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Is Cuomo trying to have it both ways in Senate races?

Matt Ryan, New York Now
Kathy Hochul joins Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce their candidacy during the Democratic state convention in May. (file photo)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has forged his public image as a bipartisan governor, working with both Democrats and Republicans. But the governor has also promised a left-leaning minor party that he would help shift control of the state Senate away from the GOP, and help Democrats regain control of the chamber. The governor has been walking a fine line between the two parties ever since.

One hot, steamy night in early summer, the left-leaning Working Families Party was debating whether to endorse Andrew Cuomo for a second term in office. Cuomo, under pressure from party leaders, recorded a video promising he’d work to expel Republicans from co-leadership of the state Senate, and work to reinstall Democrats instead.

“We must go out, and we must win a majority of the seats in the Senate,” Cuomo told the Working Families Party on May 31.

The pledge was a change for the Democratic governor, who had prided himself on working successfully with the Senate leadership coalition of Republicans and a group of breakaway Democrats for the previous two years.

While Cuomo was able to get several Republican senators to vote to enact same-sex marriage in 2011, he could not get them to budge on several issues that the Democratic left was pushing for, including further increasing the minimum wage, allowing children of undocumented immigrants access to college aid, known as the Dream Act, and public financing of political campaigns.

Cuomo told the Working Families Party that Senate Republicans are "the obstacle to making that agenda a reality.”

Cuomo so far has not publicly campaigned with any Democratic candidates for the state Senate who are hoping to unseat Republicans. He also invited the Republican leader of the state Senate, Dean Skelos, on a special trip to Israel and to an announcement on new funding for counterterrorism.  

The governor also released a television ad in which he is endorsed by Republican Larry Rockefeller. He says he won that support by working with GOP senators to enact a property tax cap and hold the line on state spending.

“I worked with moderate Republicans in the Senate to get this done,” Cuomo said. “If I didn’t, it wouldn’t have happened.”

But Cuomo says that does not mean he’s neglecting his pledge to help Democrats take over the Senate.

“They voted yes on this budget, so they’re running on the same record also,” Cuomo said. “You know, you don’t have to be fiscally irresponsible to be a Democrat.”

Kathy Hochul, Cuomo's running mate for lieutenant governor, has been more overtly campaigning for issues important to the more left-leaning Democrats. She spoke at a meeting of state party leaders where she advocated for Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act, that has an abortion rights provision rejected by Senate Republicans.

Hochul defends Cuomo’s recent events with Senate Republicans, saying there’s a difference between governing and campaigning.

“I don’t think it’s inconsistent,” Hochul said. “People understand the difference between working with people who are elected, versus campaigning for change in November.”

The leader of the Senate Democrats, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says she’s satisfied with what the governor has done so far to help Democrats. She points out that Cuomo made some key endorsements in the final days of a primary that included challenges to some Senate Democrats.

She says she’s happy to run on Cuomo’s record.  

“He will be on message, as we are, talking about the priorities of New Yorkers,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And since we have the same priorities, it is impossible for him not to be helpful.”

The state Democratic Party, which is run by Cuomo, has been sending mailers in key Senate districts promoting the Democratic candidate and disparaging the Republican opponent.

The state Senate is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and a non-presidential election year in New York often favors the GOP, so there’s no telling what the ultimate outcome could be on Election Day.

Complicating matters further is that the last remaining Republican who helped Cuomo win the gay marriage law in New York, Mark Grisanti of the Buffalo area, lost a primary and is running for election against the Democratic candidate as an Independent. Cuomo has not ruled out endorsing Grisanti, because he says conservatives are trying to run Grisanti out of office for siding with Democrats on same-sex marriage.

“This is a personally difficult situation for me,” Cuomo said. “I’m thinking about it, I haven’t reached any conclusions.”

And while Cuomo has been publicly reticent so far on the state Senate races, Senate Republicans seem to be returning the favor. They have said little to promote Cuomo’s Republican rival in the governor’s race, Rob Astorino.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.