Andrew Cuomo

Who needs Andrew Cuomo?

In recent weeks, Democratic lawmakers showed Gov. Andrew Cuomo does not dominate Albany like he used to.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has dominated the legislative give-and-take in Albany for more than eight years, but his sway over lawmakers was not what it used to be in the final weeks of this legislative session.

Democratic lawmakers struck a landmark deal on rent regulations without him. A top priority for Cuomo in recent weeks was a bill legalizing gestational surrogacy, but he could not overcome the resistance of key legislators. His call to raise the cap on charter schools went nowhere. He hastily signed into law a bill legalizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants after suggesting he would veto the bill without a legal opinion from state Solicitor General Barbara Underwood. While the governor is now touting the passage of a landmark bill addressing climate change, he declared earlier in the spring that the issue had been adequately addressed in the state budget. Cuomo also fell short this year on a high-profile effort to legalize recreational marijuana, an issue that he had promoted all year that never even came to a vote in the state Legislature.

In past years, Cuomo could often decide what would and would not pass the Legislature because of his growing power over the budget process and divisions between the GOP-controlled Senate and the Assembly. While he was able to exact his will on legislators regarding many key issues in this year’s budget, he appeared diminished in the final weeks of the legislative session as lawmakers boldly took action without him. While he remains the single most powerful figure in state politics, developments in recent weeks show that the power dynamics have changed and Democratic lawmakers can force the governor’s hand when the Senate and Assembly work in tandem.

“This is exactly why he didn’t want a Democratic legislature,” a high-level Democratic source in the Legislature told City & State this week. “There are people that can work together.”

The budget process has also become less important strategically than it once was because lawmakers can pass legislation after a budget deal more easily than they could back when Republicans controlled the Senate. For a state government defined in the past by backroom deals, corruption and general dysfunction, the ability of lawmakers to extend and strengthen rent regulations in daylight hours and ahead of the deadline is a change that Cuomo has yet to show he has gotten used to, Capitol insiders say.

His negotiating approach as governor has included browbeating lawmakers who stand in his way and declaring issues dead in order to force lawmakers to keep them alive by agreeing to concessions. These techniques helped get big issues done in past years, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and delivering mostly on-time budgets. This was helped by the governor’s leverage in a state budget process heavily stacked in his favor, but the “blue wave” in the 2018 elections that brought Democrats to power in the state Senate opened up a whole new way of getting things done in Albany.

The rent laws are a case in point. With the current rent regulations set to expire on June 15, pressure had been mounting in recent weeks on the state Senate to act, especially since Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had announced his chamber’s positions on a package of rent reforms shortly after the state budget was approved in early April. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, however, took a patient approach to reaching a consensus within her own conference, which in late May announced its support for nine rent reform bills backed by a statewide coalition of activists.

Cuomo had thought the Senate was bluffing and even suggested that lawmakers should face primary challenges if they failed to pass the legislation, though he also announced that he would sign into law whatever the Legislature passed. Once lawmakers unveiled a two-way deal last week that included eight of the nine measures, the governor was left explaining to reporters how he was not “irritated” by lawmakers’ negotiations.

“She handled this brilliantly,” Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC and a veteran tenant activist, said of Stewart-Cousins’ approach to rent regulation negotiations. “This is a guy who has a reputation for being very smart, but did some really stupid stuff like taunting the Senate.”

Cuomo had first named tenant protections as a priority as part of his 100-day justice agenda that he rolled out as he got ready to begin his third term in office. By the time lawmakers approved the rent omnibus bill in mid-June, the changes had become more far-reaching than Cuomo and the real estate industry – a big campaign supporter of his – had initially thought possible. The two-way legislative negotiations allowed Cuomo to avoid being the scapegoat for the failure to pass a “good cause eviction” bill, but they also demonstrated to his progressive critics what they could get done without his help. “The things that we’ve been able to achieve this year, across the board, have been in spite of the governor, not because of them,” state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, told City & State. “We would all be better off if the governor would just acknowledge that he is (only) the biggest guy in the room because he wants to be the only guy in the room.”

Of course, Cuomo remains easily the most powerful politician in Albany. The entire six-month session has been remarkably productive, with lawmakers passing legislation on voting rights, abortion, congestion pricing, criminal justice reforms, climate change, sexual harassment and farmworkers’ rights. And despite some setbacks and evidence of lawmakers asserting their independence, Cuomo has yet to fall victim to the “third-term curse” that has undermined other elected executives. “The governor was able to forge a compromise working with the Legislature on what will be seen as the most significant piece of legislation that New York has passed in the last 50 years,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “I don’t see how anyone with a fair lens could say that he’s a diminished figure.”

The failure by lawmakers to pass a proposed constitutional amendment limiting the governor’s power over the budget shows that even without appearing to say or do anything, lawmakers remain reluctant to challenge Cuomo directly. “The governor may not have as much power as he previously had,” said Assemblyman Brian Barnwell, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the proposed amendment. “But he definitely still has a lot of power.”