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As Governor And Puppet Master, Cuomo Pulls The Strings

Puppet shows can be great fun, but most of us prefer it when the marionettes are wooden dolls rather than elected officials.

In New York, however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a deft puppeteer, while other elected officials seem content to let him pull the strings.

The Wall Street Journal reported that at least three officials used nearly identical language when introducing the governor during Cuomo’s recent statewide tour to promote his budget plan. The language came from what were called “suggested talking points,” though it appears that the governor’s aides provided a fully-formed text that some officials used verbatim.

“This is standard operating practice for any governmental or political office at any level of government, and anyone who has worked in one, knows that,” Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Cuomo, told The Journal. Officials who followed the script said they did not feel any pressure to use it, and that they agreed with the content.

Cuomo is not a bad governor. He has gotten things done in Albany, one of the most dysfunctional capitals in the country. He almost single-handedly got the state Legislature to approve gay marriage. He got a budget in on time in 2011, the first on-time plan in New York in five years, and again in 2012. And even if he is not a tax cutter in the Ronald Reagan mold, he still serves as a check on the Democratic-controlled state Assembly’s worst instincts.

I have no big problems with Cuomo in substance. In style, it is evident that he is something of a control freak. His type of governance can only work in a state like New York, where politicians who have any measure of self-respect and independence are in chronically short supply.

The New York tradition of having all important decisions made by three men in a room - to wit, the governor and the majority leaders for the state Assembly and state Senate - is alive and well. Most other politicians (with a notable exception in New York City’s politically and financially independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg) just do what they’re told. In most places, legislators answer to their constituents; in New York, they answer to their party’s leaders. This is partly the result of an insider-dominated electoral system that makes successful primary challenges next to impossible, partly due to gerrymandered districts that seldom permit real competition between the parties, and not least because legislative leaders have the power to control individual legislators’ incomes, since pay varies with committee assignments and other responsibilities.

Local politicians don’t owe their positions directly to Cuomo in the same way, but many of them clearly see him as a rising Democratic star to which they can hitch their wagons. The price Cuomo demands for a ride on his coattails is, apparently, absolute loyalty - down to scripting their reactions to his visits.

As Kevin Sheekey, a former Bloomberg deputy, told The Journal, “In politics, it's always more important what someone says about you than what you say about yourself.”

So when New York’s governor wants someone to say something nice about him, he only has to pull the right strings. That’s show business, Albany style.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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One Response to "As Governor And Puppet Master, Cuomo Pulls The Strings"

  • Mike Flynn
    August 23, 2012 - 10:51 pm

    The article is welcome because it points to what I’ve been thinking and writing about lately, which is the fact that Governor Cuomo sees nothing wrong with manipulating local State Sen. Races in the run up to 2012. Now, advocating for your party’s candidates is a tradition that is as old as politics. In Cuomo’s case, he has decided he has more interest in keeping the NYS Senate in Republican hands and has decided to work openly for Republican Senate incumbents. Cuomo openly invites them to events and excludes their State Sen. Democratic challengers. In my Senate District, 28, he’ll invite Sen. Pattie Richie to an event and exclude Dem. challenger Amy Tresidder, a County Legislator from NY District 16, who Cuomo hasn’t lifted a finger for or tried to personally jump start her campaign in District 28. Sen. Pattie Ritchie gets him to invite her to photo ops. and constantly talks about their close relationship.

    The point is, party loyalty has a special meaning to NYS’s Governor; it’s defined as Democratic loyalty to him and his causes, but is lacking in reciprocity to his fellow Democrats if he feels it doesn’t serve his grand political design of becoming President Cuomo. The man should have learned this doesn’t work long term in politics, but Democrats in NY State are going to have a long time to drive the lesson home, and the vehicle to do so will likely be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential run in 2016. We’ll have a chance to sit the Governor’s re-election campaign out in 2014, because some Democrats have seen Andrew Cuomo’s blind ambition as a reason to avoid supporting him when the time is right to side elsewhere. Sen. Ritchie won’t be there for him either, when a Republican shows up who’s a viable political opponent. And then Mr. Cuomo will better understand that loyalty is a two-way street.