NY Democrats call for Cuomo to unite party

NY Democrats call for Cuomo to unite party
© Greg Nash

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is making his first tentative forays onto the national scene ahead of what many Democrats believe is an eventual bid for the White House. 

But some who might be among Cuomo’s biggest supporters are turning into a liability instead, as they pressure him to get his own political house in order.

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After spending much of his first term in virtual seclusion, seldom venturing outside of New York, Cuomo has begun raising his profile. 

He has taken on a newly created role as policy chairman of the Democratic Governors Association after considering a bid to take over the group, which would have given him access to big-dollar donors across the country, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

Cuomo has begun a hiring spree to expand his tight inner circle. Several Obama administration officials have interviewed with Cuomo’s office, one senior Cuomo official said. 

And he has ventured beyond the state, if only on occasion: He traveled to Israel two years ago and Cuba last year on trade missions, and he has plans for trips to China, Italy and Mexico in the future.

Cuomo himself says that the only office for which he is running is governor; he faces reelection in 2018. But many Cuomo aides believe a presidential run in 2020 is likely, if not inevitable.

Close to the governor’s mansion, though, Cuomo is coming under fire from New York Democrats and liberal groups who want him to help broker a solution to a vexing political problem, one that threatens to hand control of the state Senate to Republicans.

Democrats hold a majority of New York’s 63 state Senate seats. But Republicans control the chamber thanks to a rump faction of seven senators who belong to the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), and an eighth Democrat who caucuses with Republicans.

Democratic members of New York’s state Senate and liberal groups have called on Cuomo in recent days to pressure those straying Democrats to return to the fold — and, in doing so, to give Democrats complete control of the state government.

“I’m hoping that Gov. Cuomo would be involved, because he’s the leader of our party,” said state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who leads the Democratic caucus in Albany. “It would be great for him” to have a Democratic majority.

In a highly unusual statement, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Executive Director Jessica Post said Cuomo had “an obligation to stand up and ensure that the will of the voters is respected in the New York Senate.”

Both Cuomo allies and the Democratic groups see the public comments as a shot across the governor’s bow ahead of a potential 2020 White House bid.

“Everyone at the national level sees the Democratic Party as fractured. If this guy wants to unite the Democratic Party [and] he can’t even do it in his home state, how can he do it at the national level?” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

The intramural feud between Senate Democrats has played out since 2012, when the splinter IDC faction aligned with Republicans while their leader, state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, became the Senate’s co-president. 

That gave Klein a powerful position alongside state Sen. Dean Skelos, leader of the Senate Republicans, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D), who along with Cuomo made up the three men in a room who ran state government.

Cuomo said last week he had worked hard to elect Democrats in November and that he is not to blame for internal caucus fights. Cuomo said he doesn’t plan to get involved in the internal Democratic state Senate feuding.

“They now have their caucus and they have tensions and personal animus and factions that predate my election that have nothing to do with me, and they are going to work that out themselves if it needs to be worked out,” Cuomo said of Senate Democrats. “It’s not my place to get involved in that, and I have no desire to.”

Cuomo might have more at stake than preserving intraparty niceties. The arrangement between state Senate Republicans and the IDC has also served to insulate and protect Cuomo, a social liberal and fiscal hawk, from political pressure. 

The Assembly remains controlled by New York City liberals, as does the mainline faction of Senate Democrats. Giving Republicans a seat at the table has given Cuomo a relatively centrist partner to work with, especially on budget issues.

“The partnership between Senate Republicans and the governor has really worked well for his agenda,” said a prominent Albany lobbyist. “He’s been able to artfully navigate the political dynamics to extract what is necessary to achieve his goals.”

Cuomo allies point to a bevy of progressive accomplishments that would serve as the bedrock of a presidential campaign platform. Cuomo signed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and a bill implementing some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

His administration banned hydraulic fracturing in 2014, and earlier this year he signed a bill to gradually raise New York’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

In the days after Republican Donald TrumpDonald TrumpReport: Bannon told conservatives 'this is not a debate,' you have to back bill ObamaCare defeat caps difficult week for Trump Social media users troll GOP, Trump over ObamaCare repeal MORE won the presidential election, Cuomo set himself up as a bulwark against Trump’s policies, particularly those aimed at deporting people living in the country illegally.

But Democrats and liberal groups say Cuomo’s public posturing against the president-elect matters little if he cannot unite his party’s state senators.

“If he is going to be a national leader against Trump, Gov. Cuomo needs to unify the New York Senate Democrats so that our state government can protect New Yorkers from Trump’s radical right-wing agenda,” said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, a progressive group.

Few believe the public campaign to pressure Cuomo will actually work. Indeed, some believe it could backfire if the governor believes he is being railroaded.

“He does not like to be embarrassed. He does not like to be painted into a corner. He does not like to be viewed as responding to pressure,” the Albany lobbyist said. 

Cuomo faces other hurdles ahead of a potential White House bid. Two members of his inner circle, former campaign manager Joseph Percoco and longtime associate Todd R. Howe, have been charged with taking bribes in connection with state contracts. 

Cuomo has not been accused of wrongdoing. But the indictments are the latest in a series of long-running investigations into political corruption in Albany. 

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara has also won convictions of both Skelos and Silver, leaving Cuomo as the lone man in the room untainted by legal charges.

Asked at a September press conference unveiling the charges against Percoco and eight others whether Cuomo was a target, Bharara said: “There are no allegations of any wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor anywhere in this complaint.”