Cuomo said at the medical school in April. “GM coming, Geico coming. You see it in Moog and all sorts of smaller companies that are coming. You see it in the numbers. When we started, unemployment was about 9 percent; unemployment is down to 6 percent. That is inarguable.”
Cuomo officials said the governor's personal visits to the Buffalo area are not as important as the administration's investments in the region's economy. They cited a litany of statistics related to job growth numbers – noting the region added 8,000 jobs between June 2017 and this past June, an increase in Buffalo's population of young adults and a strong housing market.
"After decades of neglect and disinvestment, Governor Cuomo has led a remarkable transformation of the City of Buffalo,'' said Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens, who pointed to a number of economic development projects spearheaded by Cuomo.
He cited Cuomo's commitment to a second round of funding under the Buffalo Billion program.
In his statement, Stevens did not directly address why Cuomo has visited Buffalo, and other upstate communities, fewer times in 2018 versus the same period when he last ran for re-election in 2014.
But as the Buffalo Billion trial of a former state economic development official and three upstate developers on charges related to bid rigging approached, Cuomo logged far fewer trips beyond his Albany and New York City bases. Even his traditional statewide tour touting new proposals in his January State of the State message never brought the governor to Western New York this year.
Besides his one trip to Erie County in 2018, the upstate counties he's been to this year include Dutchess, Allegany, Oneida, Ulster, Steuben, Ontario, Monroe, Washington, Tompkins, Franklin and Clinton.
In addition, the once lofty job projections for the Buffalo Billion’s signature initiative – the $750 million solar panel manufacturing facility in South Buffalo – have not yet been fulfilled.
Now Cuomo’s political opponents view his lack of local appearances as significant. Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy says Cuomo is “absolutely nowhere to be found.”
“It’s crystal-clear the governor is hiding from the Buffalo Billion,” Langworthy said. “If he comes, he’ll have to answer difficult questions he can’t answer without implicating himself. He knows the media here is the toughest outside New York City, and that’s why he’s avoiding here like the plague.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, noted his own six visits to Western New York since announcing on April 2. As mayor of Tivoli in Westchester County, Molinaro said he was used to regular visits by the governor.
Now, he says his old associates there say Cuomo's appearances are rare.
“You cannot serve people unless you are among them,” he said. “You have to be able to take the platitudes as well as the criticism.”
Molinaro called Cuomo’s rare visits to the area “carefully orchestrated theater” aimed at winning re-election or the presidency in 2020. But he said the crimes surrounding his signature economic development projects explain his prolonged absence.
“I understand why he does not want to talk about those things,” Molinaro said.
In 2013, Cuomo’s staff chided The Buffalo News for reporting on Cuomo’s frequent trips to Buffalo, pointing out they represented his commitment to the region.
“What’s interesting is that The Buffalo News thinks it’s newsworthy when Western New York actually gets the representation it deserves,” then-spokesman Matthew Wing said in 2013.
Now, they say it's less about the governor's personal visits to the region than the state investments here.
"The governor's team and the results this administration has delivered are present all across the Buffalo region and the vibrancy and attitude shift in the area is palpable,'' said Cuomo spokesman Stevens.