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.
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.
In the end, the budget gave de Blasio his universal pre-K program, though not his tax increase, but gutted the mayor's control over charter schools by giving more power to Albany. A win and a loss for the mayor. Cuomo also snubbed the mayor on a relatively minor tweak to a line in the state budget that would have cleared the way for de Blasio's favored homelessness policy.
Then there's the simmering antipathy between Cuomo and the man who took his old job, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The two men have never been allies, but things have gotten more acrimonious as they fight over the $613 million that Schneiderman extracted from JPMorgan Chase in a mortgage-securities settlement. Schneiderman wanted to use the money to prevent foreclosures, while Cuomo saw the AG's move to direct the cash as a power grab, and insisted the money be put in the state's general fund.
But liberals are most angry at Cuomo (whose office did not return requests for comment on this story) for withdrawing his support for ethics reforms that he had long supported, including establishing a public-financing system for elections. Instead of implementing a statewide program, New York is rolling out a pilot that applies to only the comptroller's race, and only for this year. It's a move that many see as an effort to inconvenience another Cuomo frenemy, Democratic Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who might now face a Republican challenger attracted by the prospect of public funding.
"Andrew Cuomo does not play nice with other Democrats," said a New York party operative from the liberal wing who asked that his name not be used.
And then there's the money. Several Democrats who spoke privately to National Journal lamented that Cuomo accepted $87,000 in campaign contributions from David Koch and his wife during the 2010 cycle—more than double the $34,000 that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took. Cuomo has also accepted donations from John Catsimatidis, de Blasio's Republican opponent. And he earned praise and money from Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone, a major GOP donor who started the group Republicans for Cuomo. (Langone recently caught flak for comparing progressives to Nazis.)
This has always been Cuomo's way. In line with other indications that he has presidential ambitions, he has positioned himself as a moderate, skipping most of the 2012 Democratic National Convention and keeping his approval numbers high among New York Republicans (although that effort was hurt recently when he said in a radio interview that "extreme conservatives … have no place" in New York state).
But liberals say Cuomo can only push the boundaries of the term "progressive" so far before the base rebels and he undermines his chances in a potential Democratic primary.
"There's a strong sense among the progressive grassroots that it's just not enough to be really good on gay marriage and abortion rights and guns if your economic philosophy reflects Paul Ryan and the Tea Party," says Brodsky, the former state senator. "And that's what's bubbling to the surface now."