For the past two years Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done a fantastic job of threading the legislative needle. To date, his success is based on having a strong partnership with Sen. Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, and the political astuteness to make sure his base never felt left behind—a complete inverse of what we have seen down in Washington, D.C.
The governor’s strong favorability numbers, sometimes topping 70 per-cent, are not just due to progressive legislative successes like the recent passage of new gun control laws and marriage equality in 2011. They must also be attributed to Cuomo’s fiscally conservative measures, like pension reform and the property tax cap.
But those accomplishments aren’t what have propelled his popularity to such stratospheric heights. It has been his ability to persuade both parties to work together and to show New Yorkers that Albany can function and get things done.
Thus far Cuomo has demonstrated that he is a very skilled political tactician. He has seemed to know exactly how much he could get from the Republican-controlled state Senate and how much he could lean on the Democratic Assembly.
But now the political makeup of the state Senate has completely shifted. Only in Albany can a party with 30 of 63 seats still have majority control. Enter the Independent Democratic Caucus. The IDC is comprised of five Democrats who broke away from the traditional party leadership, and now they are the wild card.
Soon after Election Day 2012, Skelos and Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the IDC, spoke about forming some sort of coalition government. Looking back, one has to wonder how secure Skelos thought his odds were of keeping majority control, with at least one undecided Senate race that looked as if it would tip the house to the GOP—though ultimately it did not. And yet now the power-sharing agreement he masterminded may be the very thing that keeps his conference relevant.
Moreover, it may be the best hope that Cuomo has of keeping a strong negotiating partner. The governor is keenly aware of what happened over the two years—2009–10—that Democrats held control over both the Senate and Assembly, as well as the executive branch. Taxes and fees went through the roof; property taxes increased and the MTA payroll tax went through, too.
The truth is the governor recognizes the need for fiscal restraint and lower taxes; without this approach people and businesses will leave the state in droves. In fact, the worst case for the governor is to have the two legislative houses pushing further and further to the left, because he understands that our economy is just too fragile to endure the reckless spending that would result from the shift.
This takes me back to the power-sharing agreement between the Senate Republicans and the IDC. With each conference having the ability to bring legislation to the floor for a vote, the governor will have some fancy dancing to do.
For example, take raising the minimum wage; Republicans are against it, Democrats for it. A few months ago the governor, who I believe is aware of just how bad an increase would be for New York’s economy, could rely on pushback from the Senate majority to keep supporters of the hike at bay. Now we might see the Democrats emboldened to fight for an even bigger raise. How does the governor combat that extremism when there is no one in the Legislature to hold the fiscally responsible line?
One thing is for sure: No knows exactly how coalition government will work out. Will the upstate IDC members break away at times and vote with the faux Republican majority? Will they fold themselves back into the Democratic Conference and have a united front?
But most of all, who will be the governor’s partner in getting responsible legislation passed—and, more importantly, how will the governor stop the Legislature from slipping back into its old dysfunctional ways?
Susan Del Percio is a New York-based Republican consultant and founder of Susan Del Percio Strategies, a full-service strategic communications firm.