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As Dems attack Trump, Cuomo aims to coexist

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at City University of New York, May 23, 2017.
July 28, 2017 - 03:02 pm

Donald Trump may be the two most potent words in Democratic politics, but Andrew M. Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, has spent much of the last six months going out of his way to avoid them.

Nearly as soon as Trump was elected, Cuomo began dancing around invoking the president’s name on the stump, skirting attacks in print and sidestepping reporters’ questions about the president.

As the Democratic Party’s watchword in 2017 has become “resist,” Cuomo, who is a possible presidential candidate in 2020, has instead opted to coexist.

“As a general rule, I haven’t found nasty ad hominem attacks on a person whose cooperation is needed to help your state especially helpful,” Cuomo said in a statement to The New York Times.

It is something of a curious posture for the leading Democrat in Trump’s home state, and it stands in sharp contrast with the actions of most Democrats nationally, who are contorting themselves to work Trump’s name into practically every speech, fundraising pitch and news release.

For a shrewd political tactician who seldom says — or doesn’t say — anything without political purpose, Cuomo’s positioning has raised questions from allies and opponents alike: Is he a savvy politician playing the long game, or being too clever for his own good?

The first and biggest test of his nonaggression approach came on Wednesday, as Cuomo made his first trip to Washington since the start of the Trump administration. He met with the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to lobby for additional federal funding for the state’s infrastructure needs.

While in Washington, Cuomo took time to respond to Trump’s directive, announced on Twitter, that transgender people be barred from the military. In his own Twitter post, Cuomo criticized the policy as wrong and intolerant, but blamed “Washington’s directive,” not Trump.

The governor’s elliptical phrase received some ribbing online. “News flash it came from Trump. Not George Washington,” replied Elizabeth Soto, the executive director of the Hudson Valley Labor Federation.

Two of Cuomo’s advisers who have spoken with the governor about his choice not to attack Trump in personal terms said he decided not long after November’s election to forge a verbal détente with a president who, like Cuomo, has a long memory for those who cross him.

Those in Cuomo’s orbit pointed to two factors in the decision: first, the possibility of working with Trump to procure federal money for state projects, and second, the fear of alienating working-class white voters upstate whom Cuomo wants to capture in his 2018 re-election effort.

“He decided early on he wasn’t going to stick a finger in Trump’s eye,” said one of Cuomo’s advisers, who was not authorized to disclose internal strategy discussions.

Cuomo has criticized some of the president’s policies, such as his decision to withdraw from an international climate accord. He has also spoken out against the administration’s immigration and deportation policies.

But the governor has remained loath to go after Trump by name, even as the president’s popularity has plunged to historic lows.

This is true even as other Democrats, who signaled an early willingness to work with the president, like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, have adopted a harder line. Hours after Cuomo held a rally against the Republican health care bill last week in Manhattan and did not mention the president’s name in his 15-minute speech, Schumer branded that day’s setback a “failure of Trumpcare.”

In June, when Cuomo wrote an op-ed lamenting the Trump administration’s immigration policies, he blamed the federal government, not Trump, for having “forgotten who we are as a nation.” In July, when Cuomo wrote about the health care bill, he cited “the White House’s insistence” that the legislation had “heart,” though it was Trump himself who had said so.

And when reporters recently asked Cuomo about Donald Trump Jr.’s email with a Russia-linked lawyer, he took a pass. “I’ve been working,” he said. Cuomo also skipped commenting on Trump’s Twitter attacks on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. “Let me read them first,” he replied.

The nonanswers sounded more like the comments of congressional Republicans who have grown skilled in the art of the Trump dodge than those of a nationally ambitious Democrat.

In contrast, at the recent rally where Cuomo left the president unnamed, the Democratic state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, introduced himself “as a guy who sues Donald Trump.” It earned some of his loudest applause.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, a Democrat, traveled to Germany this month in hopes of casting himself as a foil to the president. And Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who also could be a 2020 presidential contender, has been buying up online search ads calling herself a leader of the “resistance” who is “standing up to Trump.”

“Cuomo could, if he wanted, attack Trump 20 times a day and it wouldn’t hurt him a bit in the state of New York,” said Robert M. Shrum, a longtime national Democratic strategist. Shrum said the governor had demonstrated “a habit of not getting involved in national politics,” though he added, “I’m not saying this would be my strategy.”

Some of Cuomo’s own allies are privately hoping he will soon take a harder line against Trump, both to cut off oxygen for any potential 2018 Democratic primary opponents — he faced a surprisingly stiff challenge from Zephyr Teachout in 2014 — and to energize the progressive base he would need to win over in support of any presidential run.

The political left is frothing with anti-Trump energy, marching by the millions and pouring money into the coffers of leaders of the “resistance.” Bill Hyers, a Democratic strategist who was de Blasio’s 2013 campaign manager and is a frequent critic of the governor on Twitter, called Cuomo’s decision to avoid verbally confronting Trump “a million percent tone deaf.”

“He’s wanting to be Trump’s favorite Democrat. It makes no sense that he rips on the mayor of New York with pleasure but won’t say one negative thing about Donald Trump, even mention his name,” Hyers said. “That’s the coward’s way out.”

Cuomo and Trump have a decades-long personal history, dating to the 1980s, when Trump was a developer and donor to Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. The day after last November’s election, the governor called Trump’s election “a bonus.”

“He knows New York, he knows the challenges,” Cuomo said then.

In January, when Cuomo went to Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect, they spoke about New York issues, including infrastructure and local tax deductibility.

“It was not adversarial,” Cuomo told reporters in the lobby afterward.

Joel Benenson, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist in 2016, who served as communications director for the 1994 campaign of Cuomo’s father, approved of Cuomo’s restraint.

“I don’t think you have to make everything about Trump,” he said. “My advice would be to stick to your knitting and keep doing what you’re doing on behalf of New York.”

That is how Cuomo cast his trip to Washington.

“I am a vocal critic of many Trump proposals, such as his health care, environment and tax policies,” Cuomo said in his statement. “At the same time, my job is to make progress for our state and improve the quality of life for New Yorkers and the federal government must approve and fund many necessary projects — especially transportation and infrastructure — which is the subject of my discussion with Transportation Secretary Chao.”

People close to Cuomo say he is aware that transportation issues are a potential vulnerability: A recent Siena College poll showed his approval rating dropping to 52 percent from 61 percent since May, with all the erosion in New York City and its suburbs, areas gripped by problems with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

When it comes to Trump, Jay Jacobs, a former chairman of the New York Democratic Party during Cuomo’s first term, said the governor “is walking a fine line because he wants to get re-elected in 2018 and he wants to get re-elected with good numbers — and a good part of his popularity has come from Republicans, particularly upstate Republicans.”

Last week, Cuomo reported a re-election treasury of more than $25.6 million — among the most cash on hand of any politician in America — including another $5 million raised in the first six months of 2017, even as he has yet to draw any serious challenger.

Attacking Trump “might be something in the short term that works and gets everybody up into a lather,” Jacobs added, “but Cuomo is about the long game.”