Cuomo Needs Knockout Punch As He Battles on Several Fronts
By Tony Farina
Andrew Cuomo knows how to pick a fight and right now he's in top form.
The governor who would be president has started a border war with Canada over the Peace Bridge; he's going toe-to-toe with the Seneca Nation of Indians over gaming rights in a long simmering dispute that's now coming to a head, and he's locked in a battle with state sheriffs (including Tim Howard of Erie County) who are opposed to his gun control bill.
But that's not all. A California-based tour boat operator is suing the state over Cuomo's decision to modify an existing lease in secret and give Jimmy Glynn's Maid of the Mist another 30-year ride without competitive bidding, a decision that could cost the state the $105 million more in revenue the rival operator was willing to pay for the franchise.
Let's not forget the preservationists who are angry over the state's secrecy about the work going on at historic ruins of the Schoellkopf Power Station to build a new storage facility to store Glynn's boats when the weather turns cold. It was another deal rammed through by Cuomo and State Parks and other state agencies have been towing Cuomo's tight-lip modus operandi about the work in the gorge.
But let's go back to the Peace Bridge for a moment. The border skirmish may have started when the five U.S. members of the 10-member binational Peace Bridge Authority led by Cuomo point man Sam Hoyt wanted to oust Ron Rienas as general manager. Rienas is a Canadian. The dispute went public when Maria Lehman, an engineer representing Cuomo on transportation projects, claimed she was referred to by then Authority Vice Chairman Anthony Annunziata (now chairman) as the "governor's concubine" and filed a complaint.
Sources tell the Reporter that Lehman initially wasn't offended by Annunziata's attempt at humor but when there was no action to get rid of Rienas—the Canadians reportedly said they needed time for a succession plan-- she went public with her complaint as the American side was angry at the delays in ousting Rienas.
But we've now come a long way since that episode. The situation has escalated into a serious border fight with legislation moving through Albany to disband the Peace Bridge Authority as Cuomo has rallied support for his position that the other side is to blame for delays on work on the American side of the bridge. The Canadians are watching closely what happens with the legislation sponsored by State Sen. Mark Grisanti and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, with sources saying if the legislation goes through, it could further escalate the bridge showdown beyond repair. The fate of the legislation will be known shortly as the legislative session is due to end June 20.
Annunziata has warned that disbanding the Authority "would be absolutely devastating for the Western New York and Southern Ontario region," warning of potential bridge delays and a halt of major construction projects, including work on the American side. Annunziata told the New York Times recently that in the past there had always been a respectful working relationship but things have changed with Cuomo calling the shots.
"I've never had a relationship like this, which is, if you don't agree with me, we want you gone," he said. "And not only do we want you gone, if we can't get rid of you, we want to destroy the board."
Now let's go back to the Indian war. The governor is also being targeted by Barry Snyder, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, who twice called Cuomo a "bully" during a visit to Albany last week to lobby against new gaming legislation the governor is pushing to try and get the Senecas to settle the long-running dispute that so far has cost the state about $600 million in revenue sharing payments from the three Western New York casinos run by the Senecas.
There's no indication that any settlement is likely before the legislative session ends June 20, a deadline imposed by Cuomo. Sources close to the Senecas say it is unlikely the Seneca people would support a deal with the state at this point even if their leadership wanted to make a deal, as did the Mohawks and Oneidas. They probably favor letting the arbitration process play out at this point, angry as the governor's harsh words in the heated dispute. The Peace Bridge fight and the gaming war with the Senecas have the potential for real political damage for Cuomo if he doesn't win. The Peace Bridge is an important border crossing point for tourism and any impact on travel across the bridge would not be warmly received by communities on either side. As for the Seneca battle, of that $600 million owed the state, about $60 million of that is owed to the City of Niagara Falls for the last three years and as State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli recently reported in an audit of the Cataract City, Niagara Falls is headed into a major cash flow problem later this year even if it gets the revenue sharing funds.
Now let's jump back to the bridge fight. Rep. Brian Higgins recently jumped into the skirmish, urging the two sides to focus on the business at hand, namely getting the work done to the benefit of both sides.
"I think everybody needs to tone it down a little bit and get focused on the $142 million in improvements that everybody agrees needs to be done, and let's move forward," Higgins said.
But Cuomo's not likely to take back his strong attacks on what he considers the failures of the Peace Bridge Authority (i.e. Canadian) , and any middle ground will have to be carved out by cooler heads, including his latest appointment to the authority, former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, a longtime Cuomo ally.
Whatever comes down, the New York team knows it can only broker peace by getting an agreement that insulates the hard-charging governor from any more bad press. Amazingly, he has received some criticism recently from unlikely places on both sides of the border in connection with the span fight, and he will be mindful of coming out of this looking like he won something and wasn't just huffing and puffing again, flexing his gubernatorial muscles for all to see. The governor, no doubt, is the state's unquestioned leader on just about everything, thanks in part to the legislature's dysfunction and high level of Albany corruption. The sex scandal involving a member that Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver covered up with taxpayer money is just the latest in a long list of malfeasance by lawmakers.
But Cuomo, who rammed through the controversial SAFE Act without a whimper of legislative opposition, should recognize there's a limit to even his high-powered tactics and he could be approaching that mark. Of course, if his tough bargaining style pays off, he'll get the credit. If not, he will pay the political price as he has to a certain extent with the gun-control bill.
So far, he has managed to put off another controversial issue—hydraulic fracturing---that pits business interests against celebrity environmentalists like Yoko Ono. Cuomo apparently is not quite ready for another fight and he has delayed making a decision on what the state will do. Stay tuned!
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
JUN 11, 2013