No Country For Red Men

In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again.

Cuomo, Part Deux, presents the Executive Budget for NYS

Governor Cuomo contributed another brief chapter in dealing with what for centuries has been known as the “Indian Problem.” Frustrated by the rise in the Indian tobacco trade on tribal territories within New York and the state’s inability to collect taxes on this increasingly profitable enterprise, Cuomo took action and attempted to force tax collection on reservation tobacco sales—and ran into a brick wall of defiance.

No, you didn’t miss something in the first 100 days of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. This was the 1990s under Gov. Cuomo of the Mario persuasion. But the former governor’s son has already taken his first step toward renewing this practice, by including $130 million presumptive tax dollars from taxes on Indian cigarettes in this year’s budget. Never mind the fact he is relying on reports from a department that acknowledges that 70 percent of what would be considered “bootleg” cigarettes—cigarettes purchased outside of, but consumed within, New York State—come from states bordering New York and Canada. The capriciousness of the $130 million estimate is even more suspect considering that “expert” testimony at various hearings over the years have placed the number anywhere between $65 million and $1.6 billion.

No matter how the state arrives at its figures, by inserting any number into the budget Andrew Cuomo has picked up where his father, and several others, left off.

In the waning days of Mario Cuomo’s administration, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the court’s 1994 decision in a case called Milhem Attea & Bros., granting individual states the right to collect taxes on cigarettes sold to non-natives on reservation territory throughout the United States. With the so-called collection authority in place from the highest court in our land, the issue of enforcement was left to the individual states to pursue. This is where it got ugly.

After an unsuccessful attempt to force Indian tobacco retailers to open their books and provide sales figures and tax revenue to New York, the state established a coupon system whereby taxes would be applied at the wholesale level and collected in advance. Trying to coordinate this effort between manufacturers, wholesalers and individual tribal retailers and the violent reaction it stirred in Indian Country—the Seneca Nation in particular—led the governor to institute a policy of forbearance. Forbearance is another way of saying “even though I think I’m right, it’s the next guy’s problem.” The issue was essentially too complex and heated to pursue, so Cuomo punted and passed the buck to the following administration.

CLICK HERE TO READ PRESS COVER STORY ABOUT CIGARETTE TAX DISPUTE BETWEEN U.S. AND INDIAN COUNTRY

Gov. George Pataki took up the fight during his first term in office, and was met with amplified defiance from Seneca that set the new administration back on its heels. Pataki too went “four and out” and punted.

Insert “Gov. Eliot Spitzer” and “Gov. David Paterson” into the paragraph above as they both attempted to traverse this well-worn path with no success. Every governor since Mario Cuomo, once learning the nuance of policy as it relates to tribal land and sovereign rights, winds up hiding behind the policy of forbearance. Last year state Sens. Craig Johnson (gone), Carl Kruger (indicted), Pedro Espada (indicted), and Assembs. Richard Brodsky (gone) and Michael Benjamin (gone) shook their fists at hearings and press conferences urging Paterson to step up to the plate and take on New York’s tribes.

But that was so 2010. In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again. My father is fond of the phrase “every 100 years, all new people.” The more you think about that phrase the more freeing, or paralyzing, it is. For Indians it’s more like “every 10 years, all new politicians.”

I bring this up now because Andrew Cuomo is by all accounts an extremely bright guy with a long memory; a bright guy who undoubtedly understands the intricate and delicate relationship with tribal nations in New York better than any governor that came before him, his father included. He has the benefit of an institutional knowledge his father had to acquire on the job and the added bonus of witnessing each successive governor fail with respect to imposing taxes on cigarettes sold on reservation land.

Given these circumstances, quietly inserting $130 million in tax dollars is more than a warning shot. It marks the beginning of yet another skirmish in a long, tiresome and 400-year war against the indigenous people of this nation.

Jay Jacobs Takes New York … and Probably Wants To Give It Back

New York Democratic Leadership. The blind leading the .... Oh wait.

New York State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs can file this election cycle under the heading of “Be Careful What You Wish For.” When his ticket was punched to move up the ladder of Democratic leaders in the state before the last election, the world he was leaving behind in Nassau County was fairly stable. Then Tom Suozzi, the horse Jacobs rode in on to become the local leader, was summarily dismissed and the Nassau Democratic machine came to a screeching halt. The rest of the state, as it turned out, wasn’t far behind.

With the Nassau stronghold severely crippled, Jacobs walked into even greater chaos with the state Democrats eating their young and staging leadership coups left and right. He went from managing the follies of Roger Corbin to dealing with scandals involving Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate. Moreover he found himself defending Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment after the Caroline Kennedy debacle and the plummeting numbers of a sitting governor who was never elected.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of a national backlash against sitting Democrats everywhere. Whew. It’s times like these that probably make Jacobs wish he could enroll in one of his own sleep-away camps and disappear for what looks to be a miserable summer.

His biggest challenge will undoubtedly be the gubernatorial race this fall. That is to say that Sen. Chuck Schumer is as much of a lock as any incumbent could be. That is not to say, however, that Republican Bruce Blakeman couldn’t pull off an upset against Gillibrand when no one is looking. And of course that’s also assuming that Harold Ford doesn’t throw the junior Senate seat into a complete circus for the Dems in the primary as well. The only absolute situation is the conundrum that Jacobs finds himself in while tethered to an unpopular incumbent governor who refuses to throw in the towel.

Regardless of your opinion of Gov. David Paterson, it’s fairly clear that the Democratic establishment from President Obama down clearly wishes he would step aside and allow Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to assume the mantel of Democratic candidate for governor. If Paterson stepped down it frees up Jacob’s chess board significantly. Not only would it allow him to run Cuomo for governor and access his vaunted legacy and war chest, but he could then tap into his home town stable and run Kathleen Rice for attorney general. But Cuomo can ill afford to be viewed as the repeat-offender white candidate looking to supplant the favored African-American candidate. He is still smarting from the primary against then-Comptroller Carl McCall, the African-American candidate for governor in 2002.

For his part, Cuomo has opted for complete radio silence, thereby allowing Paterson the space to implode on his own. The problem is that Paterson appears to only be emboldened as support from inside his own party continues to rapidly wane. Given the political lifetime that exists between now and the election in November, the ironic position of the outsider-incumbent could theoretically work in Paterson’s favor. More than ever, the Democratic Party under Jacobs requires a Herculean effort to negotiate a united transitional front in this upcoming election. Yet with every passing day this seems less likely to happen.

Economic conditions in New York State would need to be rebounding heartily coming out of the summer months to quell the voter discontent exhibited this past November and in special elections throughout the country since that time. Voter turnout will be mission critical on both sides, which proved to be a weakness for the Democrats under Jacobs in the last cycle. While no one questions his political acumen and fundraising prowess, the mess that is New York may be entirely too deep for Jacobs to escape unscathed in 2010. Regardless of the political moves Jacobs may want to make this summer to cement his candidate list, Paterson is in control of the board right now. And that means by August we may indeed be peeking under the bunks at Timber Lake Camp to find Jay Jacobs.