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'Classic Cuomo:' NY governor's role in averting rail strike furthers pragmatic reputation

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, left, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast, right, flank New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a news conference after a tentative Long Island Rail Road labor agreement was reached, at the New York office of Gov. Cuomo, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Eight unions representing 5,400 LIRR workers had threatened to strike this weekend unless an agreement was reached. The workers had been seeking a new deal since 2010. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, left, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast, right, flank New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a news conference after a tentative Long Island Rail Road labor agreement was reached, at the New York office of Gov. Cuomo, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Eight unions representing 5,400 LIRR workers had threatened to strike this weekend unless an agreement was reached. The workers had been seeking a new deal since 2010. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

ALBANY, N.Y. - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's work to avert a strike on the nation's largest commuter rail system won praise from commuters and political observes alike — while playing nicely into his aggressively cultivated image as a pragmatist skilled at managing chaos.

The Democratic governor intervened Wednesday night, just days before a threatened strike on the Long Island Rail Road was set to paralyze the New York City metropolitan area. The deal he announced Thursday will give workers 17 per cent raises over six and a half years but also require them to contribute to their health insurance costs for the first time. It won't require a fare hike.

"I'm glad he stepped up and stepped in to stand up for the people," commuter Jeff Rothfield told The Associated Press. "It doesn't change my opinion of him. I'd like to think everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing."

The story of Cuomo intervening at the last minute to head off calamity is becoming a familiar one to observers of the governor. He brokered a deal in April to end a labour dispute between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its bus and subway drivers, and then hammered out a compromise on medical marijuana in the final days of this year's legislative session.

Believed to have presidential ambitions, Cuomo has promoted a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator more interested in results than ideology.

A crippling strike — or a deal that resulted in higher fares — would have tarnished that image, said Peter Salins, a political science professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

"He made the strike — which would have been a nightmare — go away," Salins said. "In the short-term it's clearly a win for the governor and for Long Island commuters."

Not everyone was impressed. Republican gubernatorial candidate and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, had called on Cuomo, who is up for re-election, to get involved in the negotiations earlier this week, but on Thursday dismissed his efforts as "political theatre."

"It's classic Cuomo to jump in and take credit ... turning a serious strike threat into a political sideshow," Astorino said.

Formerly a Republican stronghold, Long Island has emerged as a pivotal political battleground. Cuomo enjoys a commanding lead in the polls and in fundraising over Astorino and hopes to win by huge margins — a feat that will require Long Island's support.

"I think people will look at him more favourably," said Tamara Landis, who said she is unemployed and that a rail strike would have made it harder to look for jobs. "They will say 'OK. He stepped in and prevented this from happening.'"

Another Long Island commuter, William McGuire wasn't so sure.

"Is he just taking credit?" he said, before sprinting to catch his train. "Is he up for re-election soon?"

_____

Blinder reported from New York City.

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