Cuomo must now govern with a Democratic coalition that views him warily—and, in some cases, with outright hostility. “I think the governor and many members of the legislature understand that there’s a wave of anger and activism that is coming to the fore from people who are disgusted about what’s happening to our democracy. They want to see real action and real change,” said Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, which backed Nixon before striking a grudging truce with Cuomo after the primary.
When Jessica Ramos, an incoming state senator and progressive who ousted an incumbent Democrat in a Queens primary, described how she’d work with Cuomo, she sounded as if she considered him a member of the opposition. “This is about fixing New York on every single level,” she told me in an interview. “So I am going to be standing up to the governor when he is wrong, and I’ll be working with him when we find common ground.”
To the chagrin of progressives, Cuomo thrived in the previously divided government. He drove the legislative agenda, claiming credit for deals he struck with Republicans while putting the onus on the GOP for promises that weren’t enacted.
With Democrats in power, he won’t have that luxury. And in the heady days after their election win, some were whispering that the governor might even take a backseat to the legislature, which could force his hand by passing progressive bills and daring him to veto them. In an interview, Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, scoffed at the suggestion, pointing to his landslide victory as a clear mandate from New York voters for him to lead. “That’s a lot of bluster and a lot of empty rhetoric,” DeRosa said. “I challenge someone to talk about a bill where the governor isn’t going to want to sign it.”
Yet Cuomo has moved aggressively to set priorities for the state before the new Democratic majority in the legislature even takes office. In a speech outlining his 2019 agenda on Monday, the governor wrapped himself in the activist legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Founding Fathers. With rhetorical flourish, he called for New York to lead “a rebellion” against the “tyranny” of the Trump administration. “As our forefathers rebelled against England, resenting the king’s values and abuse, let us announce New York’s rebellion from the current federal policies,” Cuomo declared. “My friends, let this agenda be New York’s Declaration of Independence. We declare independence from this federal government’s policies. We disconnect from the nationalism, and the racism, and the chaos, and the xenophobia, and the misogyny, and the discrimination, and the dissembling of this Washington administration.”
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It all sounded like the makings of a presidential pitch—except that Cuomo, unlike practically every other big-name Democrat, has repeatedly disavowed interest in joining the crowded 2020 field. “I am ruling it out,” Cuomo said in late November, sticking to a pledge he made during the campaign.