Cuomo Talks A Progressive Game, But Democrats In Power Is His Worst Nightmare


When Andrew Cuomo wants to make a point, he usually goes to the Javits Center. He blares Springsteen, unfurls the American flags, and tells the loyal unions to pack in their bodies. Officials rotate in and out, but it’s the Cuomo show: Onstage, you can almost hear the echoes of his father, the superior orator, but the inferior doer.

Tuesday’s Javits Center excursion (bad weather had forced the rally from Washington Square Park) for Cuomo, the Democratic governor, kicked off a new effort sure to be spun as an act of Democratic heroism by people who don’t know much better. Discovering his inner liberal, Cuomo is launching a campaign to oust all the Republican members of Congress in New York State. This is something he never bothered to try to do before, but Donald Trump is now president and a couple of Republicans upstate have really pissed him off. That part is clear.

Cuomo assailed Republicans for “defrauding the voters” and “violating” their oaths of office. He promised Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who introduced him, that New York will “fight to take back America.” His rhetoric was sweeping enough. The members of organized labor bused to the convention center dutifully cheered.

The “New York Fights Back” rally conveniently ignores the Democratic fight that matters more, and the one Cuomo could tilt if he ever wanted to. While turning the entire House delegation blue would undercut the Republican majority in Washington and return more New York–friendly lawmakers to power, it’s the state legislature that impacts the lives of people here far more. A Democratic state senate would, on the whole, be a lot better for Cuomo’s hometown of New York City, the state’s unquestioned economic superpower and the source of much of its tax revenue. Were Cuomo a different governor or different man, he would recognize this fact and act accordingly.

But only extraordinary circumstances or lots of political pressure will ever compel Cuomo to stage a rally in a convention center for state senate Democrats, who once again hold a numerical majority but sit in the minority, thanks to an eight-member breakaway group known as the Independent Democratic Conference and one conservative Democrat, Simcha Felder, who caucuses with the Republicans. The IDC has shared power with the Republican majority since 2013 and argues it’s needed to stem dysfunction in the upper chamber and curb the most retrograde tendencies of conservative Republicans. Piggybacking on progressive victories achieved by Cuomo’s strong-arming and powerful labor unions like 1199SEIU, the IDC takes credit for hiking the state’s minimum wage, with many caveats, to $15 an hour, and helping secure state funding for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal prekindergarten initiative, among other things. All could have happened with a Democratic majority, and the GOP in New York would be truly moribund without the IDC.

What can Cuomo do to change this state of affairs? As the most powerful official in the state by far, he can apply significant pressure on the IDC to partner with Democrats or dissolve altogether. He can spend a portion of his massive campaign war chest, now approaching $22 million, on senate Democratic races next year. He can command unions to stop bankrolling Republicans.

Cuomo has long been lukewarm to the idea of Democrats, particularly liberals from the five boroughs, controlling the state legislature. The state assembly is dominated by New York City Democrats — it’s in that chamber that lofty and worthy goals like single-payer health care and campaign finance reform are passed with ease — and the senate, for decades, has been the bastion of suburban and upstate interests, exercising power over New York City’s rent laws, taxation, and transportation. No remotely liberal city resident should want Republicans controlling the state senate. They exist to scuttle, ad nauseam, city-friendly policies, and they have no incentive to help the urban working class and poor, especially people of color.

A fully Democratic state legislature would force Cuomo to be far more liberal than he wants to be. His “New York Fights Back” campaign has been staged in part because two House Republicans, John Faso and Chris Collins, attached an amendment to the Obamacare repeal bill that would force the state to shoulder local Medicaid costs, lowering property taxes for towns and counties in their districts and compelling Cuomo’s government to cough up a few more billion dollars. Of all the destructive policies baked into the American Health Care Act, a/k/a Trumpcare, the Faso-Collins amendment was probably the only enlightened crumb, an attempt to make New York State do what every other state routinely does without question: help overburdened localities pay for Medicaid.

Would the governor who wouldn’t dare spend a few billion more on Medicaid want to sign a single-payer health care bill that lands on his desk? It’s a situation Cuomo, a centrist who swings left when politically expedient, would rather avoid altogether. A Democrat-controlled state legislature is his nightmare, even if it may ultimately be a boon to his nascent presidential dreams. It would put to death every last triangulating fantasy he holds. It would make him govern like a prototypical Democratic executive. Given the growing number of national Democrats and local activists fed up with the status quo, he may have to, sooner rather than later.