Thursday, September 04, 2014

Debating the Invisible Andrew Cuomo & The Aroma of Albany Politics

(D) Challenger Zephyr Teachout (left) and Gov Andrew Cuomo [Photo-Reuters]
Kudos to the Brian Lehrer Show earlier this morning for an insightful and substantive political debate between two candidates for New York governor who aren't really getting a ton of main stream press coverage.

The lively and civil debate between Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout (pictured left) and Republican Rob Astorino also offered a little bit of a snapshot of some of the issues we can expect to see in the numerous critical Congressional races this fall.

You can listen to the debate on the Brian Lehrer Show homepage. Zephyr Teachout isn't exactly a household name but I was pretty impressed with her policy stances on issues like education (invest in hiring more teachers and guidance counselors and the importance of an arts and music curriculum), job creation (support small businesses and raise the minimum wage ) and fracking (ban it).

She's obviously the David to Cuomo's political Goliath but struck me as a well-versed progressive, one that middle-class families, average working folk, unions and left-leaning centrist Democrats could get behind.

Her debate opponent Republican Rob Astorino was also intelligent, quite genial and well-spoken but he struck me as a well-polished Tea Partier who knows how to cloak his actual policy positions with eloquence and polite evasive political double-speak.

For example, when asked about their respective positions on the minimum wage, Teachout noted that she had been on hand to personally show her support for the nationwide walkout by thousands of fast food restaurant workers this morning that took place in large cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Las Vegas - disrupting service in a number of McDonald's, Burger Kings and Taco Bells. She also backs a $15 minimum wage.

Astorino was typically Republican on the question. Staunchly opposed to even discussing the idea of working class wages rising with cost increases, he said he "didn't want to put a number" on an exact minimum wage figure and repeated the standard GOP mantra-scare tactic that mandating a basic living wage for American workers would lead to unspecified horror for business owners and the end of life as we know it.   

When Astorino began to cite the low employment rate for North Dakota, a state with a population of under 700,000 in 2012 (which uses the Federal minimum wage level of $7.25 per hour) as an example of why low minimum wages mean high employment, I put the radio on mute and took an incoming phone call at work.

As if Astorino could raise his family on $7.25 an hour. Or North Dakota can actually be compared to states with much larger populations, labor forces and more electoral college votes - places like California, Ohio, Florida, or say New York; the state he wants to govern.

By the way, according to data from the US Department of Labor, all four of those states mentioned above have higher minimum wages than the Federal minimum. Guess which states have NO minimum wage laws? Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. "Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten look away! Look away! Look away! Dixieland." Sorry, I digress.

Noticeably absent (in person but NOT in conversation) was the incumbent Hizzoner himself, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Who seems quite content to adopt a Bloomberg-ish "What me worry?" approach to his re-election campaign for the time being.

He's the incumbent in a state that hasn't had a Republican governor since Pataki and has enjoyed relatively high approval ratings. He knows how to operate in Albany, has big-time national name recognition thanks to his father Mario; and it's no secret he harbors presidential ambitions.

It's his race to loose but it could be that he's just keeping a low profile in the wake of the ongoing and troublesome scandal related to his top aide Larry Schwartz having quickly quashed the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption's efforts to investigate some of the Gov's own supporters. Remember it was Cuomo himself who initiated the Commission back in 2013. Oops!

Andrew Prokop wrote an excellent analysis/summary of the Cuomo scandal on the Website that's well worth a read if you want the skinny on this mess.

According to Prokop's article, things began to go south after the chief investigator Danya Perry began investigating some of Cuomo's biggest political backers at the powerful Real Estate Board of New York for receiving a generous tax break from Albany, as well as the media firm Buying Time for possible campaign finance shenanigans.

Is it one of those Earth-shaking Nixonian type of scandals? No, it's not a true "gate" yet.

But it's enough that it's not surprising that Cuomo declined an invitation to participate in the on-air gubernatorial debate with Zephyr Teachout and Rob Astorino on the Brian Lehrer Show this morning; and he apparently has no plans to engage in a public debate with either of them.

The "scandal that could" does bear the distinctive stench of the very same kind of New York State cronyism politics that Cuomo himself set out to investigate in 2013 - which is remarkably sketchy even by Albany's ethically questionable standards.

Personally, I think the true spirit of the Democratic process merits open and public debate amongst candidates. So I truly applaud the staff of the Brian Lehrer Show for making an effort to let the public hear the candidates present and defend their positions and show how they think on their feet.

The scandal may blow over, but the shine on Cuomo's armor gleams just a little less brightly - and the aroma of this latest in a long line of Albany political scandals will certainly linger. 

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