REWRITING THE NARRATIVE: The Republican nominee for Governor, Marc Molinaro, while laying out his plan to revitalize the transit system attempted to flip the script on Governor Cuomo, arguing that the chief executive who tries to project a blue-collar persona was ‘more interested in vanity projects’ than fixing the system. Its importance to less-affluent New Yorkers, the GOP challenger said, he understood because ‘I grew up on food stamps’ as one of three children raised by a single mother.

Marc Molinaro, Governor Cuomo’s actual Republican opponent—as opposed to the Republican he appears intent on running against—came to City Hall Aug. 28 to unveil a plan to revitalize the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that he called “a comprehensive response to what has sadly been years of failed leadership and the decline of the transit system.”

The broiling sun left some reporters in short sleeves perspiring with enthusiasm, but the suit-and-tie-wearing Dutchess County Executive, while remarking, “This is about the temperature it is usually on most subway platforms,” never broke a sweat.

Perhaps it was because he imagined there were hotter places he could have been. Asked why he chose City Hall rather than outside the Governor’s Midtown offices to get in Mr. Cuomo’s face, he replied, “I was afraid he was gonna have me arrested,” a jest that wasn’t completely whimsical.

Pressed on whether it was frustrating to have the Governor campaigning as if Mr. Trump had the GOP nomination, Mr. Molinaro said, “Oh no, I love being ignored.” But then he stuck a rhetorical dagger into Mr. Cuomo’s posturing, saying, “He’s like some crazed Wizard of Oz: pay no attention to the corruption; we’re talking about President Trump.”

‘Smart, Likable, Never Takes Chances’

One of his Hudson Valley constituents earlier this year described Mr. Molinaro as “smart and likable, but he never takes chances.”

During his half-hour press conference, he seemed eager to dispel that latter characterization, perhaps understanding that even if he loses the general election, as is widely expected, he’d better go down fighting if he wants a political future beyond his current job.

And so even as he kept jabbing at Mr. Cuomo’s approach to mass transit, which he called “the political gamesmanship this Governor has engaged in the last few years,” he presented himself as someone willing to work with the other interested parties to fix the problems of the MTA, which he described as being “in a death spiral.”

He said New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s plan to improve the subways was “amazing,” but added, “Of course the Governor forced the elimination of any price-tag,” making it impossible to gauge whether it was affordable. He said that if elected, “I will work hand-in-hand with the Mayor and the City Council to get this system functioning,” contrasting that spirit of bipartisanship with Mr. Cuomo’s often acting as a party unto himself.

And he said that in devising his 30-page plan to revive the MTA, he had consulted with both the conservative Manhattan Institute and Richard Ravitch, the former MTA Chairman widely credited with restoring the system to good working order in the early 1980s. Not incidentally, Mr. Ravitch previously castigated the Governor for not caring about mass transit, before Mr. Cuomo last summer awakened to the reality that as conditions deteriorated, it was one subject on which he was politically vulnerable.

So it was no surprise that immediately after invoking Mr. Ravitch’s name, Mr. Molinaro stated, “Andrew Cuomo has no interest in owning the problems of the transit system, because he makes decisions based on political expediency.”

Earlier in the press conference, he criticized his opponent as “a Governor who is more interested in vanity projects” —from the Second Ave. subway to the new Tappan Zee Bridge that has been renamed in memory of Mr. Cuomo’s late father, Mario—than in the less-glamorous steps needed to restore confidence in mass transit.

‘Metro Area’s Lifeblood’

“The transit system is the lifeblood of any metropolitan area,” Mr. Molinaro said. “It is what keeps New York City connected.” And the essentials to making it work, he said, were “safety, reliability, accessibility and affordability.”

His priorities for improving subway service, he said, would be “a focused clear investment in signal switches and subway-car stock.”

A day earlier, he had bristled at a Cuomo campaign ad that branded him “a Trump mini-me” (“First of all, I didn’t vote for the President,” he told reporters at City Hall) and accused him of supporting the Trump tax plan “that will raise New York income and property tax by as much as 30 percent” (Mr. Molinaro said he had repeatedly taken issue with the Federal tax changes that hit states like New York particularly hard). The Republican nominee told reporters that he supported the city’s Fair Fares program that offers sharply-reduced transit fares for low-income residents. He said if communities outside the city wanted to offer a similar subsidy, as Governor he would have the state “match 'em dollar for dollar.”

“A failing transit system hurts the most-vulnerable the most,” he said. Referring to his mother having raised three children largely by herself, Mr. Molinaro added, “I grew up on food stamps; I get it.”

His proposal noted early on, “When Andrew Cuomo was sworn in as Governor of New York in January 2011, the New York City subway had an average on-time performance of 85.4 percent. Eight years into his administration, that number now stands at an embarrassing 58.1 percent.”

‘Incompetence and Neglect’

Mr. Molinaro attributed this to “many factors, including incompetence and neglect…For more than five decades, the State of New York has held the key responsibility for overseeing the MTA. Yet, the Governor has shown far more interest in picking petty fights with the Mayor of New York City than in ensuring that the subway is in a state of good repair…For years, rolling-stock replacement, tunnel conditions, storm damage, and other state-of-repair issues have been neglected while priority has been given to high-exposure expansion projects. The politics and mismanagement driving the neglect of our subways and commuter rails is the most direct cause of the current crisis of congestion, delays and cancellations. Every late train undermines riders’ trust in the system, contributing to a nearly two-percent drop in subway ridership between 2015 and 2017.”

The report, which had input from the business-funded Citizens Budget Commission as well as the Manhattan Institute, not surprisingly criticized the MTA for “High labor costs and poor workforce efficiency.”

Much of the criticism, which has previously been the subject of extensive articles in the New York Times and Post, was centered on contractors used by the MTA and their agreements with the building-trades unions that are deployed on capital projects, even as it acknowledged that part of the reason for the rise was that the city was “in the midst of a construction boom driving up the demand for skilled labor.”

But Mr. Molinaro’s proposal also called for a gain-sharing program between the MTA and the transit unions so that “collectively bargained benefits and work rules reflect the financial reality of the modern MTA, with the MTA, as well as its workforce, sharing the savings from any long-term labor savings.” It quoted a Wall Street Journal article stating that in 2014, the MTA’s overall personnel costs were nearly three times those for the Paris subway system and more than four times as great as the London system, which Mr. Byford previously ran.

Would Restrict Overtime

To control those costs, it called for “restricting overtime opportunities to a certain percentage of an employee’s salary, unless there is a critical need for a certain employee’s skill set that is approved by multiple supervisors.”

Not surprisingly, those aspects of the plan were sharply criticized by the Governor’s most-prominent union supporter, State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento. In a statement, he said, “This is exactly what I would expect from someone who is working off the script of right-wing conservative ideologues in Washington whose sole purpose is to vilify working people and their unions. Marc Molinaro predictably casts aside the vital role working men and women play, not just at the MTA, but [in] the economic well-being of our state. He would rather blame workers for subway-repair costs than recognize New York’s highly trained and skilled workforce is the only thing that keeps our state moving forward.”

Positions like those taken by the Republican nominee would have been bound to also end any consideration by either the Building Trades Council and subway and bus unions led by Transport Workers Union Local 100 of Mr. Molinaro’s candidacy, except for the fact that those unions long ago strongly committed to backing Mr. Cuomo’s re-election. Local 100 President Tony Utano denounced the Molinaro proposal as “a total non-starter that relies on faulty statistics, and a vicious anti-union theory that workers are overcompensated for their labor. The core of the Molinaro plan would slash wages and benefits for a transit workforce that is laboring 24 hours a day 7 days a week to operate and improve the system, while fending off assaults and dodging the incredible day-to-day dangers on the job.”

More even than most Democrats, the Governor had monopolized labor’s support even before the campaign began in earnest six months ago when Cynthia Nixon emerged as a challenger for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Molinaro subsequently entering the race when it became clear that no other Republican had the resources and the willingness to take on the Governor.

Cushioned Impact of ‘Janus’

Mr. Cuomo’s support of the public-employee unions, particularly in steering to passage and then enactment in April a law aimed at cushioning the blow to their membership rolls that came two months later with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending their right to collect the equivalent of dues in the form of agency-shop fees paid by nonmembers, made that easily understandable. What was more surprising was how few public-employee unions had not been in the Cuomo camp in his 2014 re-election run, given that he began his term in 2011 by strong-arming the state unions into concessions that included a three-year wage freeze in order to wipe out most of a $10-billion budget deficit, threatening to lay off up to 9,800 of their members if they balked at his terms.

In early 2012, the Governor pushed a less-generous pension tier for new public workers, Tier 6, through the Legislature by abandoning his campaign promise two years earlier to create an independent redistricting commission, allowing Republicans in the State Senate and Democrats in the Assembly to continue to shape their own districts in a manner virtually guaranteed to perpetuate their majorities.

For the two largest state-employee unions, the sour taste lingered into 2014, even as Mr. Cuomo began moving away from the conceit that he could sell himself as a different kind of Democrat capable of capturing Republican support, particularly among hedge-fund operators who were among his biggest campaign donors. Civil Service Employees Association President Danny Donohue early that year held a rally in which he referred to the Governor as “a monkey” and “a moron,” the kind of venting that did not bother Mr. Cuomo as much as opposing his re-election would have.

Endorsed His Foe

The second-largest state union, the Public Employees Federation—whose rank and file had voted down the original contract deal its leadership reluctantly signed off on—took it to the next level. Although Mr. Cuomo was an overwhelming favorite in the Democratic primary, it endorsed Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor and anti-corruption crusader who had little name recognition and even less money. Its membership, which had traditionally been to the left of the CSEA’s (PEF was formed from the professional, scientific and technical employees who bolted the CSEA in the late 1970s because it wasn’t militant enough), was given extra incentive to vote for Ms. Teachout by the Governor’s boorish treatment of her. He refused to debate her or mention her by name, and his campaign manager, Joseph Percoco, created a disquieting symbol of the Governor’s tactics when he stopped just short of body-blocking Ms. Teachout to prevent her from approaching Mr. Cuomo to say hello during that year’s Labor Day Parade in Manhattan.

PEF had reason to feel good about its endorsement when Ms. Teachout exceeded all expectations in getting 34 percent of the vote in the primary, her earnest-but-insouciant campaign demeanor—asked about the odds against her, she told an interviewer, “I’m playing with house money, honey”—standing in sharp contrast with Mr. Cuomo’s brooding presence. Against a Republican nominee who also suffered, though to a lesser degree, from lack of name recognition and financial backing, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, Mr. Cuomo got 54 percent of the vote in the November election, but that, too, was a disappointing figure that ended any possibility that he would seek the 2016 Democratic nomination for President.

This time around, the CSEA endorsed Mr. Cuomo in early summer after reaching a long-term contract with annual 2-percent raises and no givebacks. And PEF, while it waited until late August to declare its preference for the Governor, had long before that signaled a desire to work with him following a change in its leadership.

Ken Brynien, who was PEF’s president at the time the giveback-laden contract was forced upon him when Mr. Cuomo, in reaction to its initial rejection, threatened to lay off 3,500 of the union’s members, was voted out of office in June 2012, less than three months after injury was added to insult by the adoption of Tier 6 of the pension system. The woman who defeated him, Susan Kent, had campaigned on the pledge that she would take a harder line in dealings with the Governor. But the elation over Ms. Teachout’s surprisingly strong showing after Ms. Kent went out on a limb by making PEF the only public-employee union in the state to endorse her faded as members’ complaints grew about their needs not being addressed by the union.

And Wayne Spence, who had been elected a vice president of PEF as part of Ms. Kent’s slate, in the 2015 election opposed her bid for a second term. One of his key supporters, Usher Piller, told this newspaper’s Mark Toor that Ms. Kent’s firing of 15 veteran managers had cost the union institutional memory, experience and competence, with members who sought help from Ms. Kent being referred back to the union offices that failed to respond to their initial requests.

New Approach to Cuomo

But in gaining the presidency by just 127 votes out of more than 12,000 cast, Mr. Spence made clear he intended to take a less-adversarial stance with the Governor. Six weeks prior to the election, during a PEF debate Mr. Spence questioned the Teachout endorsement at a point when it was clear that Mr. Cuomo would gain re-election, asking, “Can bold and courageous buy you a loaf of bread?”

Once in office, he made clear he would practice the pragmatism that he preached, agreeing to a 2-percent raise that Mr. Brynien had refused to accept as the final year of the rearranged contract reached in 2011. More recently, when Mr. Piller published a letter to the editor in this newspaper criticizing unions including the CSEA and the State AFL-CIO that he accused of “cowering and groveling before their historic tormentor, Andrew Cuomo,” an aide to Mr. Spence expressed anger that Mr. Piller’s identifying himself as Chief Steward of PEF Division 191 might create the impression that he was speaking for the union’s hierarchy.

Mr. Spence dispelled that notion a couple of weeks later by endorsing the Governor. A letter from Mr. Piller that appears in this week’s Chief makes clear his continuing dissent, calling the backing of the Governor by most unions in the state “a betrayal that mocks the travails of our historic battles for worker rights.”

But Mr. Cuomo has never been much on style points, or for that matter, consistency. He shunned labor support in 2010 before assiduously courting unions this time after his disappointing showing four years ago in gaining re-election. He said upon creating a Moreland Commission in June 2013 that it would be authorized to investigate any impropriety in state government, even if it led back to his office, only to shut it down nine months ahead of schedule the following March when panel members seemed to be taking him more literally than he intended. He’s described himself as a micromanager, but professed to be blissfully unaware of the bribery scandal that resulted in Mr. Percoco’s criminal conviction six months ago. And one compelling detail emerged during the trial: that despite his former top aide’s being banned from working in his state office while on leave to run his 2014 campaign, he regularly appeared in his office—which was adjacent to the Governor’s—during that period.

Not Unions’ Problem

Even before Alain Kaloyeros, the former State University of New York Professor Mr. Cuomo placed in charge of the Buffalo Billion economic-development project, was convicted of turning it into a patronage operation in which contributors to the Governor were given preference in the awarding of $850 million in state contracts, union officials had said the corruption uncovered in the Percoco case would not lead them to rethink their political support for the incumbent. They cited his support for workers, in areas from the boost in the minimum wage to the less-contentious bargaining of the past few years, and the law banning public employees who opted not to pay union dues from being able to receive free representation in grievance and disciplinary cases further cemented their support.

And yet Mr. Cuomo, nearly three weeks before the primary—meaning well before anyone figured to focus on his general-election opponent—had run that Aug. 27 Facebook ad stating that Mr. Molinaro was the President’s “puppet” and “just like Trump” on issues including abortion, same-sex marriage and the National Rifle Association. The Republican nominee issued a point-by-point response in which he contended that his position on same-sex marriage “evolved” like that of other public officials, including President Obama and Mr. Cuomo himself. His stance on abortion, while less-nuanced, was not terribly different from that of Mario Cuomo, who said he opposed abortions in principle but supported the law and believed they should be affordable, safe and “rare.”

So why was Mr. Cuomo launching this early strike against someone trailing him by roughly 25 points in the polls? It could be from the abundance of caution he developed after his father lost a bid for a fourth term in 1994 to George Pataki, a suburban candidate who like Mr. Molinaro had a genial personality and was a moderate on some key issues.

The “Cuomo Fatigue” that existed among some voters then was perhaps most-attributable to disillusionment after Mario Cuomo seemed ready to make a run for President in 1992, only to back away on the day he had a plane ready to take him to New Hampshire to enter that state’s primary. Andrew Cuomo may be worried that the force of his personality can have a wearying effect on some voters as he exerts his will over state legislators and maintains a steady feud with Mayor de Blasio. The best thing for him about his recent battles with Mr. Trump is that the President has a personality even more overbearing than his and a character that in comparison makes the Governor look like a knight fighting for honor and justice.

Mr. Molinaro is aiming to break through that noise to establish himself as the man voters should be weighing against the good, bad and ugly sides of the Governor. The biggest obstacle to his repeating the upset Mr. Pataki pulled off may be the baggage he has to carry of a 239-pound President who lies about matters more serious than his weight.

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