As governor of a high-profile state with an almost astronomical approval rating and proven bipartisan appeal, Andrew Cuomo would seem a powerfully effective campaign-trail surrogate for President Barack Obama. However, though last night’s presidential debate was held in his beloved home state, the governor’s name did not appear on the list of spin room surrogates distributed by the Obama campaign yesterday morning. Fellow governors Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, had signed up to give their post-game assessments to throngs of national media, as had local New York politicians Senator Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. But not Andy.
Though he wasn’t part of the Obama campaign’s official post-debate presence, however, Governor Cuomo, whose office had been made aware Politicker was working on a story that included discussion of his relationship with the Obama campaign, strolled onto spin alley a short time after the sanctioned surrogates had begun speaking to the assembled reporters.
“I didn’t know you had to sign up for an official surrogate,” he told us when we asked why he wasn’t on the Obama campaign’s list of spin alley representatives.
We pointed out that the other, official surrogates stood in front of tall signs that marked their presence in the crowd.
“Yeah, I didn’t sign up for a sign,” he responded.
Reporters began to shift the discussion to other topics, but the governor paused for several seconds, musing over his unique status.
“I’ve been in the spin room many times, I don’t think I’ve ever had a sign, as a matter of fact,” he said, staring at another surrogate’s sign in front of him. “I wonder if that means something?”
Mr. Cuomo isn’t the only one wondering.
His surprise debate appearance was just the latest example of the governor’s maverick, relatively under-the-radar presence on the campaign trail. Both Mr. Cuomo and Mr. O’Malley are widely touted as possible candidates for the 2016 presidential election, but when it comes to their forays into the national political arena this time around, the two men are pursuing divergent strategies. Since June, Mr. O’Malley has eagerly taken a public role in the president’s re-election campaign at least 17 times, releasing multiple statements on behalf of Mr. Obama, appearing on both cable and network news to discuss the election, participating in Obama campaign conference calls, and offering the administration’s take at the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention and the two presidential debates held so far. Mr. Cuomo, by contrast, has marched to the beat of his own drum and kept his focus squarely on his home state, burnishing a carefully controlled brand as the brash, bipartisan reformer who finally parted the clouds in Albany, ushering in an era of relative peace and prosperity after years of darkness and dysfunction. Meanwhile, he has kept even the local press at arm’s length, doing regular interviews only with a pair of preferred radio reporters, rarely holding briefings and, according to multiple Albany journalists, cutting off access to reporters whose coverage is deemed unflattering by the governor’s office.
At last night’s debate, we asked Mr. O’Malley why he thought Mr. Cuomo hasn’t take a more public role pushing for President Obama’s re-election effort and why the New York governor wasn’t with him on the official surrogate list.
“You know, surrogates and governors do, I’m sure, all that they can to help the campaign,” Mr. O’Malley said. “Everybody has demanding schedules. Deval Patrick was here tonight, he’s not able to make each of these. And so, we all do as much as we can whenever we can I think. And I think that’s true of Governor Cuomo.”
Indeed, Mr. Cuomo was elected to be a governor, not a TV talking head, and his success in Albany is attributable precisely to the intensity he’s brought to the task at hand. But, perhaps ironically, the same aloofness from the national campaign that has fueled his popularity—leading to all that speculation about a White House bid—has also created some friction among top Democrats whom he will need to turn into allies if he does indeed mount a national campaign.
“The truth is that this is someone who is perceived to be about one thing, and that’s Andrew Cuomo,” complained one well-placed national Democratic operative. “That is all he cares about. He has not lifted a finger to help the president.”
When asked to comment on the state of his relationship with the president’s re-election campaign, the governor’s office pointed to Mr. Cuomo’s attendance at several private fundraisers and his trip to the Democratic National Convention last month.
While Mr. O’Malley and other local politicians have eagerly pitched in to publicly bolster Team Obama, Mr. Cuomo has taken a far more low-profile role. For instance, the governor has participated in several private fund-raisers for the president’s re-election effort, according to his office. Although he did make the trip to the convention last month, it raised eyebrows among prominent Democrats that he stayed clear of the official proceedings, declining to make his schedule known until the last minute and then delivering a single speech before the New York delegation—at a hotel six miles from the convention center. In the speech, the governor made sure to “thank President Barack Obama for what he has done for our state” and stressed the importance of the election, but the gesture struck some observers as decidedly ambivalent: The off-site address came off largely as a victory lap for Mr. Cuomo’s signature achievements during the first half of his term in New York, which include legalizing same-sex marriage and reforming the state tax code and the pension system.
His eagerness to characterize his administration as a successful laboratory for liberal policies was underscored by a sign that hung behind him as he spoke and by buttons handed out to guests, which boldly declared in all-capital letters, “NEW YORK STATE PROGRESSIVE CAPITAL OF THE NATION.” While he praised the president’s political “philosophy,” he described the Empire State as a shining example that Mr. Obama has followed.
“We know the president is right, and we know he can do these things, because we are doing these things in New York!” he said. “We know we can find savings in Medicaid and still give people the health care they need, because we’re doing it in New York! We know you can tax people fairly, not a flat tax, not everyone-pays-the-same-tax rate, which is what we had in New York, but a simple premise that says this: the more you make, the more you should pay. That’s fair, that’s progressive, the tax code that we just put into place in New York.”
Gov. Cuomo’s conspicuous avoidance of this year’s presidential campaign might just be a reflection of his unstinting commitment to the job he was elected to do—being an effective and resourceful chief executive of the Empire State: he’s simply too busy working day and night on the issues that matter most to New York residents to get swept up in the national race.
Or maybe, as a number of sources suggested, there’s more to it: a carefully crafted political strategy to cement his brand as a bipartisan reformer without getting tarnished by the ideological back-and-forth of a contentious national campaign. When Mr. Cuomo took office in January 2011, Albany was still reeling from the impact of Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal, the somewhat hapless performance of Mr. Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson, an array of corruption cases and the endless legislative squabbling that had led to late budgets for five years in a row prior to his arrival.
“In large part, when Andrew first came in, he did everything in his power to operate sort of above politics, and that was what he tried to demonstrate and what he’s tried to make his brand henceforth,” one Albany insider told Politicker. “He was trying to show that he was not engaged in day-to-day politics. He was sort of this knight riding into Albany on top of all this dysfunction. He was going to fix everything and, therefore, there was no room to be seen as a political actor. He was sort of a fixer.”
Though he has traveled thousands of miles within New York’s borders, Mr. Cuomo’s brief appearance at the DNC was one of only two times he has left the state since his election as governor. His only other such foray was to Puerto Rico to attend the SOMOS conference, which, despite its foreign locale, is an advocacy group that works on behalf of Hispanic New Yorkers.
While he has kept his distance from the national party, he has been more eager to lend a hand in local races. According to Congressman Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Gov. Cuomo has provided instrumental support for House candidates in New York, which naturally has an impact on the presidential race.
“Gov. Cuomo has been very engaged in working with us to help our House Democratic candidates,” Mr. Israel said. “The contrast between Obama-Cuomo and Romney-Ryan will be a big advantage for us in November, and New York voters will be well aware of that contrast by election day.”
Though this New York-centric strategy may have led to tension between the governor and national Democrats, it has paid off in many ways here at home. During his first 21 months in office, Mr. Cuomo passed pension reform popular among conservatives and tax reform that earned points with liberals, presided over two on-time budgets, legalized same-sex marriage and earned respect from many Empire State Republicans. Siena Research Institute regularly surveys New York voters on the governor’s performance. The group’s most recent poll on Mr. Cuomo, which was conducted in mid-July, found that 69 percent of voters in the state have a favorable impression of the governor, compared with just 22 percent who have an unfavorable opinion of him. The same poll found that the majority of New Yorkers, 54 percent, see Mr. Cuomo as a “moderate,” compared with 27 percent who view him as a “liberal” and 10 percent who would describe him as “conservative.”
Mr. Cuomo has been coy about his intentions so far, dismissing any discussion of a potential White House bid without ever explicitly denying presidential ambitions. When we asked the governor’s office to comment on the widespread presidential speculation, Matthew Wing, a press aide for Mr. Cuomo, emphasized the governor’s focus on New York.
“As we have stated countless times, the governor is focused on doing his job and working for the people of New York—that’s the job he was elected to do, and the results speak for themselves,” Mr. Wing said.
Indeed they do. Should the governor decide to run for higher office, his impressive achievements in New York will no doubt form the basis of his candidacy. Still, some observers question the wisdom of expending so much energy on a state that is always staunchly blue in presidential elections anyway.
“If this is a campaign for president,” said the Albany insider, “it is a brilliant one from a New York standpoint, but let’s be honest, how important is New York?”
Additionally, Mr. O’Malley isn’t the only potential rival Mr. Cuomo may encounter if he mounts a bid for the White House—nor is he the only possible opponent who has worked hard at building bridges to the national Democratic Party. Secretary of State (and former New York senator) Hillary Clinton is another widely touted potential presidential hopeful. Multiple sources we spoke with said Mr. Cuomo’s somewhat strained relationship with national Democrats has increased Ms. Clinton’s appeal among influential political figures and donors in New York and beyond.
“If Hillary Clinton decides to run, whenever she decides to run, he will have no New York Democrat support,” the national operative we talked to declared of Mr. Cuomo. “He will have no national Democratic support. None. Zero. There is nothing there.”
A Democratic congressional operative agreed with this assessment, noting, “I think the perception in Washington is that, if Hillary wants to go, it’s kind of a done deal.”
Part of Mr. Cuomo’s careful branding strategy has involved cultivating a distanced and, at times, contentious relationship with the Albany press corps. The governor generally favors broadcast interviews with two Albany radio hosts—Susan Arbetter and New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, who has a notoriously cozy relationship with Mr. Cuomo and is working on an authorized biography of the governor.
Update (3:31 p.m.): This story originally said the governor holds “official press briefings relatively rarely.” The governor’s office responded by noting the governor has attended over fifty public events around the state in the past six months.
However, there have been recent signs that Mr. Cuomo is increasingly opening up and engaging with the local media. Late last month, the governor and his aides took reporters on a trip to the Adirondacks, where they spent over three hours canoeing, fishing and holding extensive off-the-record fireside chats. In another recent off-the-record event, Mr. Cuomo held a reception at the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, where he spent about two hours speaking with local journalists.
But although he has increased his engagement with the Albany press corps, the governor has still largely eschewed the national press and has avoided appearances on the Sunday talk shows and the cable news circuit. For now, it seems doubtful his glasnost will extend to national media and political issues. One reporter who has covered the state capitol told Politicker it’s clear the governor has relinquished some of the tight control over his narrative, but said it is not clear whether this new approach will last.
“The governor and his communications staff seemed to have a really difficult relationship with the press for his first year and a half in office, but recently his staff have seemed more open and relaxed,” the reporter said. “There seems to be slightly less paranoia on both sides. Of course, that can change in an instant.”
Additional reporting by Colin Campbell.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story written prior to the presidential debates appeared in this week’s print edition of the New York Observer.