Cuomo’s Secret Strategy

How the not-so-Democratic Governor got a budget deal that’s good for Republicans and good for Albany, but not so great for the rest of us.

On November 4, 2014, Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s worst fears were dashed — the polarizing Governor had won re-election. Secretly, one of his other worst fears was also dashed — the State Senate went Republican.

To understand the political dynamic at play here, one must go back to late 2012, after the previous state elections put the Democrats in control of the State Senate — or so they (and the voters) thought. Led by State Sen. Jeff Klein, former State Senate Majority Leader Malcom Smith, State Sen. Diane Savino, State Senator David Carlucci, and State Sen. David Valesky formed the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, and formed a coalition with the State Senate Republicans in order to give them control over the body. Governor Cuomo backed the deal, shocking many who didn’t follow the signs.

In and before the 2012 election, Cuomo approved gerrymandered districts (in favor of Republicans, of course), and endorsed a Republican (who was supportive of gay marriage) for a state senate race over a Democrat. In fact, state senate Democrats believed Cuomo was fighting so strongly against them that they asked him to completely stay out of the state senate races. Cuomo backed the IDC, claiming to support an “Albany that worked,” referring to one in which the state senate was controlled by Republicans.

Of course, the original five (well, really four until former Sen. Smith joined the club) aren't all still around in Albany or in the IDC. Former State Sen. Malcom Smith was convicted on corruption charges for trying to bribe state Republican officials to let him run for mayor of New York City on the Republican line. In the 2014 state primaries, Sen. Savino threatened to leave the IDC (though it didn’t matter in the end). Sen. Carlucci, also fearing a primary opponent, supported reunification with the Senate Democrats — and then went back on it once re-elected. Sen. Valesky still supports and is a member of the IDC. After Sen. Smith’s untimely departure, State Sen. Tony Avella took his place in the IDC — he also still supports and is a member of the breakaway group.

After the 2014 elections, though, the IDC was no longer a factor. A combination of the IDC turning the State Senate red, Cuomo’s cooperation with the Republican Senate, and his approval of the gerrymandered districts led to the Senate going completely to the Republicans, enough so that they didn’t need the IDC’s help any longer. Cuomo was thrilled — he no longer had to rely on the breakaway group.

After facing a tough Democratic primary opponent in law school professor and anti-corruption expert Zephyr Teachout and securing a deal with the influential progressive state Working Families Party in which they endorsed him in exchange for his support of WFP State Senate candidates, Cuomo was suddenly absent on the campaign trail. He got the endorsement, beat Teachout, and essentially ignored his commitment, getting everything he really wanted — a victory for himself, and a victory for Republicans in the State Senate.

As the April 1st deadline for Cuomo’s 5th on-time budget deadline loomed, Cuomo proposed a $1 billion increase in state education funding — coupled with a number of terrible policy proposals that lit a fire under state teacher unions and ignited protests around the state. State Assembly Democrats — who control that chamber and have gotten more progressive after the indictment of corrupt (former) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — proposed a strong alternative, with a $1.8 billion in crease in state education funding and absolutely none of Cuomo’s policy proposals, led by new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. It looked like Albany was finally prime for a budget showdown, coupled with ethics reforms in the wake of Silver’s indictment. Or so we thought.

Sunday night, it was reported that the State Senate, State Assembly, and Governor Cuomo came up with a budget agreement. The agreement appears to consist of lax ethics reforms (some disclosure requirements, but really not much), a $1.4 billion increase in state education funding, and most other measures, including the state DREAM Act, a minimum wage hike, a measure meant to combat sexual assault on college campuses, and other education reforms, completely left out of the bill. However, the bill does include an agreement that would give the State Education Department complete control over a new teacher evaluation system, would increase the requirement for teacher tenure to 4 years from 3, would slightly alter the procedure for closing “under-performing” (aka poor and minority) schools, and increases spending below 2 percent.

In the end, everything is back to normal. Albany wins on lax ethics reforms. Cuomo wins with an on-time budget, an “increase” in state education funding, and a few of his education policy proposals passing. And us, teachers, students, and families? We lost. Yet again.

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