Why New York Democrats Have Turned Against Andrew Cuomo

After initial moves on gun control and gay marriage, the governor is drawing fire for not taking up more progressive stands.
Mike Segar/Reuters

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo once earned plaudits from liberals for his tough talk on gun control and success in legalizing gay marriage in the state. But, lately, he's found no shortage of frenemies to his left.

In the past month, liberal protesters outside Cuomo's office have dubbed him "Governor 1 Percent"; a prominent progressive activist has suggested that he run for reelection as a Republican; the head of a major labor union has called for someone to challenge the governor in the Democratic primary; and a series of behind-the-scenes feuds between Cuomo and other top Democratic officials have spilled out into public view.

The proximal cause for the infighting during an election year, when parties typically put aside their internal differences, is the state's recently concluded, highly contentious budget process, which ended many Democrats' hopes for sweeping ethics reforms this year. On fiscal policy, Cuomo aides insist the budget is "very progressive," but the labor-backed Working Families Party, which endorsed the governor in 2010, is reconsidering its support this year, saying that Cuomo "chose inequality over progress."

Behind the scenes, however, tensions have been building for years.

"This is not a minor shift, but it comes after a slow burn that started in 2010 ... and finally just exploded in the past week and a half," says Bill Samuels, a New York City Democratic fundraiser and activist. "There was probably no one who liked Andrew better than me.…. He lost most of us permanently. And I mean permanently. I don't have one friend who is a Cuomo supporter."

At its root, much of the animosity lies in some Democrats' suspicion that Cuomo is not really one of them. Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic state senator who is now a senior fellow at the think tank Demos, has dubbed Cuomo's worldview "progractionary"—a mix of "progressive" and "reactionary." On social issues, the governor is a textbook liberal, but on economics, he's embraced tax cuts and is skeptical of labor unions.

"At a time when the national Democratic Party seems to be moving in the direction of [focusing on] income inequality and fair taxation, Governor Cuomo is moving in the opposite direction," Brodsky says.

Against this backdrop, there was bound to be conflict between Cuomo and New York City's new mayor, who struck an emphatically populist tone in his campaign. Days after Bill de Blasio's inauguration, an education-policy battle erupted that typifies the opposing wings of the party the two men represent. De Blasio wanted to fund a universal prekindergarten program with tax increases on the wealthy and to rein in some of the city's charter schools; Cuomo vociferously opposes tax hikes and is a staunch defender of alternative public education.

Tensions came to a head when each politician mustered his own army in Albany on the same late-March day. De Blasio spoke in front of a rally in support of his pre-K plan, while Cuomo spoke to an even larger rally nearby to protest de Blasio's perceived hostility to charter schools. The New York Times later revealed that Cuomo had worked behind the scenes to help orchestrate the counter-rally. 

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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