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Taking no side in a major state primary

Thursday, August 28, 2014 - Updated: 8:12 AM

More than four years ago, while announcing his campaign for governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo stood in front of the Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan and said Albany's antics "could make Boss Tweed blush." New York had had enough corruption, he said, and he was going to put a stop to it. "Job 1 is going to be to clean up Albany," he said, "and make the government work for the people."

Cuomo became governor on that platform and recorded several impressive achievements, but he failed to perform Job 1. The state government remains as subservient to big money as ever, and Cuomo resisted and even shut down opportunities to fix it. Because he broke his most important promise, we have decided not to make an endorsement for the Democratic primary on Sept. 9.

His opponent in the primary is Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham Law School who is a national expert on political corruption and an advocate of precisely the kind of transparency and political reform that Albany needs. Her description of Cuomo as part of a broken system "where public servants just end up serving the wealthy" is exactly on point, but we decline to endorse her because she has not shown the breadth of interests and experience needed to govern a big and diverse state.

Why endorse no candidate in a major state primary? Here's how we see it: Realistically, Cuomo is likely to win the primary, thanks to vastly greater resources and name recognition. And he'll probably win a second term in November against a conservative Republican opponent. In part, that's because issues like campaign finance rarely have been a strong motivator for most voters. Nonetheless, those who want to register their disappointment with Cuomo's record on changing the culture of Albany may well decide that the best way to do that is to vote for Teachout. Despite our reservations about her, that impulse could send a powerful message to the governor and the many other entrenched incumbents in Albany that a shake-up is overdue.

Cuomo's tenure has had important victories. He persuaded many reluctant legislators to expand the right to marriage to same-sex couples, making New York the largest state in the country to break down this civil-rights barrier through legislative action. He muscled through the Legislature one of the strongest gun control bills in the country, expanding the ban on automatic weapons and big ammunition magazines and requiring background checks for private gun sales. He brought in four budgets on time that led to a credit-rating increase for the state, raised the minimum wage and oversaw an increase in employment.

The budget efficiency came at a price, however. His first budget cut education by $1.5 billion, and later ones failed to give the schools what they needed. Though he pleaded poverty, he imposed an unnecessary property tax cap and refused to extend a tax surcharge on the state's wealthiest. In January, he proposed yet another damaging tax cut, one that would largely benefit the wealthy and threaten more state services. He highhandedly dismissed Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan for a city tax on the wealthy to pay for universal prekindergarten, instead substituting a pre-K plan with far less guaranteed financing.

The most important failures, though, were in ethics reform. New York still has no comprehensive campaign finance system and has one of the highest donation limits in the country. Cuomo proposed a better system, but, when legislators balked, he threw up his hands and claimed there was nothing he could do. Where was the energy and determination he showed on marriage rights and guns?

Corporations and special interests can still give unlimited amounts to party "housekeeping" accounts. The rank partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts, which he promised to end, remains in place for a decade because he chose not to make reforming it a priority.

The worst moment of all came when Cuomo blocked the progress of the independent commission he set up to investigate corruption after the panel began to look into issues that may have reflected badly on him and his political supporters. As The Times reported in July, Cuomo's closest aides pushed back every time the commission began looking at the governor's own questionable practices, including a committee set up to support his agenda, which became Albany's biggest lobbying spender and did not disclose its donors. Now a United States attorney is pursuing the questions the commission raised, including the ones the governor wanted dropped.

Cuomo says the purpose of the commission was the leverage it gave him to push an ethics law through the Legislature and that he disbanded the panel when the law, agreed to in March, achieved roughly nine of 10 goals. But the missing goal -- a strong public finance system that cut off unlimited donations -- was always, by far, the most important method of reducing corruption, a much bigger reform than the strengthened bribery laws he settled for.

-- The New York Times

     

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