It was just one month before COVID shut the world down in 2020 and tempers were short in New York’s state Capitol. I don’t remember exactly why the governor and legislature were sniping back and forth, but I do recall sitting down for a mid-February meeting with one of Governor Cuomo’s top policy people.
“I know it’s chaos around here,” I said to her, sympathetically. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”
“Hey, It is chaos,” she shrugged. “That’s the way the boss likes it.”
Andrew Cuomo strolled to the microphone in New York City last week with characteristic swagger, carrying the binder that contained either his prepared remarks or, perhaps, a playbook filled with trick plays that end with the ultimate Hail Mary pass – a trip back to Albany as governor of New York State.
It was his second appearance on what looks like a mea culpa tour of friendly locations in New York City, and this time, he spoke with gubernatorial intonation about the need to revisit bail reform to combat the region’s rising crime rate. (This would be the same bail reform that he jammed through the state Legislature in 2019.)
Within hours, his successor, Governor Kathy Hochul, leaked a memo outlining a 10-point bail and discovery reform bill she plans to inject into state budget negotiations, the process over which her office wields considerable control. She offers moderate-to-conservative-friendly proposals such as granting more discretion to judges, revisiting bailable offenses, and allowing detention for repeat offenders.
Wait. Haven’t Senate and Assembly leaders already shot this down, particularly as part of any budget deal? Yes. Haven’t we heard ‘this is a time to govern, not a time for politics’ a few times already? You bet.
Forget it, though: this is gloves-off steel cage death match time.
I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that Governor Hochul had no plan to put bail reform in the budget. She knows the Legislature’s leaders need to protect their incumbents deeply vulnerable to primary challenges from the Democratic Party’s far left who will declare any vote for bail reform to be a return to policies of blanket incarceration. That’ll score big points with lefty activists most likely to turn out to vote in a June primary contest. Those same leaders – particularly in the state Senate – have to think about their suburban members, particularly a Long Island delegation that delivered the Senate Majority to the Democrats in 2018 but right now is a collective sitting duck for primaries from the party’s more moderate, pro-law-enforcement wing.
Politically, they can’t easily afford to mix bail with budget. Not until the primaries are in the rear-view and the incumbents are safe.
Yet thanks to Mr. Cuomo’s sideline dancing, the governor has to be looking at the political calendar now and thinking this guy might be a problem come June. If he’s out there ginning up his still-fierce cadre of supporters with talk of the need for bail reform, she has to cover that particular flank pronto. She already had Rep. Tom Suozzi’s push for the party’s center with his own calls for bail reform. She had New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams play to the far left with his demand that everyone leave bail reform alone.
Already this week, activists rallied inside the state Capitol to demand no changes to bail – one Assembly member even vowing to go on a hunger strike; the next day, candidate Suozzi rallied with his supporters outside Governor Hochul’s New York City office to demand the bail changes she proposed.
So let’s say Andrew decides to jump in to the Democratic primary for Governor with that $16 million or so burning a hole in his campaign fund pocket. The winning candidate in a four-way race would need only 26 percent of primary day turnout to win – not an impossible hurdle. Primaries, traditionally, are low-turnout events to begin with. The party faithful – or a charismatic candidate’s rabid fan base – are the ones who show up to vote on a midsummer day.
It’s how Mr. Cuomo’s power struggle nemesis Bill de Blasio became Mayor of New York City in 2013 – he entered a Democratic primary crowded with candidates, aced the calculus, and knew all he needed was to squeak past all comers to win the nomination.
One Albany pundit suggested Mr. Cuomo would chase the seat as an independent in a party of his own making. He’s royally peeved with his Democratic homeground for pretty much abandoning him during and after his self-created time of need. Perhaps he’d have no problem with splitting the Democrat vote in November and either winning it all himself as an independent or holding the door open for the Republicans, just out of spite.
Chaos. If I remember correctly, that’s just the way Mr. Cuomo likes it.