What Malcolm Smith means for Andrew Cuomo

A political corruption scandal is never good news for a governor -- particularly one with national ambitions. And so, the arrest of state Sen. Malcolm Smith, an independent Democrat, is particularly tricky for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) who is widely seen as a candidate for president in 2016.


Andrew Cuomo might run for president in 2016. (Tim Roske/AP)

To date, Cuomo has cast himself as an aggrieved onlooker in the whole mess. “I’d like to say that I think this is going to be the last one and it will never happen again, but I don’t believe that’s true," he said Tuesday. "People do stupid things, frankly." (He was right: an assemblyman was arrested Thursday). All the state can do, Cuomo argued, is keep prosecuting politicians when they break the rules.

And he's right. But that doesn't mean that the arrest of Smith and others has no impact on Cuomo and his future political prospects. Cuomo's relationship with the state legislature has been complex ever since he was first elected in 2010 and the Smith arrest could make it even more so.

First, some history. Before last fall's elections, Republicans controlled the state Senate. Cuomo declined to endorse only Democratic candidates and ultimately backed two Republican senators. He accepted a redistricting deal that favored Senate Republicans. And when a small group of "independent Democrats" broke off to caucus with the Senate GOP, depriving the Democratic party of control of the chamber, Cuomo refused to intervene.

That position earned Cuomo some ire from liberals both locally and nationally. So, too, have his pushes for property tax cap and pension reform -- both of which passed with Republican help and votes.

Now the coalition Cuomo has relied on has been weakened. Smith provided some much-needed cover on diversity to an otherwise all-white coalition. When he joined, he was made conference chairman. And the whole justification for the group's defection was to get away from corruption and dysfunction in the Democratic party.

In recent months, however, Cuomo has started to tack left. His push for a minimum wage hike, stricter gun control laws, marijuana decriminalization and a reduction in abortion restrictions has riled up his GOP allies.

"A lot of the national attention from the left has driven the governor more towards the Senate Democrats anyway," said one Albany insider. "I think this scandal accelerates that process."

But the timing of a shift is another question. If Cuomo does shift, it might be after the legislative session ends in June. "The governor gains nothing by getting involved in the Senate's internal politics right now," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist who has worked for Smith. "After the session is a different question."

A further leftward shift in his relationship from legislative Democrats could help Cuomo cement his progressive bonafides going into 2016. But Cuomo has also won broad-based popularity by triangulating between the Democrats and the Republicans. If he's stuck working with the actual Democrats, it may push him further to the left than he wants to go -- even if that helps in the Democratic primary.

"The problem is that the political arrangement that the Democrats would demand would be considerably to the left of his economic policies," said former assemblyman Richard Brodsky, now a columnist at the Albany Times-Union. "His management of this progrationary" -- Brodsky's label for Cuomo's economic conservative, social liberal politics -- "strategy is weakened."

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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Sean Sullivan | April 5, 2013