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Dan Collins

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What Is Andrew Cuomo's Secret?

Posted: 02/24/2012 12:03 pm

Nobody expected Andrew Cuomo to become New York's Peacemaker, but that seems to be his new career. Recently, while he was slaving away in Albany, he decided to pick up the phone and call the combatants in the fight between the MSG Network and Time Warner Cable that had blacked out the New York Knicks and Jeremy Lin from the homes of more than two million Time Warner customers.

"That is one of the fun things I get to do," Cuomo told HuffPost. "There's a lot of tedium in my job. I had been working on the teacher evaluation process for what seemed like an eternity ..."

So the call came as a kind of a gubernatorial coffee break.

"I just wanted to express the impact that the blackout was having on our citizens from the state's point of view," the governor said. A peace treaty was quickly negotiated that put the Knicks back on the air, and sent tabloid headline writers into another frenzy of Linspiration.

This happened shortly after Cuomo resolved a fight over a sewer line between two towns in upstate New York, bringing an end to the "yogurt war" and allowing a jobs-creating expansion of a Greek-style yogurt plant.

And it was just before the governor reached a settlement with the teachers unions on teacher evaluations which could free up $700 million in federal funding for New York schools. Cuomo's intervention did not completely end the war between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the teachers union, but given Cuomo's magical peacekeeping powers, it is probably only a matter of time.

So what's his secret?

Did Time Warner and MSG really need the governor to tell them that Knicks fans were pissed off?

Reports on previous Cuomo interventions don't give us much of a hint. During the yogurt war resolution, Sarah Slingerland, the mayor of one of the warring towns, reported that when Cuomo called her, he said: "Well, I would really like this, because of the economic growth and jobs."

Maybe it was something in his tone.

Cuomo himself gives a lot of credit to the experienced he gained in Washington, where he served as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton.

"Washington is a more complex and heated version of Albany," he said, providing us an even more chilling vision of the nation's capitol than the one we get from the Tea Party tribalists. "It's the Albany dynamic on steroids."

And HUD, Cuomo added, "was a very unpopular agency. Nobody wanted to go out of their way to help HUD, especially on the Republican side. I dealt with a lot of difficult characters in the House and the Senate, and I got a lot of legislation passed."

If his current job reminds him of life in Washington, maybe the key to Cuomo's powers is simply that, like D.C., New York has a large number of powerful New Yorkers with huge egos and insane stubborn streaks. Time Warner and MSG certainly weren't in round-the-clock negotiations before the governor intervened. They seemed to have virtually stopped speaking when the old contract lapsed at the end of last year. Bloomberg and the teachers union were talking less frequently than the Iranians and Israelis.

Perhaps when the alpha dogs are feuding for no good reason, all that's required is for an even more powerful pooch to get on the phone and tell them to get real.

So far, so good. The real test is how well this sort of approach works on the state legislature. But then, Cuomo did come up with an on-time budget last year. He managed to get a gay marriage law through the Republican-dominated State Senate.

This year, the biggest challenge facing him is getting control of the cost of public employee pensions. The Democratic Assembly's response to the Cuomo's plea for pension reform seems to be to propose that everybody be allowed to retire earlier.

There's also redistricting. The legislature's plan for redrawing the boundaries of their own precious districts is a classic incumbency protection plan for both parties with a host of strangely gerrymandered districts.

I've always suspected the governor might cut a deal. Trade pension reform, which he really needs, for letting the legislators have their way with the districts. After all, from his perspective, the worst that could happen would be the return of exactly the same people we have in the Assembly and Senate now. That's wildly depressing if you're the public, but so far, it's worked pretty well for Cuomo.

The governor says my scenario just won't happen.

"I'm going to get pension reform anyway," Cuomo said. "That's not a negotiable item to me."

Chances are the final resolution will be more complicated. As the governor noted, a lot of roadblocks have been thrown to the redistricting plan without his help. "You know, the legislature is under tremendous pressure. They already have a significant number of court challenges to the lines they have drawn."

We'll see what happens. In the meantime, I'm kicking myself for not asking Cuomo whether he could talk to my insurance company about the dentist bill they refuse to pay.