ALBANY — New York Gov Andrew Cuomo should be reveling in the achievements of the most successful legislative session in his tenure. Instead, the three-term governor can’t quit taking swipes at his fellow Democrats as he grapples with his position in a changing state political environment that left him without his traditional foil after his party gained control of both legislative chambers.
His administration’s outbursts have included Cuomo accusing Senate Democratic leadership of putting “politics ahead of government” in opposing Amazon’s now-aborted plans to build in New York City, implying their plans might lack “fiscal intelligence” that could lead to actual fruition and his top aide a calling trio of young female lawmakers “f—ing hypocrites” during their calls for campaign fundraising reform.
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The final weeks of the 2019 session underscored the uneasy alliance the governor of the fourth-most populous state has with his fellow Democrats, especially those who are rushing to stake out positions well to his ideological left. Cuomo has defined himself as an achiever rather than an ideologue, but after the New York Democratic Party was hit with a progressive wave last year, the governor has tried to tack to the left. It has not been smooth sailing.
Cuomo — arguably the highest-ranking booster of Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy — now finds himself facing questions whether his brand of politics is still in line with a Democratic Party that’s embracing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others who do not believe the term “socialist” is inherently a pejorative.
It’s a fight the seasoned tactician relishes, with Cuomo more than willing to throw a few punches to defend the party’s center-left tradition, even if other Democrats wish he were more of a team player in the Trump era.
“That’s true to his core,” said Peter Kauffmann, a Democratic strategist and former Cuomo adviser. “This is a man who deep inside [believes] he has that traditional liberal idealism of his father, but it is married to a very pragmatic sense of ‘this is what we can actually get done and these are the results we can actually achieve.’”
“I do think it’s in his interest to be who he is,” Kauffmann added.
In other words, don’t bet on Cuomo hitching his wagon to the progressive movement that’s begun picking off the state’s establishment Democrats.
In a pair of recent radio interviews, Cuomo said the recently concluded legislative session — which included voting reforms, lessening abortion restrictions, rent regulation overhaul and an ambitious climate change initiative — was the “most productive … in modern political history.” At the same time, he complained that the session “wasn’t progressive enough” because lawmakers didn’t tackle “politically difficult” issues — a counter-intuitive interpretation of the work of Albany’s first functional all-Democratic Legislature in decades.
That seeming incongruity distills the new reality of New York’s Democrat-controlled state government: more liberal legislation is getting done after Republicans lost their long-held grip on the state Senate in last year’s election, but at the same time, there are no Republicans for Democrats to blame when things fall short. And the governor is determined to make sure he is not seen as the new obstacle to progressive reform in New York.
“Literally everything they passed is something that I supported, and I had proposed first,” Cuomo said Monday, reacting to criticism that he was not an enthusiastic supporter of several progressive bills.
Nevertheless, on some of the year’s biggest issues, most notably molding more tenant-friendly state rent laws, Democratic leaders made a concerted push to work independently of Cuomo, who has raised millions from real estate interests. The governor’s aides insist his hands-off approach was a strategic way to avoid blame for any watered-down provisions, and they note that when legislators were left to their own devices, they failed to advance items like marijuana legalization. Cuomo is a recent convert to legalization and zealously proselytized on the issue this year.
So as liberal activists near and far count their New York victories, Cuomo has been jockeying to draw attention away from the legislative leaders who shepherded the measures to passage so he can stake his claim to be the voice of progressivism in this bluest of states. But all that credit-taking and blame-shifting could weigh heavily on already-tenuous relationships with some Democratic lawmakers, particularly as Albany moves past the honeymoon period for one-party rule.
“This Legislature wants to prove somehow that they’re just as important as he is, that they’re more progressive than he is, and they should be able to do what they think is appropriate with him tagging along,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist and former Cuomo campaign adviser. “The problem is that Andrew Cuomo never tags along to anyone — he always tries to get in front of the thing. And he’ll just breeze past them and keep on going, which is exactly what he did.”
So where do Cuomo and his fellow Democrats go from here? California, Illinois and New Jersey — all populous states with Democrats controlling both legislative chambers plus the governor’s mansion — present three potential paths.
California, the staging ground for Reagan-era Republicanism, is now so blue that the GOP is veering toward irrelevance and passing national firsts is old hat. Illinois’ first-year Gov. J.B. Pritzker has developed a healthy working relationship with his legislative partymates, and perhaps not coincidentally the state easily legalized recreational marijuana and enacted a first-in-the-nation ban on private immigration detention facilities. On the other hand, New Jersey presents an object lesson in how things could go downhill very quickly. Gov. Phil Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders can barely disguise their contempt for each other, and that poor relationship has stymied legislation. The state failed to legalize recreational marijuana and is still quarreling over a millionaire’s tax.
Cuomo has been around Albany since his father’s first term as governor began in 1983 and he holds an unrivaled ability to wield the levers of power in the Empire State. Yet he appeared to misjudge the Legislature’s ability to function without his heavy hand, and in some ways has galvanized their resolve to stand as a co-equal branch of government.
Like another prominent Queens native, Cuomo’s political instincts run towards the pugilistic, irrespective of party affiliations, which perpetuates distrust from the grassroots left even as he amassed a legislative record that includes legalizing same-sex marriage and passing sweeping gun control measures despite a divided statehouse.
Javier Valdés, co-executive director of prominent immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, said he considered Cuomo an “impediment” as proposals such as driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants made their way through the legislative process.
“Any moment that he inserted himself into the debate, the language got weaker, watered down or wouldn’t do what we wanted it to do in the first place,” Valdés said.
On the day the Legislature had scheduled a vote to authorize the driver’s licenses, Cuomo announced that he was consulting the solicitor general’s office about potential legal troubles, a request Attorney General Tish James quickly shot down. Cuomo proceeded to sign the bill into law.
“Until the very last minute he was trying to create chaos and confusion,” Valdés said. “By him calling on [Solicitor General] Barbara Underwood…he truly created more unrest than actually moving the ball forward.”
Cuomo rarely hides his disdain for critics from the left — whom he considers irksome idealists who cannot live up to their rhetoric — and revels in defenestrating those who challenge his progressive bona fides.
“A progressive Democrat, a Democrat in New York state, these are not ivory tower academics, these are not pontificators, these are not people who live in the abstract or theoretical,” Cuomo said in September after handily dispatching primary challenger Cynthia Nixon.
Senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said Cuomo’s actions are consistent with the administration’s “get stuff done, improve people’s lives, move the ball forward” ethos, which requires an experienced hand.
“In other words, take action, don’t just talk about it,” he said in an email. “Passing laws that change the lives of 20 million people is hard work, and it has to be done right. The last thing anyone wants is errors to undermine the progressive change that was accomplished.”
Cuomo has positioned himself as an almost paternal — and to detractors, paternalistic — gatekeeper, making sure that starry-eyed legislation is devoid of what he called “amateur mistakes,” like a typographical snafu that doomed an automatic voter registration bill.
Fellow Democrats have bristled at the rhetoric. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a former schoolteacher, characterized Cuomo’s criticisms as a coping mechanism “during these stressful times.”
Cuomo’s need for adversaries occasionally proves awkward and puts the governor — a sexagenarian white man whose father, Mario, previously held the office — in stark contrast with New York’s increasingly diverse Democratic Party, especially as political newcomers have risen to chair key committees in the Senate and have expressed little patience with the old way of doing business.
Members of his administration labeled a trio of young female legislators “f—ing hypocrites” during a dispute over the propriety of certain fundraisers; have been accused of overlooking Stewart-Cousins, the first black woman to hold the position, and undermining her leadership; and have singled out high-ranking assemblywomen for opposing an effort to legalize paid surrogacy agreements — including Deborah Glick, New York’s first openly gay state legislator — that Cuomo championed as an important LGBTQ issue late in the legislative term.
That sort of “attitude,” emblematic of a divide the party grapples with on a national level, could present an image problem for Cuomo if he follows through on his intention to seek a fourth term, said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College in New Rochelle.
“I think he’s raising a real issue, but I think he’s going to have to be real careful with how he talks about it,” Zaino said.