ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo is still riding high in polls, but he’s no longer invulnerable.
After more than a half-year’s honeymoon, some critics who were too enamored — or too scared — of the Democrat are beginning to speak out. Cuomo spent his first six months masterfully managing politics in a string of policy wins from cutting the state budget to legalizing gay marriage. Powerful teacher and health care unions let him lead funding cuts to schools and hospitals. Public sector unions watched him threaten layoffs and were forced to accept contract concessions.
But along the way, he has baffled and, ultimately, riled his liberal base.
Now Democrats have to grapple with their progressive leader who tried to evict the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in Albany. Protesters camping in “Cuomoville” dubbed him “Gov. 1 Percent” for refusing to extend a tax on people making more than $200,000 per year, and catering to the richest minority, which includes his biggest campaign donors.
“We demand that you get your priorities straight,” said Jackie Hayes, 29, of Binghamton, a student at the University at Albany in a brief rally inside the Capitol. “It is a political platform that only serves your ambitions.”
As a result, Cuomo hasn’t spent much time in Albany since the contingent set up camp across from the Capitol. That’s helped him avoid any uncomfortable photos.
Cuomo also was rebuffed by another Democrat. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, despite his usually cozy relationships with governors, refused to push protesters out of the city park, even under pressure from Cuomo’s top aides.
“The state’s position is we have to enforce the curfews if we are going to operate the (state) complex,” Cuomo said.
But the little-visited park isn’t used for state activities and other protests usually bypass it for more visible spots at the Capitol’s main entrances. In the park, protesters have cooperated fully with state police, quieted their chants inside the Capitol and even raked leaves as they railed against a government-corporate alliance they say is making the richest 1 percent even richer at the expense of the other 99 percent.
Cuomo’s opposition to extending the state’s so-called “millionaire’s tax,” which he said would drive the rich to neighboring, lower tax states, has made him a rare target among Democrats nationwide, many of whom publicly support the tax.
“The governor has made a historic mistake,” said Bill Samuels, an upstate CEO who founded the progressive organization called the New Roosevelts that seeks to nurture a new generation of reformers in New York. He said Cuomo was wrong to oppose the millionaire tax because CEOs are more concerned with the quality of life, schools and infrastructure when locating businesses, all of which the tax could help fund.
Cuomo, like his father Mario Cuomo before him, notes he is governing in hard times. The state faces a projected 2012-13 deficit of more than $2 billion.
From 1989 to 1992, boom turned to bust for the Mario Cuomo administration and he went from cutting the top personal income tax rates to hiking taxes, which critics said worsened New York’s decline and led to his defeat. In 1994, Republican Gov. George Pataki immediately started cutting taxes and spending. He served for three terms.
“I once used the line that I’m progressive, but I’m broke,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, paraphrasing President Clinton’s line that he’s a “bleeding-heart cheapskate.”
“We have programs and policies that are seeking to advance this state, are advancing the state,” Cuomo said.
“I have to govern in this situation with these facts,” he said. “And I have to represent the people the best way I can with these facts and these facts are we that are in the middle of an economic recession, it is nationwide, the state has a multibillion deficit, and how are you a progressive leader in that context.
“I could argue this is probably a greater test of leadership. How do you make it work in this moment?”
Although opposition is growing, it’s common when a governor changes the status quo. And it’s still just a “nascent revolt” with the public and Legislature still on his side, said Robert Ward of the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
“There’s a function of time, you always get a honeymoon,” said David Grandeau, the state’s former lobbying enforcer praised by good-government groups as Albany’s most effective watchdog in decades.
“He is probably feared more than he’s loved,” said Grandeau, offering that Cuomo is “the best leader New York has had in a generation.”
“Fear is a better motivator, but the fear thing only works as long as someone’s head is on a pike outside city hall,” Grandeau said. “If you combine those two things — time and the bark sometimes is worse than the bite — you are going to find people coming forward.”
Cuomo faced criticism this year after flooding. He promised flood-ravaged towns would be rebuilt better than they were before, but private insurance handled little of the flooding damage and federal assistance was delayed. Weary residents took it out on the governor.
On Tuesday, Cuomo allowed: “I’m not happy with the results.” He reiterated that flood recovery is primarily a federal responsibility.
Cuomo’s immediate opposition is Occupy Albany, a coalition of unions and those seeking the millionaire’s tax to avoid further cuts to schools, hospitals and public services.
“Are we surprised he’s taken such a hard line on this particular issue? Absolutely,” said Ron Deutsch, a longtime Albany lobbyist working for New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, a broad labor and school coalition. “I’m not sure he really believes all the rhetoric himself.”
But Deutsch said the push for a millionaire’s tax is gaining traction just as the legislative session approaches and lawmakers prepare to go back to voters to campaign during the 2012 election year.
“You are seeing legislators more emboldened than before because of all the support and because of the Occupy movement,” Deutsch said.
Not least of whom is the powerful and cagey Assembly speaker, Democrat Sheldon Silver.
“The public is clearly with us,” Silver said Tuesday. “I think we and the public can win that discussion.” Then he said of Cuomo, “I didn’t say he wouldn’t change his mind.”
What do you think of Gov. Cuomo? Sound off in our comments section below…
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)