Barring some titanic shift in the likely voting population in the next 15 days, Governor Andrew Cuomo will be reelected to a second term in office. Governor Cuomo leads his Republican challenger, Rob Astorino, by an average of 54% to 30% with Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins hovering below 10%. This polling is not recent as races that have already been called do not get constant polling, but barring all undecideds breaking for Mr. Astorino and a significant portion of Hawkins and Cuomo voters “defecting” for the Republican, Mr. Cuomo is all but guaranteed reelection.
This is a galling situation for a governor who has campaigned in a manner that has utterly disdained political engagement with the public and with his rivals. Despite having raised a $40 million campaign war chest, Mr. Cuomo has barely campaigned at all. His choice to all but ignore challenger Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law School professor and expert on corruption, did not merely mean he refrained from any debates, but also he physically ignored her presence from less than four feet away:
Erica Orden of The Wall Street Journal asked Governor Cuomo if he had spoken with Ms. Teachout at the parade:
Governor Cuomo defeated Ms. Teachout in the primary, but she made a surprising showing of 35% with Democratic primary voters despite having less than $250,000 and practically no name recognition among voters. One might have hoped that Governor Cuomo would take a surprisingly strong challenge as a message that voters want him to be more accountable, but the Governor’s dismissive attitude towards engaging in public discussion of his record in unscripted formats remains. He has agreed to but one debate before the election, and he will have no debate where he and Mr. Astorino have the stage by themselves. This means that voters will go to the polls in November never having seen the Governor debate a main challenger, either in the primary or the general election, one on one. Voters in New York are more likely to see Andrew Cuomo promoting his new autobiography than they are likely to see him take the podium to discuss election issues with his rivals.
In addition to this being a shameful and arrogant slap to the role of voters in evaluating candidates for high office, Mr. Cuomo has quite a lot that he should have to answer before audiences of voters and the media. In 2013, the Governor created the Moreland Commission to independently investigate corruption in Albany, supposedly making good on his promise to tackle the “deficit of trust” that existed between the government and the people of New York. After less than a year of continuous interference from the Governor’s office whenever the commission got too close to his allies, Governor Cuomo abruptly disbanded the commission. Moreland’s birth announcement promised New Yorkers that “Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.” Governor Cuomo stated upon disbanding the commission that “It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it’s mine. It is controlled by me.” Despite the incredibly corrupt manner in which the Governor’s office interfered with a supposedly independent investigation into corruption, the New York electorate, while broadly accepting that it was wrong, has barely budged in its voting intentions based on the controversy.
This is tragic for New York, not only because it all but assures that Governor Cuomo can glide to reelection, but also because it indicates that voters are unwilling to factor such blatant corruption into our voting calculus. Political scientists Dr. Martin Gilens of Princeton and Dr. Benjamin Page of Northwestern recently published a study indicating that the American political system does not fully reflect that of a democracy. Instead they note that an elite cadre of economically powerful individuals and institutions wield the fruits of increasing income inequality to leverage policy regardless of the will of the general voting public. The New York Times’ current magazine issue has a lengthy exposé on how billionaires, on both sides of the political divide, are wielding their financial power to become “their own political parties.” The power of such influence on policy is supremely evident in Governor Cuomo’s tenure, especially in his taxation and education policies.
For example, Governor Cuomo does not merely support charter schools in New York. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to reign in their expansion after years of rubber stamp approval from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo not only voiced his support, but also he played a direct role in orchestrating an Albany rally on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was seeking support for his efforts to make universal pre-kindergarten happen in the city. The Governor then went on and negotiated a state budget that specifically forbids the city from charging charter schools rent. While New York voters are not opposed to charter schools overall, it is important to note two largely hidden facts in this debate. The first is that the charter sector which got such direct support from the governor still enrolls only a small portion of New York State and New York City students. New York City’s approximately 83,200 charter school students represent less than 8% of all New York City public school students, and given the sector’s penchant for winnowing out students who might be more difficult to teach or whose disabilities might lead to lower test scores, there is a built in limit even to their willingness to serve all students, no matter how much they cover themselves in grandiose promises.
Second, the Governor’s direct hand in engineering both the rally and state budget was not precisely random or driven by pure policy. There was money, a lot of it, at issue. As of January, 2014, supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain alone, had donated over $400,000 to Governor Cuomo’s campaign, and Ms. Moskowitz’s own PAC had sent him $65,000. In recent years, Wall Street money has been pouring into the charter school sector, and it has done so in no small part because money managers have figured how to use the tax code to turn charter school investments into a reliable stream of guaranteed money. Beyond just the charter school segment, venture firms generally see America’s 750 billion a year expenditures on public education as the last public “honey pot” that they can try to monetize for private purposes.
So New Yorkers, there is your Governor: taking 100s of 1000s of dollars from the supporters of just ONE charter school chain, and jury rigging the state budget so that its investors can continue to secure more public money into entirely private hands. And he has done this while simultaneously choking school districts across the state of critical state aid to the tune of $3-4 billion a YEAR in New York City alone. This is the man we are poised to send back to the Governor’s Mansion for another 4 years. No wonder students from Middletown High School in Orange County produced the following video:
Typical political wisdom at this point sighs, shrugs its shoulders, and laments that the “other guy” is even worse just before it either stays home and doesn’t vote or holds its nose to pull the lever for the incumbent. In this case, the most viable “other guy” is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. New York Republicans have done a better job in selecting a candidate than they did in 2010 when they picked the entirely appalling Carl Paladino, but there are still substantive areas where Mr. Astorino is an unacceptable choice. Mr. Astorino opposes abortion rights and gay marriage, despite his campaign assuring voters that he will not pursue substantive changes to existing state law. Mr. Astorino has promised to withdraw New York from the Common Core State Standards and reduce the use of standardized tests for teacher and student evaluations if elected, but his education plan also calls for vouchers that can be used to send students to private or charter schools, which does nothing to slow down the transfer of public education money into private hands.
On the other hand, I cannot say that Albany with a Governor Astorino would be that much worse than one under a reelected Governor Cuomo. Mr. Astorino is likely correct that he could do little in Albany to chip away at social issues where he is out of touch with New York voters, although that is not to say that he could do nothing at all. It is also true that Governor Cuomo’s socially progressive accomplishments, while actually substantive, are not precisely areas where he took political risks. In 2011, New York support for same sex marriage was comfortably above 50% while opposition hovered around 35%. Accomplishing same sex marriage in New York was a major victory for marriage equality, but the Governor did not risk his standing with voters to make it happen. It worth noting that despite governing a state with a 27% Democratic Party advantage in the electorate, the most progressive thing that Governor Cuomo has accomplished beyond marriage equality is hurting Sean Hannity’s feelings.
An Astorino victory could have two very positive outcomes. First, it would signal to politicians seeking the Democratic nomination in races that they ignore liberal voters and kowtow to the entrenched money system that plagues our body politic at their peril. As a liberal Democrat, I can tolerate elected officials more centrist than I am, but I cannot tolerate politicians who sell out the public good at the behest of billionaire donors with little regard for our state and national Commons. Second, an Astorino victory could possibly embolden Democrats in Albany to do more than lay prostrate at the feet of the Governor’s office. Andrew Cuomo is no doubt a brilliant political operator even if he is without his father’s rhetorical gifts. What he has in abundance, however, is a willingness to threaten and place statewide Democrats in fear of angering him. Is it possible that Assembly Democrats might see a Republican governor as an opportunity to advocate for their constituents instead of meekly to line up in fear of a governor who controls their party’s apparatus? Possibly. Is it likely? I have no idea, but the exercise is worth considering.
With all of that said, will I pull the lever for Rob Astorino? No, I will not. If the Republican were within actual striking distance of Andrew Cuomo, I might consider the possibility of voting strategically, but since he is not, I intend to vote for the candidate who most represents my values, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins. It is possible that this makes me a part of the problem since my disdain for Governor Cuomo’s corruption will not lead me to vote for his most viable opponent in this race. However, there are alternative fixes that need to be considered in future election cycles.
Money is buying policy. There can be no doubt about that, but the officials who are bought when it comes to policy still have to stand for elections, and money does not always win at the polls. Our corrupted government could be subjected to a slow and steady cleansing if politicians who consistently let themselves be bribed for the purpose of making policy were faced with robust and moderately financed challenges that more closely represent the wills of the voters. Zephyr Teachout, with practically no campaign financing, an opponent and media that ignored her, and little name recognition, garnered 35% of the primary vote. Imagine what a campaign with more time and even modestly raised financing from small donors (or – gasp! – fully public campaign funding) could have accomplished, but also it would take an electorate that is finally incensed about the state’s government swimming in what amount to endless bribes.
Further, labor unions, especially teacher’s unions, should take a much more principled stand in endorsements for candidates, especially on issues that directly effect teachers, schools, and students. Playing along to have a seat at the table is no longer viable, and the New York State United Teachers union demonstrated this in the summer by refusing to endorse Andrew Cuomo for reelection. It would have been better to have endorsed Zephyr Teachout, but this was a step in the right direction. However, it needs to go further. Unfortunately, the Connecticut Education Association has offered endorsement and campaign literature in support of Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, whose education policies have been a reflection of Andrew Cuomo’s, even seeking to change the state school aid formula in a way that would cut state funding from districts like Hartford and New Haven. Although Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has announced that she will not run against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel as she recovers from cancer, Mayor Emanuel only has a quarter of Chicagoans on his side on school issues, and he should face a robust challenge for the office. It is past time for unions to worry less about access to corrupted politicians and to help elect politicians who will put children and their teachers and schools ahead of the interests of billionaire profiteers.
It is at this point that some anti-union activists will scoff at the idea of cleaning up the corruption of money in politics with the assistance of unions. After all, unions do spend money, often a lot of it, on political races, and unions collect large sums of cash from the dues of their memberships. While true, this misses several important distinctions between union influence on politics and that of entirely private individuals. Unions have monetary resources at their disposal, but they also have operating expenses, sometimes on behalf of memberships that number from the 1000s to the 100s of 1000s to the millions. All of their cash cannot in practice flow into politics, while the personal wealth of a Michael Bloomberg or a David Koch stays in his bank account until it is donated. Second, despite attempts to portray the situation otherwise, union political spending is being dwarfed by the flood of money from so-called “dark money” sources, and you have to ignore that spending to place unions at the top. Unions regulated by the NLRB have to disclose all of their outside payments, but no such requirements exist for shell organizations set up to funnel undisclosed money into the system. Regardless, Koch brother money alone in 2012 spent on PAC, individual candidates, and outside groups is estimated at over $400 million, which outstrips the top ten labor unions combined. And that only reports money spent through foundations and nonprofits. If recent patterns in spending are replicated this year, the 2014 election cycle may potentially reach as much as just under $1 BILLION in dark money.
To be sure, a reformed political system that brings the corruption of spending to bay will take a toll on union spending, but for the sake of their members and the students that they serve, the AFT and NEA must send notice that they will no longer trade a seat at the table for politicians who insist on trading their campaign contributions for sending billions of dollars of public education money into the hands of profiteers.
If voters listened, we might gain some of our democracy back — and our public education as well.