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No mo’ Cuomo

Corruption and austerity collide to make the governor unworthy of the office

August 22, 2014 6:00AM ET

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is usually defined in cold partisan terms. Fox News host Sean Hannity recently cited the governor’s support of gay marriage as the kind of cultural liberal intolerance that would drive religious conservatives like him out of the state. Cuomo also faces complaints from the left, on the grounds that he has implemented a strictly right-wing economic agenda that involves tax breaks for the wealthy and fighting state unions.

The contrasting views would seem to paint him as a deft political player who knows how to find electoral safety in the center. But the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch, speaking on the night of Cuomo’s election as governor in 2010, described him differently: “He is a schmuck.” Koch was convinced that during his 1977 mayoral campaign against Mario Cuomo, it was his opponent’s son Andrew Cuomo who was responsible for the hateful slogan “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

Cuomo’s current problems are not of a partisan nature but of the kind of vain disregard for playing by the rules that caused Koch to hold such a grudge.

A New York Times story published July 23 and a probe by federal prosecutor Preet Bharara have pointed to Cuomo’s hobbling of a state panel, known as the Moreland Commission, which he launched last year to investigate corruption in the notoriously dirty system of New York state politics. Cuomo’s sudden dissolution of the committee raised questions in the press and among his critics; soon it was known that he interfered with its work whenever it looked too closely at his office or his political allies.

The drama comes at a critical time, as Cuomo tries to consolidate liberal votes for his re-election and keep his name clean for a potential presidential run. But the gathering intrigue around the anti-corruption commission, from its abrupt termination to allegations of his interference, simply add to the mountain of evidence showing he is unfit for executive office.

Weak on ethics

The Moreland allegations are serious. Critics claim that Cuomo pulled back the work of its commissioners, who were deputized as attorneys general. Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who is vying with Cuomo in the Democratic primary, said, “Imagine if Barack Obama were ticket fixing with his assistant attorney general, saying ‘Don’t look into the tax problems of my biggest donors, pull back that subpoena.’ That’s a big deal.”

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said that while the public still doesn’t know the whole story, Cuomo’s clumsy response to the Times investigation “fuels public discomfort with his administration” and that it “challenges the notion of the public being confident of [his administration] running a government.”

Horner added that aside from the Moreland Commission issue, Cuomo has had the opportunity to pursue substantial ethics reform but has “chosen not to use his political leverage to get meaningful things done,” he said.

The situation is damning for a man who ran on a platform — first for attorney general and then for governor — of cleaning up Albany, a place where reporters lose track of who is in jail or on trial. Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith still stands accused of trying to bribe his way onto the 2013 Republican mayoral ticket. Democrat Pedro Espada’s crusade to control the State Senate in 2009 ended in a conviction on embezzlement charges. That is but the tip of the iceberg.

Cuomo’s ethical tangle is a godsend for Teachout, who is challenging him from the left and whose academic career has centered on tackling corruption. “He’s broken every promise,” she said. “There are more scandals, more people getting dragged out in handcuffs than there were four years ago.”

The revelation about the Moreland Commission should be a rallying point for New Yorkers opposed to Cuomo’s austerity agenda.

Referring to another Cuomo campaign promise, Teachout added, “He said he would close the corporate loophole for donors. He’s taken more money in that loophole than any other governor. He repeatedly said public financing of elections was essential to democracy. Not only did he not make it a priority, but he made other things a priority, like his donors.”

An egregious example of this is The New York Daily News report last year that Cuomo received $100,000 from the real estate developer Extell Development and then gave the corporation tax breaks. Incidentally, Extell is the development firm responsible for the controversial Manhattan residential building that will have a “poor door” for inhabitants of its lower-priced apartment units.

Angry liberals

For progressives, the Moreland probe represents a particularly ugly chapter because even before it, Cuomo marked the rise of a kind of Democrat who turns labor unions against themselves and champions such causes as education privatization.

The governor, in fact, has thwarted much of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive economic agenda, most notably his proposal for a dedicated tax increase on the wealthy to fund his signature universal pre-K program. Cuomo forced on state unions collective bargaining agreements with wage freezes and other concessions and implemented a property tax freeze that hurt the bargaining power of state teachers’ unions. He angered liberals when he compared his opposition to extending the millionaire tax to his father’s opposition to the death penalty.

Cuomo does have his defenders. Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonpartisan governmental watchdog, called the Moreland revelations surprising but added that Cuomo has been a “champion of reform,” citing a 2011 ethics law with joint legislative and executive oversight of legislator misconduct as well as four on-time state budgets, something he said was “unheard of in modern times.”

Democrats rightly condemned the made-for-TV antics of Republican New Jersey Gov. Christie and his camp during the “Bridge-gate” scandal, but they must now prove themselves eager to clean their own house, especially when Cuomo’s liberal social values and coziness with business donors put him in the same political family as Christie. Cuomo will likely defeat Republican Rob Astorino in the fall but perhaps not by the commanding margin he had hoped for and under a cloud that could keep him from a bigger career. Shrinking Cuomo’s mandate sends a message to Democrats who are actively against working-class interests that they shouldn’t have a place in the party. 

Effect on voters

Cuomo may not get hit with obstruction of justice, Dadey suggested, because the bar for such a charge is high. But even if he can use technicalities to escape legal consequences, regaining the public trust is a different — and more difficult — story.

In turn, the public’s response can go beyond merely voting against Cuomo or urging him to step aside to targeting his enablers. It means sanctioning the Working Families Party (which has anointed itself as the union party moving the Democrats leftward) for endorsing Cuomo and his anti-labor and anti-tax agenda twice when progressive challengers were available. Private-sector union members should question their elected presidents’ support of a governor who used public-sector unions as a campaign punching bag — thereby choosing cynical political alliances over worker solidarity.

Cuomo will face Teachout in the Sept. 9 primary, and if he wins, rank-and-file Teamster and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and Astorino in November. Teachout doesn’t see herself overcoming Cuomo’s name recognition and bottomless pockets. But the revelation about the Moreland Commission should be a rallying point for New Yorkers opposed to Cuomo’s austerity agenda. “What this story does is, it gives people some understanding of why they’re hurting,” she said.

No employer would hire someone he or she doesn’t trust. The people of New York have the power to choose a better, more loyal worker.

Ari Paul is a writer and editor in New York City and has covered politics and labor for The Nation, The Guardian, The Forward, Vice News, Dissent, Jacobin and In These Times. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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