This week’s long-anticipated federal corruption charges against Andrew Cuomo’s one-time closest aide—the man the New York governor once described as his father’s “third son”—represents a what-might-have-been moment in a potentially brilliant career. On Thursday, U.S. attorney Preet Bharara charged Joseph Percoco and eight others with looting the so-called Buffalo Billion, an economic-development initiative closely identified with the governor. The prosecutor made clear that he doesn’t have enough to charge Cuomo, but that trials in the cases announced this week will allow New Yorkers to “see in gory detail what their state government has been up to.”
Before Bharara arrived on the beat, “state government” effectively meant Cuomo working in concert with then-Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and then-Senate majority leader Dean Skelos. They enjoyed many productive years doing New York’s business together before the prosecutor broke up the old gang, convicting Silver and Skelos on corruption charges of their own. The trio worked collegially on Cuomo’s plan to direct upward of $750 million in public funds to the Buffalo Billion. In a nutshell, Albany was to partner with tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk to produce solar panels (and create permanent jobs) in the economic wastelands of New York’s western frontier. Musk was to provide the jobs while Albany kicked in the cash. So far, only Albany has held up its end of the bargain: Buffalo is knee-deep in tax dollars, but Musk’s SolarCity is teetering on insolvency.
It’s the Buffalo Boondoggle—never mind the criminality that Bharara alleges—that poses the greatest potential threat to the governor’s future. Cuomo has never lacked for self-confidence, and his impatience with even well-meant dissent is legendary. That’s a fraught combination given that the Buffalo business has been functionally free of legislative oversight. Silver and Skelos were always preoccupied with their own schemes, and nothing substantive has changed since their departure.
Nobody ever asked the most fundamental question: is there a sustainable industry to be forged from building solar panels in Erie County? Short answer: no—not given New York’s prevailing tax and regulatory climate, and especially not in a county where it snows from September to April.
Eager to revive the depressed counties of New York’s heartland and Southern Tier, Cuomo lacked the courage to use his considerable influence with the Albany legislature to prune taxes and pare regulation. His solution was to bury the problem in tax dollars. This approach isn’t intrinsically criminal, but it does attract people of low degree, some of whom have recently been posting bail. And it betrays poor judgment on Cuomo’s part—in the policies he pursues, in the people he trusts, and in the electorate at large.
You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Mario Cuomo discovered this in 1994. But it’s also true that the people can be forgiving. While this latest embarrassment would seem to preclude a national future for Cuomo, who knows what will happen if he decides to seek a third term in 2018? Given everything that has transpired, the job certainly stands to be a lot less fun for Cuomo.
The charges have also diminished Cuomo’s standing to hector Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has his own problems with Bharara. The whole business will make it harder for Cuomo to recruit a credible primary opponent for de Blasio next year, and to subvert regular Democratic efforts to take over the state Senate in November. No matter the fate of the Senate, Cuomo is likely to enter the coming legislative session with fewer allies than ever, which means a further increase in union power and overall progressive influence. The centrist Democrat who took office in 2011 will be a mere memory.
These charges must be proved, of course. But Bharara’s eagerness to provide all the “gory details” will prove damaging to a governor who has promised to walk the high road more often than he actually has.
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