All about me governorships: Chickens come home to roost in 3rd term

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Eye from Albany
December 2004

All about me governorships: Chickens come home to roost in 3rd term
by Paul M. Bray

Reading the article “A Party That’s Soul-Searching? In New York, It’s the G.O.P.” in the NY Times I couldn’t help thinking about former three term governor Mario Cuomo or, as Yogi Berra would say, de ja vu all over again.

In the Times article Governor Pataki is referred to as a ‘no-legacy governor’. Congressman Peter King said, “The fact is that we no longer have a functioning organization, or even a state party that stands for much”. Guy V. Molinari, former Staten Island borough president, said that “Mr. Pataki ‘did some marvelous things in terms of his own particular campaigns, but I think that, and the record will bear out, there hasn’t been any coattails’.”

Pataki’s former appointee as Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey minced no words in an opinion piece in the New York Post when he wrote: “Bequeathing New Yorkers with a hamstrung, impotent, enfeebled Republican Party will be the Pataki era’s greatest legacy”.

What we are seeing is the effects of a style of governance developed by Cuomo and perfected by Pataki where the chickens come home to roost in the third-term. The style has yet to be popularly named but for the purpose of this column we can call it king of hill or the all about me governorship.

Before Cuomo we had administrations performing the tasks of governance led by a governor and relatively strong statewide political party organizations built from the ground up and supported from the top. In the cases of Cuomo and Pataki, the focus of state government has been, in their respective time in office, all about Cuomo and Pataki all the time. Forget the idea of an “administration”. As a result, the political party of the governor atrophies and the state senate and assembly end up in a survival mode with little energy or capacity left to be a creative force in state governance. Local political organizations are ignored.

It was evident this was happening in the 1980s when the Times ran a front page story under a headline saying Governor Cuomo will work for the election of Democratic state senators. Why, I asked myself, was it front-page news that the Governor, leader of the State Democratic Party, is going to support members of his own party in the November elections? In fact, it appeared Cuomo did very little work to elect members of his party running for the state legislature and probably was very happy to see the state senate remain under Republican control. It is easier for a governor of either party to govern with a divided state legislature in order to be able to play one side off against the other and/or to have an excuse for avoiding this or that action that may have negative long term political consequence.

Pataki tried and failed to knock out the Democratic majority in the Assembly and Speaker Silver when he first took office. That set the tone for combat and ongoing stalemate between Pataki and Silver that continues today complemented from time to time when Pataki and Republican Majority Leader Joe Bruno have tussled or, to be less mild, did some back stabbing.

Cuomo’s style of governance was to maintain his position as king of the hill by carefully balancing, checking to see which way the wind was blowing and diverting public attention from matters of state importance. I doubt he ever really was interested in running for President (really he liked being Governor of Empire State), but the on again, off again coverage about whether or not he was going to make the leap was a great diversion from attention to how well or not he was doing as Governor. Being taken seriously as a potential candidate for President assumes a good job is being done in the governorship whether or not that is so.

When it came to a legacy for the Cuomo years, it didn’t exist. Even Cuomo admitted in speeches that he had little to show for his years as Governor other than a proliferation of prisons. Certainly, he did nothing to lead or strengthen the Democratic Party other than fathering Andy Cuomo who may turn out to be a perennially failed candidate for state office.

When Cuomo ran for a fourth term the public had had enough of him and he lost to relatively unknown opponent with a limited mantra of pro death penalty and anti-taxes.

Pataki’s time as governor has been about Pataki all the time. Just look at the daily release of press releases from his office announcing acquisition of easements on forestland in the Adirondack Park, a grant to a small community for a new water system or the opening of a small manufacturing plant in the Southern Tier with large state incentives. Each release has quotes from the appropriate commissioner declaring how this great occurrence is thanks “to the leadership of Governor Pataki”. You see and hear the “leadership” mantra so often from Pataki’s commissioners you can’t help thinking about how thoroughly they have rehearsed their lines.

Frequently announcements of grants get delayed as they back up in the Governor’s office much to the disadvantage of the recipient community of nonprofit organizations that can’t go ahead with a worthy project until it is timely for the Governor to claim credit. Needless to say, for example, it is hard for a state agency to advance its mission under these circumstances.

Politically Pataki has proven to be an expert at tacking right or left as it suits his interests which range from reelection (go left) or playing to the national Republicans (go right). When it works for him to line up with a Democratic Mayor like Jennings in Albany or Masiello in Buffalo, it is no problem for Pataki. Meanwhile state Republicans are bystanders watching Republican Party strength weaken in the suburbs and upstate without Party leadership from their Governor.

The irony with Pataki is that substantively he has created a legacy in areas like the environment, agriculture and the high tech aspect of economic development that may exceed the recognition he will get for achievements during his term.

Former multi-term Governor Nelson Rockefeller was no less of a politician with national ambitions than Cuomo and Pataki yet his legacy is abundant and clear including the creation of the State University System, the pure waters program, the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation among other initiatives. (There were down sides like the Rockefeller Drug Laws.) At the same time the Republican Party controlled both houses of the legislature.

The lesson to learn from the experience of Rockefeller in contrast to Cuomo and Pataki may be differences in styles of governance or, in case of the later two, failures in governance. Rockefeller led an administration with topnotch experts in their fields as commissioners and in program and budget positions. His terms were the golden age for state planning, a function under Cuomo and Pataki that has all but disappeared.

At the same time Rockefeller kept ties going with local Republicans throughout the State. When Rockefeller was in a stalemate with the legislature, he often was able to reach out to County Republic Chairpersons for help. When Pataki tried that in 2003 over his State Budget battle with the legislature there appeared to be no one there for him when he tried to reach out to Republicans in the county organizations.

Rockefeller created an administration performing the work of state governance. From the time of Cuomo there have been the trappings of an administration but the commissioners and other officials know more than anyone their work is all about the governor all the time. A commissioner under Cuomo told me that he only heard from the Governor when his agency got bad press. A Chair of a Pataki agency told me that the only thing Pataki ever told him was “don’t get criticized in the New York Times”.

All about me leadership works for a certain time, 12 years seems to be when the one man show runs out of steam. That is happening to Pataki now. Maybe the next governor will go back to building an administration to turn around the upstate economy, give us real smart growth, address some huge infrastructure development and redevelopment challenges and leave a real legacy for the people of the State. We can at least hope.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.