Andrew Cuomo's Hopeful Bad News

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowKen LovettDaily News Albany bureau chief, and Azi Paybarah, WNYC reporter and blogger, review Governor Cuomo's first State of the State address.

New Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his State of the State speech on Wednesday, broadly outlining his plan for major budget cuts to restrain spending, while reclaiming New York's place as the "progressive capital of the nation." He also threw in lo-fi PowerPoint slides, including one with depicting the budget process as three "ships passing in the night" captained by Cuomo, Skelos and Silver, with Cuomo facing a missle siege from "special interests."

The Daily News' Ken Lovett characterized the governor's address as a "very dire, dense speech, filled with a lot of grim messages and a lot of unpopular ideas that he’s asking the lawmakers to undertake." WNYC's Azi Paybarah noted many people's surprise in hearing the son of Mario Cuomo calling for such spending austerity, and found the slide complementary to the general theme of the speech.

The entire speech was geared towards the public and putting public pressure on the legislative process that most people sort of ignore. So actually having a visual way to show that there are people who are attacking him and that there are three components to making the budget, it’s sort of saying “look, I’m responsible for making the budget, but there’s two other people there also.”

It was a notable departure from former Governor Elliot Spitzer, who had emphasized that he alone was going to bring pressure to the statehouse. Cuomo stressed that this term, it will be the people of the state pressuring the lawmakers along with him. 

The speech presented a litany of ways that New York State government is too big, declared upstate “truly an economic crisis,” referred to the “exploding” costs of pensions. "The state of New York spends too much money. It is that blunt, and it is that simple,” Cuomo said. Cuomo mixed his calls for budget cuts with an emphasis on socially-progressive policy, saying, "Yes, we must deal with these fiscal realities...But at the same time we also have to contitnue to achieve the social progress that made this state famous.”   

Lovett said that highlighted an important difference between Cuomo and the standard Republican approach to budget-cutting.

Andrew Cuomo recognizes, like the Republicans, that you need to cut government, that it’s bloated, that they’ve overspent beyond their means and all that. But, at the core, Andrew Cuomo believes in government, whereas a lot of times when you hear the Republicans, [they are] demonizing the government for the problems... Andrew Cuomo, like his father, sees government as a way to help the public, and he feels that what he wants to do is get it under control and then use it as a force for good.

Cuomo repeatedly referred to "special interests" in his speech, but left out exactly who that meant. Both Paybarah and Lovett considered that a reference to teachers' unions, health care unions, and public service workers, not private businesses or real estate interests. Lovett predicts that labor may make formidable opponents for Cuomo.

Those are the groups who put millions of dollars in ads on the radio and television during every budget season, attacking proposals to cut them. Those are the groups that give millions and millions in dollars in donations and wind up, in lot of ways, controlling the lawmakers through threats of not endorsing them and backing other candidates… [Cuomo] sought to buy himself time and neutralize some of them, particularly the health care industry, by forming a commission to come up with recommendations to cut Medicaid and reorganize and revamp the program… and he put the unions on that task force, and what does that do? It’s going to be hard for the unions to attack the governor, at least for the next few months.. hard for them to put up ads when they’re supposed to be helping come up with the solution.

A caller from Rockland didn’t vote for Cuomo but found his speech encouraging. She especially appreciated Cuomo's direct manner of speech, and pointed out that terms like "special interest groups" may mean diffferent things to different audiences.

We’re all talking in euphemisms. We don’t come out with what we really mean. Even the word "change".. Change to me might not be what I want change to be. Things have to be spelled out in simple terms.“  

A caller from Manhattan who went to Albany to hear the speech called it "silly" that the Governor kept referring to the audience as the people. The caller said that because the speech was at 1p.m. on a Wednesday, most people were working, so he believed the audience was comprised mostly of people with interest in government.  

I wandered into a reception afterwards, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people in reception, almost of all of whom were lobbying for something or another. But that’s the nature of government, to point to lobbyists and make them we the people.

Also notable in the speech was the governor's obvious comfort with public speaking. Lovett pointed out that the Governor was speaking from notes, not a script, and had a clear command of the oratory.  

I don’t think we’ve had a governor who could speak like this since Mario Cuomo… the big question is, will he be able to get his agenda items through?

The state will have to wait and see what the specifics are of what gets enacted and what gets done, but Lovett is optimistic.  

After the last four years of dysfunction and corruption and watching New York spin down the drain, there’s at least hope now — cautious hope, given what we’ve seen — but at least there’s some hope, which we didn’t have the last couple of years.