Cuomo’s Victories a Shell Game

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by Alan S. Chartock

Think of it this way: Democracy is hard to do. To achieve true democracy, you need to have an educated electorate. If citizens don’t know what their public officials are up to, they can’t make intelligent choices. In fact, they can be led around like donkeys. When that happens, public officials can put anything out there, take a bow and say, “We did it and you should thank us.”Take the case of Gov. . After New York got the reputation of being dysfunctional, Cuomo came in and set things right—at least he said he did.

Among his other accomplishments, he got the state Legislature to establish a single ethics commission governing all public servants. Good stuff—really. Among other things agreed to in its establishment were that the Legislature would appoint many of the members and that the Senate Republicans, in or out of the majority, would get the lion’s share of the picks for commission, now and in the future. That would be like agreeing that if the Democrats win the next election, the Republicans will be allowed to pick the Supreme Court justices after each vacancy. No matter; Cuomo got the bragging rights for having done the impossible. The more he says it, the more people believe it. The more people believe it, the higher his popularity soars.

There is also the question of redistricting and the efforts to put an end to the insidious self-serving gerrymandering that allows legislative majorities to draw districts where they have the best chance of winning. Cuomo ran for office on that one—“I will veto that bill,” he intoned time and again. In fact, he said it so many times that I believed it. I admired him for it and said so, in my columns and on the radio.

The problem was that the redesigned Cuomo, now a sort of Blue Dog Democrat, appears to like the Republican conservative-moderates in the majority in the state Senate. If he stuck to his guns and vetoed the bill and everyone got a fair chance in Democratic New York, the Democrats would win big and have the kind of majority they enjoy in the state Assembly. Now, I admit that the Democrats don’t deserve any rave reviews for their past performance. Nevertheless, we are talking democracy here. If the game is rigged—and believe me, it is—you don’t have democracy.

Into all of this comes old New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has said all along that he supports Cuomo for his determination to veto the corrupt, morally repugnant, anti-democratic redistricting bill. Cuomo and Koch have had their problems in the past but they made up, I am sure, partly based on Cuomo’s assurance that he would veto the terrible gerrymander.

But, being what they are, Cuomo began to waver. He began to hint that in , you have to give something to get something. The question then is whether what you give is more than what you get. In this case, the agreement seemed to be that in 10 years (!), there would be a very bad constitutional amendment that would allow the legislative minorities to continue to do then what they are doing now. But if Cuomo gets an agreement, he will once again say that he has won.

So the technique is now established. Cuomo’s very high popularity numbers have begun to dip. Two groups are very angry. The believe that they have been very badly treated by the governor, as do the labor unions representing the state’s public servants. His popularity drop has only been a few points—by itself, a five- or six-point drop in the polls is nothing. But if the numbers continue to drop, the Cuomo folks will take notice. If Cuomo is anything, it is tough.

If he has to make concessions, he will. But Team Cuomo doesn’t take nicely to those who oppose them. Like the Cuomo staffer said to gutsy Governor from Connecticut, “We operate on two speeds here: Get along and kill.”

Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.

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