ALBANY – When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ran for a first term in 2010, he put out a series of booklets with hundreds of ideas on fiscal and policy items that he would champion if elected.
To drive home the urgency, Cuomo had couriers deliver some of the booklets to reporters’ homes.
In his second run for governor, his opponent bashed him for ambiguous plans for another term. Cuomo responded, in the campaign's waning days, by issuing a single volume, via email, of some second term priorities.
Now, as he hovers high in the polls with a third term within grasp, Cuomo is spending a bit of time talking about third term priorities, but not much. And few of the ideas would fit into a category one might call “new and bold."
Instead, “continue,” “expand” and “protect” are the popular buzz terms his campaign is using this year. If re-elected, Cuomo has vowed to push through older proposals, some kicking around Albany for decades, into law.
But that, Cuomo’s allies say, is a good thing.
“I think there’ll be a strong sense of the need to complete the job we started," said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, an Erie County Democrat and Cuomo’s running mate.
Major issues, they say, will be tackled if Cuomo assumes a third term, such as expanded abortion rights and more defendant-friendly criminal defense laws. Working with him will be Democrats expected to take over the state Senate, giving the party a potential monopoly over every statewide office and both legislative houses.
The dearth of new and fresh ideas being witnessed in the Cuomo campaign is not unique for governors seeking a third, four-year term in office.
Third terms can be trials for governors, for a host of reasons: tedium with Albany’s recurring cycles, staff turnover and years of enemy-making in a city famous for its long-term memory. Keeping pace with the big idea days from a first or second term can also defy some governors. Add third-term governors can find that their once-brilliant, chess-like ability to maneuver through the thicket of the Legislature and the lobbying industry can wane with time.
Those realities faced the two, third-term governors in the last 30 years in New York – Democrat Mario Cuomo and Republican George Pataki, say people who worked for them.
“The headline is: Third terms are a challenge,’’ said Thomas Doherty, a political consultant and partner at Mercury LLC in Manhattan who was a senior aide to Pataki.
Generally, big things happen in first terms. Governors have their A teams of staffers. They have the energy, a breeze at their back coming off their first election to the job. Everything is new, the power and stature intoxicating and there is an excitement that comes from signing your name on a piece of paper and a new law is created.
Second terms can be for building upon the foundation created in the first, or political shifts to accommodate shifting times.
For governors in a third term, it’s a test to keep the excitement alive.
“You fall into a treadmill kind of thing … unless something galvanizes your attention," said Bill Cunningham, a longtime political consultant who worked for Gov. Mario Cuomo and ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“Unless there’s a major crisis to focus on, governors, and it could be mayors, too, lose their focus in the third term," Cunningham added.
After eight years, rote governing can take over. “It’s not that you’re mailing it in, but it just becomes a cycle and your body and mind adapts to it,’’ said Cunningham, who today is a managing director at DKC, a public relations firm in Manhattan.
Cunningham and Doherty, who worked for governors in early terms but stayed close during their third terms, agreed personnel issues can be a heavy drag for third termers. “There’s a talent issue," Cunningham said.
In a first term, a governor arrives with close advisers, many of whom have also been personal friends. As Andrew Cuomo has seen, many drift away to family commitments and better jobs with more pay and fewer hours.
Replacing those people may be people just as smart about government. But they all can’t have the trust their predecessors enjoyed. That raises questions about the depth of their experience to convince a governor to embrace a brash, new policy path.
Probably more important, though: Those early confidantes often include several people who could walk into a governor’s office without an appointment, give ideas and, more crucial, challenge a governor and call one of his or her ideas unworkable, or even dumb.
If the Senate flips to Democratic-led, people, including senators, disagree whether Cuomo’s life in a third term gets harder or easier.
“It can very well be that the skills Cuomo exhibited for the last eight years in managing to get things done with a divided Legislature may not work as well if the Democrats take over the Senate. Now, there’ll be a whole new set of personalities. Some will be made about how they were treated in the past. Some will want to feel their oats," Cunningham said.
A busy third term?
Cuomo declined comment for this article. But his allies say his agenda is ambitious. Some ideas are a bit less sexy, such as enacting on-time budgets. Others are bigger: new gun control measures, expanded abortion access, a package aimed at assisting victims of child abuse, an early voting bill, among others.
Cuomo’s campaign says he will push for “real ethics reform," though precise details are elusive. His administration has been hit by several major corruption scandals, including the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging case.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said he and Cuomo have not yet discussed major new ideas. Instead, the talks have been about moving on what Heastie called “unfinished" Democratic business. That will also include criminal justice laws relating to bail and discovery, tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and New York City tenant rent protections.
Heastie said a Senate Democratic takeover and those items will keep Cuomo’s third term busy. “These things will be huge motivating factors and energy sources for the governor. He seems to be enthusiastic for a third term. I don’t see any drain or lack of energy coming from him,’’ Heastie, a strong Cuomo ally, said in an interview.
“I think third terms can be challenging, but they certainly can be better because, I think, of the knowledge acquired,’’ said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, now in his fourth term as mayor and Cuomo’s handpicked state Democratic Party co-chair.
For most of the nation, third-term lethargy is not an issue: Only a dozen states allow governors to hold office for two consecutive terms. The publication "Governing" recently noted only 12 governors nationwide since 1990 have won a third term.
For her part, Hochul ran through the various priorities for a third term with Cuomo, which included major infrastructure work, new anti-opioid addiction efforts and expanded job creation efforts. A partisan flip in the Senate “will give us a new sense of energy” to get many measures passed that were long blocked by the Senate GOP.
“We’ve got a lot on our plate and we’re ready for it," she added.