John DeFrancisco

'Andrew thinks he already is president of the United States'

John DeFrancisco on Gov. Cuomo, the subways and economic development

State Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco announced on Tuesday that he would run for governor, becoming the third Republican planning to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo. DeFrancisco, who represents a Syracuse-area district, is arguably the most prominent candidate in a race that also includes Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra. He is known for speaking his mind, and he has been openly critical of Cuomo’s policies, particularly regarding the Regional Economic Development Councils. In a wide-ranging interview with City & State's Grace Segers, DeFrancisco discussed his policy proposals, his plan to fix the subways and why he is the candidate who can beat Cuomo.

C&S: You've been publicly mulling a gubernatorial bid for a while. Was there any one factor that pushed you to make the decision to run?

JD: First of all, I wanted to make sure that I was in a position to believe I had a reasonable shot for the nomination, so I was running around the state speaking with various committee people and delegates to the ultimate convention that selects the candidate. Secondly, I wanted to make sure I could get a group in place that knew what they were doing statewide, and I was reasonably sure about that. But really the triggering force was both the governor's State of the State, but mostly his budget presentation. It just seemed to me that when we're in a deficit situation, people are leaving the state – more leaving than coming in – you don't continue to raise taxes, or in his language, have $1 billion of "revenue enhancers.” So, to me, it became obvious that nothing was going to change and we really needed a fundamental change in the state.

C&S: You've voted for the governor's budgets before, despite concerns that you've had. So was this year's budget just a bridge too far for you?

JD: No, there's been bridges too far in the past. But when you're a member of a conference, and you're trying to get the best possible deal you can, and when there's a budget that's mostly provided in one budget bill, which includes school aid, which includes health funding, which includes everything, basically, the important things in the budget – if a couple of bad things are in the budget, you've got to decide whether you vote for it as a whole, or you hold out to get a better deal and have a late budget.

What I've tried to do is fight for what I thought was right for the budget, up to the point where you've got to make a final decision. You've got to make a final decision as to whether make the late budget or stop government, or go forward and get the best deal you could. And that's why I voted for the budgets in the past. And one of the reasons, quite frankly, that I'm running for governor is I just felt that trying to change things at the edges of the budget, or trying to stop things that you think should not happen, is not going to make fundamental change. You can make incremental change, but not fundamental change. But to really change the direction, you really have to do it from the top, because the governor really sets the agenda, the governor has the most authority on the budget.

C&S: You have a bit of a reputation for speaking your mind on the Senate floor. Do you think your personality will set you apart from the pack?

JD: I don't mince my words, I say what's on my mind, no matter who I'm offending or who I'm making happy. And with Gov. Cuomo, he's the type of individual who seems to bully people into what they want to do. Well, that's not going to happen with me. And when you have someone who has that strong ego, and has the arrogance of the governor, basically you've got to go right at him, and be in the position to say what's true and not true, and to challenge him when he's wrong. And I've never had a problem doing that in my life and it won't be a problem doing it now. (The) New York Times labeled me when my name first popped up as "an irascible straight shooter." And I think that's basically the opposite of Andrew Cuomo, who blames everybody – in this year's budget, it was the federal government. This is a person who never seems to take responsibility, like blaming the subway problem on Bill de Blasio rather than himself. You've got to tell things the way they are, or just talk straight, rather than calling these new taxes and fees "budget enhancers." You know, don't talk in code. You should talk directly people and explain what you're doing.

C&S: You mentioned the feud between Cuomo and de Blasio. How would you address the subway crisis if you were elected governor?

JD: You've got to work with people. To me, talking to people makes a lot of sense. Although it's on a much smaller scale, in Syracuse, New York, the mayor of the city of Syracuse was Stephanie Miner. And she's as progressive as Bill de Blasio is. But we always had a wonderful working relationship. We agree when we can agree, and we help each other when we can help each other. That's the approach you've got to take with Bill de Blasio or anybody else who you may have some philosophical differences with.

As far as the subway situation, we blew an opportunity several years ago. The $11 billion we got in all these bank litigation settlements should have been used for infrastructure, since those billions aren't coming in every year. Well, the governor decided to use them for his economic development programs and the like. He missed an opportunity.

So now we're behind the eight ball. What do you do? I've had a bill for at least three or four years now. I started it with (former) Assemblyman Brennan from the city. We have different philosophical differences, but I thought we needed more funding for upstate transit, and he felt that the MTA was in dire need of help. And we put a bill together – it hasn't passed yet, but I still keep introducing it – which would dedicate a portion of the income tax revenue in the state of New York directly to transportation, including the MTA and the transportation authorities upstate. Now, if you're going to use a dedicated fund out of income tax, then obviously that income tax is not going to be usable for something else, so what do you do? Well, you've got to look at the entire government and see where savings can be made. It's impossible in my mind to believe that with $168 billion budget, that there's not waste, that there's not things that could be eliminated, and there's not cost savings that could be made.

C&S: You've been critical of Cuomo's economic development policies. Is there anything related to those policies that you would want to reverse or repair?

JD: When the regional economic development councils were first put in place, I thought that was a great idea, because the point is that the locals should have input on where the economic development money that they're going to get. That's the theory, and that's what the governor continues to say is what happens in economic development with the regions.

Quite frankly, it's not happening that way. I'm the Senate member of the Central New York region, and a couple years ago we had the Hunger Games. Well, that year we won that Hunger Games, and we won $500 million. But before the ink was dry on the award, the governor pulled out $90 million, and put it in a building that the state built for a LED lighting company named Soraa. And no one on the council, including the chairpeople on the council, knew anything about it. So there goes the concept that it's regionally driven. The governor used the money for whatever he wanted, he made the final decision on everything. Well, the building's been built, it's in my district. And what happens? The company decides they're not going to come, for whatever reason. And there's nothing preventing them from leaving, there was no penalties whatsoever. So in my district we have a $90 million building that's empty. And interestingly enough, that's one of the buildings wherein the corruption trial that's going on right now – that's the project that resulted in charges of corruption.

Well, it gets worse. A few weeks ago, the governor says, "We've got someone new to run that plant, but we've got to give them $15 million for equipment." Well, I did some checking, it turns out the CEO of the company that they want to give $15 million for to take over that plant was a CEO of a different company that promised hundreds of jobs in Rochester about three years ago. Well, fortunately the money was never given to him, because his company went bankrupt. Now he's got a new company named NexGen, and they're going to take a chance with this individual to give him $15 million when he walked away on another project. So, there's no logic. There's no economic sense. There's no protection to the taxpayers. And when you add in the trial that's going on right now, which surrounded that same project, something's got to change. And the only way it's going to change is with somebody new in that office.

C&S: You're a little bit behind on fundraising; Cuomo has amassed quite the war chest. How will you try to catch up to him in fundraising?

JD: I fortunately did not have serious contenders over the last several years, and in my Senate campaign I was able to bank about $1.5 million. Now that's a far cry from $31 million, but it's a start. My philosophy is basically this – some things are difficult, but if they're the right thing to do, you've got to do it. Otherwise, Gov. Cuomo would be a monarch in the state of New York. He amasses enough money, he gets no opponents, and he ends up staying indefinitely or as long as he wants.

I think once the momentum starts rolling, then you're going to be able to raise some money. I liken it to Mario Cuomo, who got beaten by an unknown George Pataki. It's quite an analogy. Mario Cuomo was being talked about for president of the United States, but the only difference with Andrew, Andrew thinks he already is president of the United States. Plus, we had deficits back then, people were leaving back then, people are leaving the state more than they're coming in right now. And the campaign back then – George Pataki, I remember vividly, was "Anybody But Cuomo." That anybody happened to be George Pataki. Ultimately, that anybody this time around is me.

C&S: Are you concerned about being tied to the national Republican Party, especially when Trump is so deeply unpopular in New York state?

JD: The people that know me know that I speak what I believe in, and I don't believe in everything that Donald Trump has done, nor do I believe in everything that he says. But on the other hand, I believe it's going to be difficult, because obviously this is a deeply blue state. All I can ask people to realize that this is a campaign for the future of the state of New York, and if there's a candidate that you think believes in the same things you believe in, I would hope that everybody's feelings about national politics do not cloud the need for change in the state of New York.

C&S: We have not had a governor from upstate in a long time. How will you try to appeal to citizens from all over the state, but especially downstate, where you may not have the name recognition?

JD: I think the feelings of the residents of the City of New York are also feelings of frustration and almost desperation, and the perfect example is the subways. I've been involved with the issue of transportation, and I know that funding is essential. I know that you just don't pass the blame to a mayor. You try to assist because you are appointing the chairman of the MTA as governor. So, how will I appeal to them? I'll just remind them of the summer of hell, which will probably be another summer from hell next year. If you want someone who doesn't tell you the truth, who squanders big settlement dollars away on things other than infrastructure, and then when things go good – like the 2nd Ave. Subway – you take all the kudos for it and you preen for the cameras when that opens and then ignore the responsibility and blame it on de Blasio. That isn't the way I'd do business. So, that's a huge issue in the City of New York, but there's other issues like that, where people do believe that there's need for a change.

NEXT STORY: Jeff Klein, the chess master