The governor who once muscled his biggest priorities through the Capitol annually, rarely failing to come out on top, is now taking a decidedly lighter tread in negotiations with Senate Majority Leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, according to half a dozen people familiar with the budget talks. Both Democratic leaders have taken a hard line against Cuomo over the past month, with Stewart-Cousins being among the first to call for his resignation and Heastie authorizing an impeachment investigation that commenced late last month.
Nearly a month after he vowed to not let his then-burgeoning sexual harassment scandal deter him from doing his job, Cuomo is now spending his days trying to reframe the now-tarnished narrative of his tenure as he faces the single greatest threat to his decades-long political career. He appears to be putting political survival ahead of his own policy priorities, playing nice with lawmakers as he zips around the state to tout progress on vaccines and announce steps to open up the state’s economy.
On Monday, Cuomo appeared deferential to legislators as he called the budget “the most complicated, the most ambitious and the hardest budget that we have done,” and applauded both chambers for working through pandemic restrictions.
“They’ve been working very hard, under very difficult circumstances,” Cuomo said. “So it’s been a complicated process on top of a complicated product. … But this budget will set the trajectory for the state for the next 10 years.”
He went on to tout the recent legalization of marijuana in New York and local police reform plans that are nearly in place across the state, neither of which were initiated through the budget. He made no mention of the deals he had cut to sign off on progressive priorities, including the agreement to temporarily raise taxes on those making more than $1 million a year, a move that will give New York City’s top earners the highest combined city and state tax rate in the country.
Cuomo‘s January budget proposal did include a similar tax hike on high earners that was worth about $1.5 billion, but he called it his “worst-case-scenario” budget. His administration backed away from the concept after the most recent federal relief package authorized about $12.5 billion in aid for New York.
The state Senate and Assembly both proposed raising more than $6.5 billion through tax increases even after they saw the federal dollars coming in, in part due to pushes from progressive members and advocates warning that a one-time influx of federal stimulus wouldn’t be enough to fix existing imbalances in the state’s financial planning.
Cuomo on Monday also made no mention of an influx of more than $4 billion in school funding that the final deal is expected to phase-in over three years through a system that progressives have long sought. Cuomo has resisted their demands, calling them political and labeling a years-old lawsuit over the issue “ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.”
Legislative leaders have said publicly that Cuomo’s scandals — both over his sexual harassment allegations and his administration’s attempt to hide the number of Covid-19 deaths tied to nursing homes — has had little effect on the budget process, which is largely driven by staff and their constitutional duty to pass a spending plan on time. But legislative sources and former Cuomo aides say it’s clear Democratic lawmakers are steering the budget negotiations this year, in contrast to the past.
“With that federal revenue and with state revenues shoring up pretty nicely, you have a budget that should not have been so hard to get done on time,“ said a former Cuomo aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to so as not to anger the governor. “So it seems pretty clear to me the lawmakers are saying, ‘we’re going to do it this way.’”
In years past, Cuomo has been able to wield considerable power in the Legislature by reaching out to rank-and-file members and their political power brokers. But that’s harder than ever with huge portions of Democrats in both chambers calling for his resignation last month.
Typically what you’d be doing is in order to get to the lawmakers you’d be working their constituency groups and their advocacy groups and that would influence the lawmakers,” the former official said. “But the progressive groups, every single one of them, wants to see them gone.”
But some say the governor — or his office at least — has been pushing hard in certain areas, such as enhanced spending authority for federal funds and stricter checks on how unemployment might be distributed to undocumented immigrants.
“I know a lot of people speculated as to whether he would be weaker this time around, but I haven’t seen any sign of that,” said Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried, the chamber’s longest-serving member.
Still, Cuomo has in past weeks fled to friendlier waters when he shows his face in public, fully engaged in the craft of narrative revision. Earlier Monday, he was in his native Queens to announce public service campaign to encourage vaccinations, part of a downstate tour visiting pop-up vaccination sites in communities of color he had promised months ago to prioritize in the state’s distribution program. Those events, more often than not closed to reporters, have given him the ability to solicit public praise — specifically from his supporters in the Black community who have thanked him for his follow-through.
On Monday, he received compliments from Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who last month said Cuomo should resign if it was shown he couldn’t effectively lead the state. And Queens Assemblymember Vivian Cook, who worked on Cuomo’s father’s campaigns and has known the governor since he was young, told the borough and state to “thank this son of Queens for making sure that we are taken care of.”
“We are proud and we are proud of him. So, no matter what you say or what you do, we’re going to stick by this man — he’s staying with us,” she said.
Cuomo’s mood during these kinds of public appearances have been almost buoyant, with bits like challenging former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia to arm wrestle during a jovial event to announce the Yankees and Mets could start their seasons with fans.
And when his chief counsel and budget czar joined a recent question-and-answer session by web cam, he teased them publicly for appearing glum.
“He’s looking very stern faced because he’s coming down to it — he only has a few days left to work on the budget,” Cuomo said of budget director Robert Mujica, who neither smiled nor responded. “You can see the stress on his face.“
“Business as usual” is an ancient ploy that has occasionally worked for embattled politicians patient enough to see a news cycle through.
“I think what you see the governor doing is trying to focus on the things that he knows the public likes and trying to ignore, to the extent possible, all the things that he doesn’t like,” said Steve Greenberg, the spokesperson for Siena College Research Institute.
Though the most recent polling from Siena found dips in his overall favorability and reelection prospects, 60 percent of voters still approved of his handling of the pandemic and a 48 percent plurality say he should continue to do his job despite the allegations.
But as the budget process wraps up in Albany, it’s likely eyes will again turn to the investigations into sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo’s handling of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and new reports that Cuomo recruited several members of his staff to produce his book about leadership during the pandemic.
The lawmakers and attorneys heading up the Assembly Judiciary’s impeachment probe have said it could take “months, rather than weeks” to compile any findings that would initiate the next steps. There is no timeline for the state Attorney General Tish James’ report, though Cuomo has asked the public to wait for its completion before drawing any conclusions about his behavior.
“I think the goal here is to run out the clock to the extent possible and hope that the Tish James report comes out in the middle of the summer when everyone is vaccinated and there’s all this stimulus money coming in,” said another former Cuomo aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He has in his back pocket [the] I’m-not-going-to-run-for-a-fourth-term card, and the closer we get to June  primary, the more effective that is,” the official said. “But I would not underestimate his desire and intention for running for a fourth term.”