A RUNAWAY COMMISSION, CUOMO STYLE: Governor Cuomo (left) in last-minute maneuvering on the state budget last spring created a State Public Financing Commission that has been used by a close political ally to veer into such unexpected areas as ending fusion voting and quintupling the number of votes political parties must get in gubernatorial races to maintain their ballot lines. While the changes are viewed as an attack on the Working Families Party, State Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Kassar (right) is also suing to block them as violating the state constitution.

Feeling depressed about impeachment hearings that began with a senior diplomat quoting the American Ambassador to the European Union explaining President Trump’s willingness to break the law by coercing the President of Ukraine to probe the conduct of Joe Biden and his son in that nation by saying that Mr. Trump “cares more about the investigations of Biden” than he did the Ukraine?

Consider the more-cheerful news about Governor Cuomo looking to settle scores and perhaps ease his path to a fourth term without having to do anything illegal. Equally heart-warming is that those efforts have produced bipartisan condemnation, in contrast to the us-against-them struggle roiling the halls of Congress.

Never mind that this display of unity involves the leadership of New York’s Conservative and Working Families parties, and to a less-vocal degree, the State Republican Party, rather than a coalition of GOP officials and Democrats. If Mr. Cuomo can bring together those who are further out on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum than the stalwarts of the major parties—and for a good cause—who knows what miracles he might work if he joined Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick by coming out of the bullpen to save the Democrats and their GOP antagonists from the civil war Mr. Trump has predicted if he isn’t still in office in 2021?

A Cuomovellian Kibosh on Fusion?

And don’t get cynical by saying he seems more like a set-up man than a closer. Why begrudge the man the imagination that turned an effort to give the state a campaign-finance system as worthwhile as the city’s into an initiative to kill fusion voting in New York? (While the Governor claimed it was a joint venture with the Democratic leaders of the Assembly and State Senate, the New York Times has reported that Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins privately said it was strictly a Cuomo concoction.)

Consider the deft touch he used to open the door for this to happen despite a decades-old prohibition against the chairs of political parties holding “policy-making” positions within state government. The Governor carved out an exemption as part of the state budget deal last spring, as first reported by the Albany Times Union, with the late tack-on to that document of language creating the Public Financing Commission.

One advantage for those paying attention to the smallest details of the budget in waiting until the deadline or a few hours past to get everything done is that few people are checking the fine print. And so even those who were aware of the commission’s creation were unlikely to have known that language was tucked in that stated those in a “party position” would not be “prohibited or disqualified from serving” as panel members.

This allowed Jay Jacobs, a longtime Cuomo ally who is the Nassau County Democratic Leader and Chairman of the State Democratic Party, to secure a spot on the commission and quickly commandeer its operations. No evidence has emerged that he discussed with the Governor plans to steer the commission off its original course to address fusion voting, but Mr. Cuomo probably figured such a conversation wasn’t needed. Mr. Jacobs has long been on record with his dislike of the concept, which allows a candidate to run on more than one line in a general election.

This gives smaller political parties a significant bargaining chip that can often be cashed in for jobs within any administration of a winning candidate who had their support. The advantage of the additional line to candidates is that it provides them with the votes not only of persons who are members of those parties, but sometimes those belonging to a major party who wouldn’t be caught dead voting for someone on the line of the other major party.

A prime example came in the 1993 city mayoral race, when Democrats who became disaffected with David Dinkins’s leadership but were unwilling to vote for Rudy Giuliani as a Republican were among the 64,469 who opted for him on the Liberal line, in a race that he won by slightly fewer than 54,000 votes.

By that time, the Liberal Party was the source of a political joke that it was neither liberal nor a party, but rather a clearinghouse for patronage jobs. Its leader, Ray Harding, availed himself of some choice spots in the new administration for his adherents and political allies, as well as for two of his sons—one of whom was a capable official who eventually became a Deputy Mayor, while the other began stealing virtually from the time he was named head of the Economic Development Corporation. He eventually went to prison after Mr. Giuliani’s departure from office in 2002 made at least one official initially worried about retaliation for reporting Russell Harding’s misdeeds suddenly more cooperative in exposing his excesses.

Made, Saved Pols’ Careers

There have been times in New York where a third party has launched a political career—or salvaged one. The best-known recent example is Letitia James, who gained a City Council seat in 2003 on the WFP line and last year became the first black woman to be elected State Attorney General while running as both a Democrat and a WFP member, as well as with Independence Party support. She got 38,000 more votes on the WFP line than Mr. Cuomo did, which had at least as much to do with lingering anger toward him that had prompted the party to support Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary two months earlier, only to fall back on supporting the incumbent in the general election to preserve its ballot line after she was persuaded not to run in the general election.

Having the Liberal line in 1969 was the means by which John Lindsay gained a second term as Mayor. A liberal Republican in the mold of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller except that the two men detested each other, he lost the GOP primary to John Marchi, but when the politically conservative Mario Procaccino—who coined the term “limousine liberal” during the general election—captured the Democratic nomination, it meant the major-party nominees were both right-of-center candidates. That allowed Mr. Lindsay to be re-elected in an odyssey that soon led him to change his party affiliation to Democratic.

The following year, the tables were turned in a race for U.S. Senate. After Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968 while running for President, Governor Rockefeller chose U.S. Rep. Charles Goodell, another liberal Republican, to fill out his term. The Democrats nominated Congressman Richard Ottinger, also a liberal, which created an opportunity for James Buckley, best known as the brother of the man considered the founder of the modern American conservative movement, commentator William F. Buckley, running on the Conservative line.

James Buckley got the support of enough conservative Republicans to win election with 39 percent of the vote, two points better than Mr. Ottinger and 15 ahead of Mr. Goodell. As with Mr. Lindsay, it was the last election he would win, being unseated in 1976 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New Deal liberal whose writings on American social mores and work for President Richard Nixon led to his being accused of becoming a neoconservative.

A third-party candidate played a spoiler role in the 1980 U.S. Senate race when longtime Sen. Jacob Javits—another Rockefeller Republican—was defeated in the GOP primary by Al D’Amato, but opted to stay in the race on the Liberal line even though that figured to hurt the chances of the Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was far more in sync with him politically. That logic held up: Mr. Javits got only 11 percent of the vote, despite the curious endorsement of the New York Times, but that translated to 664,544 votes—a total far greater than the 81,000-ballot margin by which Mr. D’Amato defeated Ms. Holtzman.

Dad a Conservative Casualty

A third-party’s role in a political upset that probably has greater resonance for Mr. Cuomo involved the 1994 Governor’s race when his father Mario, seeking a fourth term, was toppled by State Sen. George Pataki. The margin of victory was 124,000 votes; the GOP nominee got 328,605 of his total of 2.5 million on the Conservative line.

Would Andrew Cuomo have wanted the changes proposed by the Public Financing Commission to end fusion voting, require a far-higher threshold than the 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to preserve a party’s automatic ballot line, and compel parties to re-qualify for ballot lines every two years for both gubernatorial and presidential elections as a way of settling two scores—his father’s loss and the WFP’s backing of Ms. Nixon against him in last year’s primary—with one stone?

He is not known as a forgiving kind of guy when it comes to politics. But there was also a pragmatic motive for trying to weaken the WFP. It was created two decades ago to pick up the torch the Liberal Party by then had thrown into a dustbin and push the Democratic Party further to the left in New York. At that time, Democratic leaders from Bill Clinton down had grown increasingly comfortable with Wall Street and real-estate interests willing to fund the campaigns of those who were theoretically left of center but willing to leave them alone. In New York, it was also a point when the State Republican Party was losing its mojo. That metamorphosis was embodied by Chuck Schumer’s defeat of Mr. D’Amato in the 1998 U.S. Senate race.

Mr. Cuomo was first elected Governor in 2010, helped so much by hedge-fund operators and others in New York’s financial community that he actually shunned union endorsements while styling himself as a different kind of Democrat. In 2011, he essentially wiped out a $10-billion state budget deficit on the backs of state workers by using the threat of nearly 10,000 layoffs to force the two-largest state-employee unions to swallow a three-year wage freeze, employee furloughs, and sizable increases in workers’ contributions to their health coverage. The following March, he pushed through the Legislature a stringent pension tier for future public workers known as Tier 6 less than three years after Gov. David Paterson at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s urging had implemented Tier 5.

Political Winds Shifted

But being labeled “Governor One Percent” by Occupy Wall Street stung him politically, and his decision in early 2013 to push through the State Legislature tougher gun-control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre at a Connecticut elementary school the previous December cost him some of his conservative support, which forced him to swing back toward the left as he prepared for re-election in 2014.

A Times story on the Public Financing Commission in late September stated that “Mr. Jacobs and other allies of Mr. Cuomo have suggested that third parties befoul the political process by essentially giving their lines to whatever candidate best assures their viability.”

Either ironically or perversely, depending on your level of cynicism, the best supporting evidence they could offer of that involves the WFP’s 2014 decision to shift its endorsement to the Governor after having pledged its allegiance to Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University Law Professor with an expertise in government corruption. Mayor de Blasio, who had taken his lumps from Mr. Cuomo earlier that year on matters including charter schools and his determination to fund universal all-day pre-kindergarten with a tax on the wealthy (Mr. Cuomo forced him to give ground on finding space for charters and funded a somewhat-less-ambitious pre-k effort with state money rather than raising taxes in an election year for state officials) sought to make peace by securing him the WFP’s ballot line.

The party set conditions, foremost among them that the Governor join the effort led by the Mayor to switch control of the State Senate to Democrats by campaigning for party nominees in several toss-up elections in the suburbs and upstate. Mr. Cuomo, a man who prefers being the squeezer rather than the squeezed, accepted the nomination via a video that was likened to a hostage tape.

Exceeded Expectations

In the primary, Ms. Teachout, though greatly outspent and relatively unknown, proved a vibrant-enough candidate that she got 182,000 votes, laying waste to any fears the WFP had that if she had been its nominee in the general election, it might not have gotten the 50,000 needed to retain its ballot line. Ms. Teachout exceeded all expectations by getting 34 percent of the vote, no thanks to the party that originally wanted her on its ticket.

That embarrassment was not enough for Mr. Cuomo: he proceeded to do as little as possible to flip the Senate that November, allowing the GOP to maintain narrow control with the aid of a power-sharing alliance with breakaway Democrats.

The WFP got its revenge, to a degree, in last year’s Senate contests, as it supported challengers to all eight members of the by-then-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, six of whom were defeated in the primaries. But the Governor had already pressured most of the unions that remained key WFP supporters into withdrawing financial and political backing by warning that those who stuck with the party would find him a hard man to reach in the future.

The more-leftist tilt of Senate Democrats in the election gave them a clear majority, and the rise of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a force in state as well as national politics forced Mr. Cuomo to go along with changes, particularly in the criminal-justice system, that he wouldn’t have sought on his own. And while he has adapted in part by taking a strong stance against President Trump, others within the party would like to push it further left than he would prefer, to the point where he is in danger of increasingly diverging from his centrist course.

And so the Public Financing Commission could be seen as a way of his reasserting control of the direction the state takes. His opponents, however, view it as a power grab that they argue violates the state’s constitution. And those challenging the changes come from both sides of the spectrum, with the charge led by those most unlikely of political bedfellows, the WFP and the Conservative Party.

Jacobs: I’d Compromise

During an interview on “Inside City Hall” earlier this fall, Mr. Jacobs said his proposal of a 250,000-vote threshold was not intended to be definitive but a conversation-starter. He was willing to go lower, he said, but he believed that 50,000 was too easy a target to hit to be useful in determining which third parties had enough support to warrant a continuous ballot line.

It happened that during last year’s election, Mr. Cuomo’s Republican challenger, Marc Molinaro, got 253,624 votes on the Conservative line among his total of 2.2 million despite, like past opponents of the Governor, being at a huge disadvantage in terms of campaign funds and name recognition. But if his winding up on the plus side of the 250,000-vote threshold floated by Mr. Jacobs was supposed to ensure that Conservatives would decide the change was the worry of the WFP and other smaller parties, the Democratic chairman miscalculated.

The Conservative Party, as well as the State Republican Party, joined the WFP in suing to block the commission’s attempt to eliminate fusion voting. Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Kassar said in a Nov. 14 phone interview that a motion to dismiss their case had been denied, and the parties were due back in court Dec. 12.

A month earlier, he had objected to Mr. Jacobs having pressured Democratic Party subordinates to show up at hearings to support him on both ending fusion voting and raising the threshold for parties retaining their ballot lines, changes the lawsuit contends could only be effected by the State Legislature. At that time, Mr. Kassar also noted in a statement that fusion voting, while in effect in just seven other states (including California and Connecticut), “was enacted in the early 20th Century by good-government organizations to help combat endemic corruption in Tammany Hall Democratic politics, and it has thrice been upheld as constitutional by state courts.”

When I asked if he believed Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Cuomo were primarily intent on taking out the WFP and would have viewed any negative impact on the Conservative Party as just collateral damage, Mr. Kassar said the raised voting threshold would be the lesser of two evils.

Fusion Wipeout Hurts More

“It would hurt us very badly if they did away with fusion voting,” he said. “We’re part of a third-party movement. We believe the two major parties are limited in their ability to emphasize certain views and philosophies” that chunks of their memberships might view as too far from the mainstream.

And, he added, just as some voters registered as either Democrats or Republicans would prefer crossing over to a third-party line than to vote on the one they’ve always regarded as antagonistic to their aspirations, “We do believe there’s an additional attraction to some people in voting Conservative rather than Republican.”

As evidence, he noted that while the party’s state membership is 148,000, up 1,000 from a year ago, Mr. Molinaro on the Conservative line got more than 105,000 votes above the registered number.

As to the higher vote threshold and Mr. Jacobs’s claim that he was willing to consider something less dramatic than quintupling the existing minimum, Mr. Kassar said that while a case might be made for something higher, “We had no issue with the 50,000. The status quo is fine with us.”

WFP State Chairman Bill Lipton took a more-partisan view of what the Campaign Financing Commission had put forward, saying in a Nov. 13 statement, “Democratic and progressive forces should be united to help the Senate Democrats gain a veto-proof two-thirds majority; instead we’re seeing proposals from the Governor that blatantly help elect Republicans.”

Regarding the requirement that parties qualify for the ballot every two years in both the presidential and gubernatorial elections, Mr. Lipton continued, “No other state in the union requires parties to re-qualify for the ballot every two years in both [contests]. This is a naked attempt by the Governor to kill the WFP’s line before he runs in 2022.”

High Gullibility Quotient

When Mr. Cuomo was asked in late September during an interview on Albany’s WAMC radio about the suspicion he wanted to politically destroy the WFP, he replied, “Yeah, I know. And people think there’s still a Santa Claus and people believe in the Easter Bunny.”

Of course, those true believers are not likely to have a clear understanding of fusion voting. And while the Governor has been called many names, from “a monkey” by recently retired Civil Service Employees Association President Danny Donohue in the days before Mr. Cuomo decided it was time to become a friend of labor, to his own declaration that “I am the state,” no one has mistaken him for Saint Nick.

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