Cynthia Nixon and Governor Andrew Cuomo faced off on Wednesday night for 60 white knuckled minutes and the results did not disappoint! Well, maybe it was a little disappointing that so much time in the only debate of the Democratic gubernatorial primary was spent on the topics of bridge renaming and teaching children about the menace of marijuana. But the answers the candidates gave—on transportation, on healthcare, on corporate personhood and Shakespeare and helicopters—were somewhat illuminating!
The debate also sparked some follow-up questions for Cuomo, who has been governor for nearly eight years, and opened up the debate touting his "real life" management experience (but that was after he promised, as a tribute to Senator John McCain, "the flags in the state of New York will be at half-staff regardless of what Washington does"). We've asked the governor's campaign to address these questions, and will update the post if they respond. "Know me by my enemies," Cuomo said last night.
Cuomo's Trumpian Subway Denials
For over a year now—since around the time that the subway’s deterioration began hurting his downstate poll numbers—Cuomo has offered a variety of arguments seemingly meant to obfuscate the public’s understanding of who controls the subways (he does). So it hardly came as a surprise on Wednesday night when, in response to a question about whether the state should cover the cost of a planned fare hike, the governor once again sought to distance himself from the ailing transit system.
After first mentioning his administration's investment in airports and commuter rail, the governor claimed that the subway system was the city’s responsibility. “New York City has always funded it at twice the level of the state,” he continued. “The state has now funded it four times the level of the city.”
Both assertions—on ownership and current funding—are false, according to transit advocates and experts. “It’s categorically untrue, and I have no idea where he got that from,” said Richard Ravitch, a former Lieutenant Governor and MTA Chairman, who’s credited with rescuing the subway system during the 1980s. He noted that the responsibility for the MTA’s decision is in its board, for which Cuomo selects both the chairman and a plurality of board members, and added that it’s always been “abundantly clear” that the public authority is the purview of the state. “To say that funding should be coming out of the city budget is just not a constructive suggestion,” said an exasperated Ravitch.
Constructive or not, the governor’s insistence that the city is not paying its fair share has already led to a protracted battle over an emergency repair effort, and could very well delay Andy Byford’s widely-supported Fast Forward Plan. It’s also an essentially meaningless distinction to the subway-dependent New Yorkers who make up the ailing system’s revenue base. According to an analysis by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, nearly 70 percent of the authority’s operating budget comes from city residents and businesses—through a mix of fares and tolls, as well as other taxes that may pass through the state budget. In effect, the people paying for and relying on increasingly lousy subway service continue to be misled about that system’s funding by the one person who pretty much everyone else agrees is in charge of the subway. Why does Governor Cuomo keep doing this?
(Later in the evening, Cuomo suggested that subway service was steadily declining even before he took office, which is also false.)
The Veto That Could Have Nipped The IDC In The Bud
During one of their many squabbles, Nixon asked the governor, "Did you allow Republicans to gerrymander their own districts?"
"No, no," Cuomo replied.
Nixon was presumably referring to the 2011 State Senate redistricting map, which by one recent analysis, cost Democrats six seats in the Senate. Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, helped analyze the State Senate for WNYC and called the map "one of the most biased legislative plans of the decade, there's no question about it."
"Basically the upstate districts are underpopulated a bit, the districts in the city are very heavily populated. Then you split apart communities of color fairly aggressively. If you do that, you end up with a map where these Republicans get several additional seats," Li said, adding, "If you had a clearer map, the IDC would be irrelevant."
Governor Cuomo could have vetoed the map, but he didn't, arguing that his other legislative priorities would have suffered, and that it was necessary to pass a constitutional amendment to reform the entire process for 2021.
Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, called that amendment "flawed," and said it will "not do anything" to prevent state legislators from gerrymandering their districts.
"Of course the governor doesn't have unilateral power, and the Assembly approved the map," Horner said. "But the question for him would be, why didn't you veto it? Republicans didn't have a two-thirds majority in the Senate in 2012 [to override a veto], it's entirely possible the veto would have been sustained."
The One "Gigantic" Thing The Governor Could Do Right Now To Fight Corruption
Asked about the conviction of his top advisor, Joe Percoco, for taking bribes from companies with business before the state, Governor Cuomo replied that it was a "painful situation," and ticked off his platform to clean up Albany. "No outside income period, full financial disclosure, campaign finance reform," Cuomo said. "Because we have to take the money out of politics."
Taking corporate money completely out of politics is all but impossible without a Supreme Court decision or two, but John Kaehny, the executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany, says the governor could take a "major and radical step" to address state corruption.
"One of the biggest corruption risks that we see is from the fact that people who are seeking to do business with the state of New York are allowed to make campaign contributions to state politicians," Kaehny said. "Many, many of the governor's biggest contributors do business, or seek to do business with the state of New York. And one thing the governor could do is say, I'm not going to take these donations."
So why does the governor keep taking that money? Kaehny admits that Cuomo could argue that this is a form of "unilateral disarmament," but rejecting it "would be a gigantic thing."
"In truth, the governor has moved grudgingly or not at all to try and reduce the influence of money in politics, and in some instances he is actively unproductive," Kaehny adds, noting that Cuomo's first budget stripped the power of the state comptroller to pre-approve CUNY and SUNY contracts, the same kind of contracts that Alain Kaloyeros, Cuomo's right hand for the Buffalo Billion initiative, was recently convicted of rigging.
Instead of throwing his weight behind legislation to restore this oversight power, Cuomo favors the creation of inspector generals to oversee the institutions.
"If the governor was serious about cleaning up Albany, he would support and not oppose [the legislation]. So why doesn't he?" Kaehny says.
Blair Horner, the executive director of NYPIRG, said he was surprised that the issue of corruption got such little airtime in the debate.
"The public views New York as this progressive state, and there are certainly examples of that," Horner said, noting the state's education system and its legal responsibility to take care of the homeless as some examples. "But it is as retrograde a democracy as you can find in America. That's why so few people vote."
Horner continued, "You had a comptroller go to jail, and yes, as the governor said, he put him there. But you've had a governor who had to resign, another governor pay a fine for lying under oath, two top aides of this governor were convicted of corruption, God knows how many legislators and leaders of of both houses, and they don't do anything! It's amazing to me."
And Another Smaller But Also Significant Thing Cuomo Could Do To Address Corruption
In his exchange about his former top aide Joe Percoco, Cuomo stressed that he had "zero tolerance" for any kind of public corruption. So why even invite the appearance of conflict of interest by keeping Joe Lhota as chair of the MTA? In May, the Times reported that in addition to his full time job at the transit authority, Lhota serves on eight boards across Manhattan and Long Island, including a lucrative paid position at Madison Square Garden, in addition to being Chief of Staff at NYU Langone Health. Lhota's side hustles netted him $2.5 million in private income in 2017—nearly $1 million more than he made when he was not in charge of the MTA.
"The governor is basically rubbing a massive conflict of interest in the public's face and he's making a joke out of state ethics laws, and he's showing that the state's ethics commission is a complete sham," Kaehny says, pointing to MSG's "many, many relationships with the MTA," and NYU Langone's "extensive dealings with the state."
"It's grotesque," Kaehny adds.
The primary election is Thursday, September 13th.