Governor Cuomo’s decision to take the State of the State on a road trip out of the Capital should not be a surprise to anyone. A persistent and reasonable desire to control the story line accompanied by a nagging need “to do something different,” is something most administrations eventually contend. A need made ever more urgent as the years pass. More importantly though, traditionally the State of the State was a fundamentally uncomfortable experience for an Executive…after all it’s one of the few places they have zero control over. You are a guest in the Speaker’s house.
During the Pataki years we had to negotiate with Speaker Silver over everything — from what time the Governor could use the chamber to practice, to how many seats we were given for our guests, to what the signage at the lectern looked like. You don’t control the cameras or the security and run the high risk that between nosy reporters and gabby operatives you will read about your initiatives before the Governor ever gets to the podium. (We would typically omit key announcements from rehearsal drafts.) And this was before everyone from the 3rd grade up had a cell phone that took HD video.
Most of all the setting ensures that the Legislature, the Comptroller, the Attorney General and the Judiciary are presented as co-equals in government. The cramped venue, the brightly lit chamber allows the Legislature and other constitutional office holders to be real actors in the play. They can clap wildly, sit stoically and yes, they might even stand awkwardly behind you. They can boo, walk out or shout interruptions — their reaction is on display to be recorded and dissected in real-time, all in Technicolor. Finally, there is little that can be done with trickery or sleight of hand through the magic of technology. There are only two ways in and out of the place, no Powerpoint, no JibJab visual aids (thank God) – so you are stuck delivering a speech, hemmed in on all sides by people who don’t necessarily share your agenda. I’m sure for Cuomo the thought of it must feel like the Alamo today. (Save he wouldn’t need to worry what Kathy Hochul is doing behind him on the rostrum.)
So while, it’s the Governor’s play, it’s the Assembly’s stage. For the Executive it’s like throwing a party in someone else’s house and that someone just might be itching for a fight.
That was a big reason why in 1996 we took the budget presentation to the Egg. That was our house. We controlled the audience, the seating, all the stagecraft. Go to the tape –it’s easier to control the outburst of a Charles Barron in the Egg then it is of the late Tony Seminerio in the Assembly chamber. And if legislators didn’t want to clap for our initiatives — we packed more than enough of our own people in the place to make noise. It was in many ways our State of the State…after the State of the State.
I can confess over the years several of us staffers (me included) would propose to Governor Pataki that he take the State of the State on the road…for many of the same kind of reasons it’s happening today. Let me tell you over 12 years it’s hard to keep it fresh. And while the political instincts of George Pataki told him it was probably a good idea to take the message to the people, the former state Senator and Assemblyman ultimately held the tradition in higher regard. While Governor Pataki often warred with the Legislative leaders and ultimately struck the most important check on their authority in Silver v. Pataki — as a former member there was always a level of respect and camaraderie held with much of the rank and file.
At the heart of the issue today isn’t really where on the map the State of the State will be given, it’s what’s the future of Governor Cuomo’s relationship with the Legislature. He has the constitutional tools to run rough shod over a divided Legislature – but by alienating them he is pushing them together and together, they can disrupt his agenda. Taking the State of the State show on the road might be the right short-term political move, but long-term it might be one of those road trips you wish you hadn’t taken.