Monday, January 17, 2011

Cuomo's Road Trip

Governor Cuomo, walking the walk of his election talk, went out last week and barnstormed for his low tax, small government agenda. The NY Times reported: "Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo leaned forward at the lectern, his gaze hardening on the audience in front of him, his right arm jutting forward, his forefinger extended like a spear. For a half-hour on Thursday, he chronicled the ills of Albany: the taxes that were crippling businesses and driving away residents, and the politicians too corrupt to care."

He then proceeded to lay the burden for change right where it should belong-on the people themselves: "It changes,” Mr. Cuomo said, “when you make it change.” His finger wagged. The audience clapped. His voice rose. “You know why it hasn’t changed for 20 years?” he asked. “Because you haven’t insisted on it.” He added, “It didn’t change because you let them get away with it.”

Cuomo is right-people do get the government that they deserve-but change does need the kind of catalyst that the governor wants to provide. However, even a catalyst needs the proper ingredients so that an effective chemical reaction can be achieved. So far, the right reagents are still not in place-and speeches by the governor, as he himself admits, won't be nearly enough: "My voice only resonates when I have you behind me,” Mr. Cuomo told about 300 people who crowded into the college’s cafeteria. “You want that Legislature to change?” he added. “You tell the Legislature.”

Michael Goodwin at the NY Post also sees this our way: "The plans are a tough sell, with many lawmakers mere puppets of public unions and other feeders at the government trough. Enter Cuomo’s business allies, the Committee to Save New York, which is spending millions to run that ad across the state. It’s a good start, but money alone won’t be enough to get results. An engaged public is the key.

Now in the thirty years we have been doing grass roots organizing and lobbying, we have made some pretty good speeches-and have been recognized for being an A-1 rabble rouser. What we have learned, however, that good pep talks only go so far-and where we have been most successful has been in communities that are well organized with a strong local civic voice. So, what the governor is missing is the infrastructure to promote the kind of change that he envisions.

In many ways, Cuomo is still a general without an army-and we can see the weakness in this approach from the following: "Mr. Cuomo has made clear that he might try to turn voters against uncooperative lawmakers, offering on Friday his sharpest warning yet when discussing his desire to overhaul ethics laws he said the Legislature did not support. “I’ll tell you this in front of your assemblywoman, and I’ll tell you this in front of your senator: they don’t want to pass it,” Mr. Cuomo said. “And if they don’t pass it, I’m going to remind the people of this state constantly that the Legislature hasn’t passed it, and I wonder why. What aren’t they telling you?”

Won't work. What's needed are boots on the ground-which is exactly what the governor's opponents have plenty of. The forces that are massing to oppose Cuomo's agenda will be well financed and galvanized-because what he is proposing is a dire threat to their vital self interests: "Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Jamestown, N.Y., on Thursday. In appearances there, and in Watertown on Friday, Mr. Cuomo stressed bipartisanship and again brought up the dominant pro-business, anti-tax, anti-spending themes of his State of the State address."

You're talking people's livelihoods here-jobs, pensions, health benefits. The political scientist Robert Dahl once said that, "intense minorities tend to overwhelm apathetic majorities." Unless the governor can find a way to truly catalyze the majority-and create an infrastructure that would counteract that of the public employee unions-he won't be able to effect the kind of change that he would like to see.

Cuomo ended his speech last week with a reference to the battleship slide that he used in his State of the State message: "While Mr. Cuomo had customized some of the PowerPoint slides from the State of the State address for the local audiences, he kept intact the most memorable one, which depicted Mr. Cuomo; Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker; and Dean G. Skelos, the Senate majority leader, atop battleships passing in the night, a purported representation of the dynamic in Albany in recent years. On Thursday, however, Mr. Cuomo added a brief editorial comment — and one that might also serve as a bit of foreshadowing for the months to come.
“You notice how I have the biggest battleship,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “That,” he added, “is a factual representation.”

Maybe so. But Cuomo should be cognizant of the fact that, while he may be the big battleship, the other sides will be resorting to submarine warfare. A more thoughtful battle plan is needed to truly engage New York's tax payers and small businesses.  They are primed, but not yet ready to fight. What's missing is the grass roots activism that has enlivened American politics all over the country-except in New York.