Andrew Cuomo pretends to want public financing really badly

He launches a "push" for the reform and wins himself plaudits -- but many doubt he's trying to pass the bill at all

Published June 13, 2013 8:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Mike Groll)
(AP/Mike Groll)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is very good at getting what he wants. When he decided he wanted to be the first governor to get a gun reform package passed after Newtown, he put on a master's class in political chess -- exerting his will on previously defiant Republicans and disorganized Democrats, forcing the bill through in the dead of night, and effectively writing his own rules to get the bill passed. When he decided he wanted to be known as the governor who helped get marriage equality passed in New York? He impressed upon Republican lawmakers to cast votes they -- rightly, it turns out -- thought would end their careers.

Now, under pressure by liberals, unions and even environmentalists, Cuomo claims he wants to rid the campaign process of big money, by instituting public financing of state elections. It's a reform that would help reduce the disproportionate influence of wealthy people and corporations on New York's state government. It would also require an expenditure of political capital by the governor on a measure that could rankle his big donors and curb his ability to pile up gobs of campaign money.

What's a guy to do? For the New York governor, it looks like it's persuade the pro-reform crowd that you really want to pass the bill -- while quietly refusing to spend any capital on it ... and ensuring its demise.

Against all odds, Cuomo's well on his way to achieving this trick. Wednesday, he landed a big, shiny New York Times story titled "Cuomo Pushes Legislators on Elections Financing." Sure, that headline may not make much sense to normal people. But to New York Times readers, "elections financing" headlines are like bourbon was to Twain.

The story explains that Cuomo "asked the Legislature on Tuesday to enact a system of public financing for state elections." Of course, asking may not sound like much, particularly for a governor not known for issuing polite requests when he wants something done. But that's beside the point; he's pushing for public financing. That's the takeaway. Part 1 of the "pretend you want a bill, while you actually kill it" trick is underway.

As for the second part -- i.e., whether the measure will actually pass -- well, just look to the second paragraph of the Times piece:

The governor acknowledged that the measure was a long shot in the waning days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end June 20, but said it would help restore the public’s trust in state government.

Oh. "Well, at least he's trying," you might think. That'd be true, if not for the fact that there was nothing stopping the governor from launching this push a long time ago, when there was actually time to make a sustained effort (e.g., pressuring its opponents, pushing legislators to negotiate a deal, advertising on the bill, etc). Sure, he's talked about this concept before. But that's the point. As one Albany expert notes, Cuomo has claimed to support public financing for three years, touting it in three consecutive State of the State addresses. "So why does it take until a week before the end of the session to introduce a bill," he asks, "if it's not face saving?"

"Everyone in Albany knows the public financing bill is dead on arrival," says another Cuomo watcher. That's because the Republican Senate leader, Dean Skelos, whose acquiescence is essential for the bill to proceed, has zero appetite or incentive to move on it. But that's not Cuomo's fault. His hands are tied. Right? Here's the Times again:

Democrats who control the State Assembly have already passed legislation that would put in place a system of public financing. The obstacle, for advocates of public financing, is the State Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and an independent faction of four Democrats.

The leaders of the Republicans and the independent Democrats must both agree on legislation to be considered by the Senate, and the Republican caucus has been steadfastly opposed to public financing.

If that weird power-sharing arrangement in the Senate between "Republicans and the independent Democrats" sounds odd, it's not you. The product of classic backroom brokering, a few personally ambitious Democrats handed over control of the Senate to the Republicans in exchange for getting fancy titles and power that they wouldn't have gotten from fellow Democrats. In other words, New Yorkers actually elected a Democratic majority in the Senate (despite Cuomo's refusal to campaign for it), but Albany politicians gave them a Republican-controlled Senate, instead.

When this happened, the Democratic governor -- he of the robust public financing agenda -- essentially legitimized the coalition by declining to criticize or question it (or call for the Democratic majority to be honored). Some even suggest Cuomo actually orchestrated the arrangement himself, to weaken the Senate with which he'd have to do business. Either way, the popular governor holds great leverage over the fragile coalition (as demonstrated by his guns victory) and has often exerted his will on it. This time he appears to be throwing his arms up in surrender.

If there's one person who knows how Cuomo really feels about public financing, though, it's probably Cecelia Tkaczyk. Now a Democratic state senator, Tkaczyk ran an insurgent campaign last year focused almost entirely on the issue of public financing. Facing off against an incumbent Republican who resisted campaign finance reform, Tkaczyk repeatedly tried to get her party's governor to endorse her candidacy. Embarrassingly for everyone involved, his refusals would ultimately lead the party's leaders to unsuccessfully "beg" him for an endorsement. Instead, Cuomo demurred and allowed the Republican to use his image in his mailings, promoting the perception that he'd endorsed him.

Despite all that history, the governor now insists he's passionately fighting to win public financing of elections. A longtime observer of Albany insists "he's just pretending." With a strong base of support in the Senate for the bill, its passage could have been a less Sisyphean task than the gun reform and marriage equality fights he dominated. But while Cuomo has talked tough about the need to pass a broad anti-corruption "reform package" -- even threatening to investigate the Legislature if it does not do so -- his posture on public financing in particular has been less firm. According to the Albany Times Union, he has left open the option of ditching the measure from the larger package:

The Democrat was peppered with questions during a news conference Tuesday, but would not say if he could approve a reform package that left out public financing.

"I want public financing," he said repeatedly.

It looks like he's going to pull off his trick.

Update: A representative of the Times responds that the paper covered "pressure on Cuomo to step up his game on public financing a few weeks ago." Read it here.

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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