In the waning hours of the 2017 legislative session, Albany, as it often does, bent to the will of Governor Andrew Cuomo. If there’s one ironclad rule of the state capital, a place that prides itself on keeping two or ten steps behind the pace of modern times, it’s that Cuomo can get what he wants if he wants it badly enough. He is the closest thing to a god that saturnine place has.
And so it happened in the dead of night that a Republican-controlled state senate granted Cuomo, a reluctant Democrat, his wishes. John Flanagan, majority leader and fairy godfather, bestowed on Cuomo a new MTA chairman, Joe Lhota, who is also a former MTA chairman — and, not so coincidentally, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 Republican opponent. Cuomo, who achieved black-belt status in pointless skullduggery long ago, couldn’t have dreamed up a better choice: a well-respected man who doubles as yet another de Blasio enemy. Cuomo got other treats too. The new Tappan Zee Bridge might be named for his late father, Mario Cuomo, and a Republican conference hostile to gay rights will confirm the first openly gay appeals court judge, Paul Feinman.
Nowhere was a deal for a renewal for mayoral control of public schools, which will lapse at the end of this month. Since lawmakers are leaving Albany before then, the city will be forced to begin making preparations for a return to the old Board of Education, which was composed of elected local school boards throughout the city. Decentralized and dysfunctional, it was a system that served political insiders well. Few people want to see it return.
All hope isn’t lost for the Department of Education as we know it. The state senate and Democrat-controlled assembly can convene for a special session to renew mayoral control, which has existed since former mayor Michael Bloomberg was granted permission from Albany to set up the system in 2002. In 2009, due to a leadership battle in a state senate then held, briefly, by Democrats, mayoral control temporarily lapsed. That summer, Bloomberg had to create a new Board of Education with two mayoral appointees and one from each borough president. By the start of the school year, mayoral control was renewed and the episode was largely forgotten.
There’s no guarantee everything will be so seamless and painless a second time. Bloomberg, a billionaire, lavishly funded senate Republicans, who could be counted on in a pinch to do his bidding. This time around, Republicans have a Democratic mayor to torment and a governor in Cuomo who allows them to remain in the majority. Flanagan would only renew mayoral control if the state’s charter cap was lifted, a position he holds because it’s the millions in donations from charter school interests that allow Republicans to routinely outspend Democrats during campaign season. Assembly Democrats, closely aligned with the teachers unions, and de Blasio did not want to make mayoral control a bargaining chip for more charters in New York City.
Since Bloomberg supported charters and paid his dues, literally, in Albany, he was granted six- and seven-year extensions for mayoral control. De Blasio has never been granted more than one. This state of affairs has pleased not only Republicans but also Cuomo, who has resented the presence of another powerful Democrat in the state since de Blasio arrived in office. The sudden and needless reorganization of a massive city schools system doesn’t concern him.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how useless this legislative session was and how poorly it reflects on Cuomo. After a bid-rigging scandal led to the indictment of perhaps the top aide in Cuomo’s administration, there was no action taken on reforming the state’s horrendous procurement process. No agreement was reached to increase the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse. Taking steps toward a single-payer health care system was never seriously considered. On the deals that mattered, Cuomo was missing in action.
Just as some in the media start to take Cuomo’s presidential ambitions seriously, the spring and summer of 2017 are illustrating just how farfetched they remain, if his record in New York State is to be considered. The city’s subway system is melting down. Corruption continues to infect state government. Few New Yorkers are talking about the time Cuomo engineered the passage of same-sex marriage or finally agreed to a minimum wage hike; past accomplishments have long lost their luster.
And it must be underscored, repeatedly, just how inadequate and counterproductive Cuomo’s pet project, the Independent Democratic Conference, has become. An eight-member group of breakaway Democrats who, through a power-sharing alliance, allow Republicans to sit in the senate majority, it has lost its rationale for existing. The IDC has argued it empowers Republicans to force them to do Democratic things. This was never really true — Cuomo and labor union arm-twisting usually made the Republicans do Democratic things — but, for a while, the fiction could almost seem plausible. With the failure to reach a deal on mayoral control, the IDC has shown its limitations and will invite more, and much-deserved, backlash.
Were the Democrats in the majority, de Blasio wouldn’t have such a hard time renewing his control of the schools — in fact, it wouldn’t even be controversial. This isn’t to speak to some overriding virtue in belonging to the Democratic Party; it’s to highlight simple facts. Democrats from New York City make up a large share of the senate’s Democratic conference, and they know just how much keeping the current school system intact actually matters. To them, functioning schools in the five boroughs are not an abstraction. They are lived reality.
Now comes the hard part: trusting Albany lawmakers to do the right thing. Can they be coaxed to return in the summer heat to cut a pain-free deal on mayoral control? Can Cuomo come out of hiding and make a difference? Your guess is as good as mine.