New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks to the media in Freeport, where he was visiting a homeowner still rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, July 30. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)
ALBANY Both are big-name governors of populous states. Both have presidential aspirations and a reputation for bare-knuckle bullying. And both are now facing criticism — and the scrutiny of federal prosecutors — for their administration’s penchant for micro-management.
While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal resonates with any driver who has ever sat in traffic, the troubles facing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his handling of a special anti-corruption commission are more subtle, complicated by political and legal nuance.
Some observers say that means Cuomo has a good shot at surviving his current controversy, the gravest test of his administration so far, without much more than a dent in his national stature. But they warn that additional revelations could disrupt not only a second Cuomo term but also his national ambitions.
The Democratic governor’s office has attracted scrutiny and the attention of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for allegations that it meddled with the commission’s work when a top Cuomo aide urged it not to investigate entities linked to the governor.
The problems for Cuomo deepened this week when The New York Times reported that Bharara’s office is threatening to investigate the administration for possible obstruction of justice and witness tampering for reaching out to commissioners to encourage them to issue statements on the commission’s work.
Now, the allegations have been rehashed on MSNBC, in The Washington Post and by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. Cuomo’s office has hired a criminal defense attorney, and his opponents in the fall election are turning the hullabaloo into political hay.
“This is heading down two parallel tracks. One is the political track, in which this will be argued out through campaigns,” said former state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat. “The other track, well, is an investigation by federal prosecutors. We’ll see where they both go.”
The episode has called into question Cuomo’s assertions that the commission would be independent and has tarnished his image as a new kind of Albany politician who stays out of the capital city’s robust tradition of cronyism and self-dealing.
“It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it,” he told Crain’s New York in April. “So, interference? It’s my commission. I can’t interfere with it because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”
But should Cuomo enter the presidential field, will voters in other states care about a little-known commission in New York?
“Because he is mentioned as a contender (for the presidency), the national news will increasingly pick up on this,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “But to a voter in California or North Dakota it may be kind of small potatoes, inside baseball.”
Contrast that with allegations that Christie’s office caused traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as a political reprisal. The scandal dominated national news and threatened to derail Christie’s 2016 chances.
Christie, Harrison noted, is working to overcome the traffic scandal with a light-hearted (and dance-filled) appearance on “The Tonight Show.” As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie has boosted his national profile by crisscrossing the country to help out GOP gubernatorial candidates.
Cuomo rarely leaves New York, largely shuns the national media and dismisses talk about his 2016 ambitions, saying he’s focused on his current job.
The son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo is seeking a second term this fall. He’s considered the overwhelming favorite to win, with $35 million in his campaign account and polls giving him a huge lead over his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who gets no more than a shrug from Cuomo.
“That’s entertaining,” Cuomo said Wednesday when a reporter asked about Astorino’s call for a state investigation into Cuomo’s handling of the commission.
Cuomo may be betting he can weather the storm without having to further address the questions surrounding the corruption commission.
Whereas Christie held a marathon press conference to apologize for the bridge lane closures and fired a top aide, Cuomo has stayed much quieter, dismissively addressing the controversy at a hastily called news conference in Buffalo — hundreds of miles from the Albany and New York City press corps.
Don’t look for the famously controlling Cuomo to make any jokes about the scandal — or discuss it on late-night television — any time soon.
“If this doesn’t go any further, it becomes a footnote,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY New Paltz. “But he doesn’t control events. And a federal prosecutor has possession of the files.”