When I first started covering Albany politics, Governor George Pataki was the man in charge. But he was, by and large, a status quo kind of guy.
There was plenty of money to spend, so he spent it. He seemed eager to satisfy everyone with a shot of state cash, from the unions to the environmental groups, from county leader to the medical industry.
He didn’t invent the systemic overspending and debt that now define state government, but he certainly joined the party.
His immediate successors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, took serious stabs at changing all that. Where Pataki partnered more or less with the legislature, Spitzer went to war.
And after his implosion, Paterson took an even more militant posture, his hand forced by the economic downturn and the collapse of Wall Street.
Paterson, in turn, saw his political fortunes unravel, as he was attacked by everyone on the political landscape. It was death by a thousand cuts, only these cuts were big, ugly knife-fight wounds.
And now, in 2010, it appears that another Democratic titan will enter the arena. Andrew Cuomo says he’s coming to Albany to reinvent state government.
“We will be taking on very powerful special interests, which have much to lose,” Cuomo said. “We must change systems and cultures long in the making.”
For the time being, it appears that Cuomo will run practically speaking as an independent, unfettered by close party loyalties or by reliance on unions and other big special interests.
If he pulls it off — and so far the Republican Party seems unlikely to challenge him seriously — Cuomo may arrive in the state capital with more maneuvering room, more flexibility, and fewer favors owed.
He will also bring with him the powerful heft of the Cuomo dynasty.
Will that formula be enough? Will he be able to wring significant concessions from the public employee unions? Will industry groups accept modest tax increases?
No New York City bookie would give him better than fifty-fifty odds.
But what is certain is that at present Cuomo represents state government’s best shot at coming out of this mess without a full-scale, systemic collapse. In doing so, he won’t just step out of his father’s shadow — indeed, Mario Cuomo was one of the architects of the current fiscal crisis.
He will take his place as one of the great New York governors, a reformer on par with the Roosevelts and Nelson Rockefeller.