On September 9, registered Democrats in New York have an important primary election, choosing the party's candidate for governor. Three Democrats are on the ballot: Governor Andrew Cuomo; Zephyr Teachout, a constitutional law professor at Fordham Law School; and Randy Credico, a comedian and "perennial candidate" (his words) who isn't campaigning seriously.
Cuomo is expected to win easily, and in many respects, he has been a good governor. He has managed to get bipartisan support for some key measures, and he was a strong, progressive leader on marriage equality and gun control.
He has paid a fair amount of attention to the needs of Upstate New York. He got the state to make a start toward funding universal pre-kindergarten, although the funding level isn't nearly large enough, and its future isn't secure. He helped get a medical marijuana bill passed.
But Cuomo's record also includes serious negatives, culminating in his handling of the Moreland Commission, which was investigating corruption in New York state government. He should be facing a stronger challenger in this primary. That he isn't means that Democratic voters who are concerned about those negatives have a difficult decision.
• They can vote for Cuomo, despite their concerns about him. Some will do that because they recognize that no politician is perfect and they believe Cuomo's positives outweigh his negatives. Others will vote for him because they're resigned to the corruption and the influence of money – in effect, endorsing the corruption with their vote. Regardless of these voters' rationale, though, their support will help propel Cuomo toward the White House.
• Voters can sit out this primary, either because they don't want any of the Democrats on the ballot or because they simply don't care. But that sends no message other than disaffection, laziness, or abdication of civic responsibility. And after the primary, the low turnout will be forgotten in a day. The news Cuomo will trumpet will be the percentage of the vote he received, and the bigger his margin, the bigger his bragging rights.
• Or voters can vote for Zephyr Teachout. And that's our recommendation.
Teachout has virtually no chance of winning this primary. She has raised very little money, and despite a fair amount of media coverage and aggressive campaigning by Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, a recent Quinnipiac poll found that few New York voters had even heard of her. That's an indication of a populace too lazy to stay informed about important issues – too lazy to be qualified to vote.
But Teachout has raised important issues in her campaign, which she discussed in our recent interviews with her and which we detail this week. Voters can also find plenty of material about Teachout on her website and in other media articles. She is strongly progressive (sometimes naively), and she's particularly forceful on the need for tax and campaign-finance reform and for investing in education and renewable energy.
That said, she does not have the experience – in management or in politics – needed to run New York State. She would not have the clout she would need to get legislation approved.
Our endorsement of her, then, is an act of protest against Cuomo – the only way in this election to insist on reform. New York Democrats who are concerned about the future of their state – about jobs and economic inequality, about the future of their cities, and about the corruption that is thriving in New York politics, well protected by elected officials in both parties – should use next month's primary to send the message that they have had enough.
(Teachout's public statements to the contrary, we believe that deep down, that's the real reason she is running.)
Readers should also know that among the editorial staff members who participate in our endorsement discussions, the Teachout selection was not unanimous. Two of our writers believe strongly that because of Teachout's inexperience and Cuomo's historic accomplishments on issues like gay marriage, Cuomo deserves our endorsement. (The vote among these staffmembers: 2 for Teachout, 2 for Cuomo, with the editor's vote having the most weight.)
The Cuomo problems: Andrew Cuomo is a tough guy with a reputation – well deserved, by all accounts – as a cutthroat. "Talk off the record about Cuomo with other leading New York Democrats," the Washington Post's Harold Meyerson wrote last spring, "and what you hear is fear and loathing."
Meyerson cited some of Cuomo's biggest negatives: cutting taxes on big banks, raising the threshold for the estate tax, and blocking two key initiatives of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: increasing taxes on New York City residents who earn more than $500,000 to pay for pre-k and increasing the minimum wage in the city.
New York Times columnist Michael Powell detailed more of the governor's moves:
Over de Blasio's objection, he is forcing New York City to provide free space for charter schools. He "cut a deal with Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to share in a foreclosure settlement" and then "cut a deal with legislative leaders to take that money away from Mr. Schneiderman."
Despite embracing public financing for political campaigns, Cuomo saw to it that reform is limited to one race, for comptroller. And if the incumbent comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, participated, he had to "surrender 70 percent of his war chest," Powell noted.
New Yorkers don't have to like their governor, of course. He can be as mean as a snake, and voters probably won't care as long as he gets things done that help the people of New York.
Cuomo certainly gets things done. And while some of them are positive, some are decidedly not.
Teachout has criticized Cuomo for cutting state education aid, cutting taxes for the wealthy and for banks, failing to ban fracking, and not helping push through the Dream Act, which would have let undocumented immigrants get tuition aid for college, and which Cuomo had earlier said was a high priority.
And while Cuomo's intelligence, political smarts, and aggressiveness resulted in things like gun-control legislation, he could have also led on such issues as campaign finance, corruption, education, wealth disparity, and aid to cities, and he didn't.
New York's cities, as the governor must know, face declining population, increasing poverty, stagnant or declining tax base, and increased demand for services. They cannot keep relying on the property tax to pay for services. And yet when he came out with a plan to help cities (self-heralded in the usual Cuomo way), it was basically an opportunity to borrow money, accompanied by a lecture telling cities to suck it up and learn to live within their means. Money, he said, is not the problem.
That is not courageous leadership. It is one more example of refusing to embrace real tax reform and have the state relieve cities of burdens that the entire state should bear – one more example of limited, short-term vision, big on glitz, short on effective action.
Equally troubling is his promotion of casinos as the path to jobs and to a strong economic future for New York State. Plenty of evidence shows that casinos often simply rob business and revenue from other restaurants, hotels, and entertainment facilities. And recent news articles make it clear that the northeast is already saturated with casinos, making it difficult for new ones to succeed.
Worse yet is the opportunity for corruption and the well-documented social costs borne by communities hosting casinos. That casinos are Cuomo's idea of innovation in economic development for this state says a lot about the governor.
Far, far worse: Cuomo's handling of the Moreland Commission, which he established to "probe systemic corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns, and elections."
When he announced the commission last summer, Cuomo insisted that it would be independent. And, he said: "Anything they want to look at, they can look at: me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman."
But a three-month investigation by the New York Times, published in July, detailed a very different story, one of a commission whose work, the Times reporters said, was "hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor's office."
The Times' investigation, wrote its reporters, "found that the governor's office deeply compromised the panel's work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him."
Interviews by Politico's Jeff Smith confirmed the Times' findings. Sources told him, Smith said, that Cuomo aide Larry Schwartz called Moreland commissioners and staff "multiple times and directed them not to subpoena major Cuomo backers."
And after nine months ("halfway through what he had indicated would be an 18-month life," said the Times report), Cuomo disbanded the commission.
Cuomo and Schwartz have continued to insist that the commission was independent. But after he disbanded it, he told the editorial board of Crain's business publication this:
"The Moreland Commission was my commission. It's my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I can appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So interference? It's my commission. I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me."
And he echoed that with the Times: "it's my commission. I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me."
The notorious corruption in New York State government is just one of the serious threats to democracy. The influence of money – by big corporations, by wealthy individual donors, by unions, and by other special interests – is another, and that has now been firmly protected by the Supreme Court.
And Governor Andrew Cuomo – whose determination and muscle could have led in reforms – has shown himself to be part of the problem.
Endorsing Zephyr Teachout as a protest isn't a frivolous action. And we do recognize that in some circumstances, protest votes can result in the election of a far more objectionable candidate. Cuomo's Republican opponent, Rob Astorino – with a platform that is pro-fracking, pro-tax-cuts, and thin otherwise – is decidedly not what this state needs as governor.
But Astorino stands little to no chance of winning in this heavily Democratic state. Earlier this month, a Quinnipiac poll showed Cuomo holding a 56 percent to 28 percent lead over Astorino. Barring a scandal that forces him to withdraw from the race, Andrew Cuomo will be elected to a second term in November.
It is imperative that New York Democrats – moderates and conservatives as well as liberals – send a message to New York's Democratic politicians: about money in politics, about election and campaign finance reform, about corruption.
It's dismaying Cuomo doesn't face a stronger challenger in this primary. But few people are willing to take him on. And the influence of money makes it impossible for third-party candidates to run strong challenges in the general election.
Corruption in New York politics has become so common that while many of us abhor it, we figure there's nothing we can do about it. The result is our acquiescence in it.
If Democrats don't lead the fight on issues like corruption, campaign finance reform, equitable taxation, wealth disparity, and aid to cities, who will?
And if not now, in this primary, when?