Cuomo's Economic Record: A 2020 Achilles' Heel?

Cuomo's Economic Record: A 2020 Achilles' Heel?
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Cuomo's Economic Record: A 2020 Achilles' Heel?
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hinted that if former Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t run for president in 2020 he might reconsider his own previous decision not to run. Saying he was “frightened out of my shoes about President Trump,” Cuomo told an Albany public radio station he believed “the Democrats should win” but “are capable of blowing it.” 

Cuomo made his earlier decision to skip 2020, he said, based on “conversations with people [that led him] to think certain people are going to get into the race.” Biden has certainly flirted with a run, but what happens if he backs out, as he did in 2016? (Early feedback about his prospects from some voters is harsh.) Or what if Cuomo decides to run anyway? “If, if, if, if,” he said. “Call me on the fifth ‘if.’”

Should Cuomo enter the already-crowded Democratic presidential field, he could shake up the race. Now in his third term, he is the nation’s longest-serving current governor, and he oversees the fourth most-populous state in the country. Among a pack of Democrats who are skewing to the left, Cuomo would position himself as a centrist. In terms of finding a candidate capable of defeating Donald Trump, Democrats could conclude a mainstream progressive like Cuomo may have a better chance than a candidate more on the fringe.

While there are accomplishments Cuomo can point to as justification to run for president — his early support for gay marriage, tax cuts, his efforts to advance gun control — he could rise or fall as a candidate based on one issue: the economy. He embraced the subject in his first inaugural address in 2011, declaring, “It starts with jobs, jobs, jobs, getting the economy running once again.” And he has had success. Since Cuomo took office, New York has added 1 million new jobs (“more than any administration in 75 years,” he recently boasted), and the unemployment rate has dropped from 9.0 percent when Cuomo took office to 4.6 percent as of January (after hitting a low of 3.5 percent in November 2018). But here’s the bad news: Both the number of jobs created and the unemployment rate in New York lag behind national averages.

In addition, Cuomo just suffered a humiliating embarrassment when Amazon announced it would not proceed with plans to open its HQ2 in Queens, New York. Cuomo had worked behind the scenes for months to arrange $3 billion in incentives for Amazon if the company undertook a $2.5 billion investment in a new facility that would generate a projected 25,000 jobs and $28 billion in tax revenue for the state. But critics on the left, led by state Sen. Michael Gianaris in Queens and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Washington, argued the incentives amounted to corporate welfare and launched a spirited attack on Amazon. When the company caved to that pressure and announced it would not proceed with its New York plans, Cuomo was blindsided. After several days of silence, he finally spoke out, calling the decision “the greatest tragedy that I have seen since I have been in government,” and commenced last-ditch efforts to convince Jeff Bezos to reconsider the decision — so far to no avail.

But Cuomo’s biggest blunder has been Buffalo Billion, an economic development project meant to revitalize the chronically downtrodden city in western New York. The centerpiece of the plan is a 1.2-million-square-foot solar “gigafactory” built and equipped at Riverbend in Buffalo at a cost of $750 million. A pet project of Cuomo, the factory was begun originally for SolarCity, the solar panel company cofounded by Elon Musk. But when SolarCity neared bankruptcy, Tesla, another Musk company, absorbed it. Since Tesla was only marginally better off financially, the operation was sublet to Panasonic.

So the state has created a massive (mostly empty) factory for tenants that ended up being Tesla and Panasonic — New York actually owns the facility and rents it out for $1 annually — all because SolarCity first committed to bringing 5,000 new jobs to New York over 10 years. Currently, the workforce is fewer than 700, with the prospect that that number could be cut as Tesla deals with its well-publicized cash flow problems. Plus, President Trump has imposed tariffs on solar equipment, further depressing the market.

To make matter worse for Cuomo, federal prosecutors convicted a number of his friends and former aids for rigging the bids to make sure the construction contract for the factory went to a company whose owner had contributed to Cuomo over the years. The governor himself was not indicted, but his administration has been tainted by the corruption.

Despite his successes — and there have been some — Cuomo may see his future political prospects determined by two of the most mercurial names in business today — Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. So far, it seems, Cuomo has been out of his league when dealing with these business titans, not a strong endorsement for running the country.

The author of books about John McCain, John Kerry, and Karl Rove, Paul Alexander often writes about politics.

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