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How Andrew Cuomo Keeps the Left in Check

There is plenty of room to mount a progressive challenge against the Democratic governor. Why hasn't anyone stepped up?

Mark Peterson/Redux

Andrew Cuomo should be riding high. As a two-term Democratic governor of one of America’s biggest states, he is considered one of the few clear frontrunners for his party’s 2020 nomination. Earlier this month, in fact, Politico published a profile that framed Cuomo—“a muscular, messy, rough-edged leader shouting for the common man,” in David Freedlander’s description—as the Democrat best positioned to beat President Donald Trump. Cuomo seems to agree. After making a great show of refusing to even entertain the idea of running for president, he has begun to staff up, raise money, and talk like a presidential candidate.

Yet Cuomo has also never been more vulnerable. In conversations with multiple Democratic officials in New York, the prevailing sentiment that has emerged is one of exasperation bordering on anger. He is widely criticized for presiding over the dysfunction in his own party and for working at odds with its interests. A crumbling New York City subway system has led to a virulent anti-Cuomo campaign on social media and falling poll numbers, while Cuomo himself has acknowledged that it will be a “summer of hell” for those commuting to the city from New Jersey and Long Island. Members of the state’s progressive base, inflamed by the election of Trump and frustrated with the party’s milquetoast response, have set their sights on taking Cuomo down.

The irony of Andrew Cuomo is that, just as the national spotlight has turned to him as a potential Democratic savior, Democrats in his own state, following years of pent-up frustration, are turning on him with a vengeance. And yet, as Cuomo prepares to run for re-election in 2018, no credible challenger has emerged from the left, a testament to how thoroughly Cuomo has turned the Democratic Party in New York into a vehicle for his own political ambitions.

The only scare Cuomo has experienced came from well outside the party. In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, Zephyr Teachout, an unknown university professor who ran to his left on education, the environment, and good governance, won a surprising 34 percent of the vote. The conditions for a progressive challenger have only improved since then, following Bernie Sanders’s strong grassroots challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary.

Cuomo’s supporters point to the absence of a progressive challenger as proof that the governor is more progressive than his critics would like to admit. During his seven years as governor he has raised the minimum wage, introduced a free college program, passed gun control legislation, raised the age of criminal responsibility, legalized same-sex marriage, and banned fracking. “It would be the height of stupidity to go after him for not being progressive enough,” Ken Sunshine, the head of the public relations firm Sunshine Sachs, told the New Republic. “I defy anybody to cite a better progressive record as chief executive than he has. From the toughest gun law in the country—which was very difficult to do—to gay marriage, to a host of social programs, what are they going to campaign for? He’s not warm and fuzzy to a few people who have made a career of criticizing him?”

Dani Lever, the governor’s press secretary, also defended Cuomo’s record, saying, Given the current political climate in Washington and the genuine frustration that progressive policies can no longer be achieved, New York State gives the rest of the nation hope. In the last two years, we’ve been able to pass free college for the middle class and the most robust paid family leave in the country, enact $15 minimum wage, raise the age of criminal responsibility and ensure that all immigrants have access to legal defense. It is ridiculous to question the governor’s commitment to progressive values and we’ll stand by his record of ‘getting it done’ any day.

But as the New Republic reported in a previous article, many of these accomplishments, with the notable exceptions of gun control and gay marriage, are flimsy and incomplete, in large part because Cuomo has been reluctant to help Democrats gain control of the state Senate. In a bizarre arrangement, eight Democrats caucus with the Republicans in New York’s Senate, a legislative marriage that Cuomo is believed to have brokered to give the GOP control of the chamber.

As Bill Lipton, director of the Working Families Party in New York, told us, “Everyone in New York knows Cuomo has a history of being very focused on short-term, political calculations. When attacking teachers and public sector unions was in vogue, he did that. When progressive forces made a $15 minimum wage a big thing, he stepped up and moved in that direction. What’s been missing all along is a long-term commitment to a progressive vision and to electing progressive candidates—and voters notice that.”

What Cuomo has done in the Senate is the most prominent example of how he has undercut New York’s progressive architecture and neutered opposition from his left flank. On a legislative level, the coalition between the GOP and the renegade Democrats—known as the Independent Democratic Conference—allows Cuomo to control the pace of the reform coming out of Albany. It has hobbled the ability of the Democratic Party, which technically won a majority in the state Senate in 2012 and 2016 (Republicans won the majority in 2014), to push for progressive policies in areas like health care, voting reform, reproductive rights, and immigration. And it precludes the threat of a Democratic Senate majority leader with clout.

On an electoral level, Cuomo’s machinations have weakened the party further. According to Ross Barkan at the Village Voice, the New York State Democratic Committee, which is supposed to help Democrats get elected across the state, spends much of its money on Cuomo’s campaigns and policy priorities. As Barkan notes, “In the 2016 cycle, the state party sent $11,000 to three Democratic candidates in contested races. The campaign committees for Senate and Assembly Democrats didn’t receive anything.”

And while Cuomo, after much prodding, finally did campaign for Senate Democrats in the 2016 election, non-IDC Democrats have complained that he rarely dips into his massive war chest to dedicate actual funds to helping them. Jon Reznick, a political analyst at Competitive Advantage Research, found that, in 2014, Cuomo put nearly $16 million into the state party, about $13 million of which was then allocated back towards Cuomo himself. (Party organizations have financial advantages over individual candidates when it comes to outlays like campaign mail.) In contrast, a little less than $1 million was spent towards Senate candidates.

As Reznick told the New Republic, “Because Cuomo is such an effective fundraiser, a lot of this does add more muscle to the state Democratic Party. But he’s not including having a Democratic state Senate in that agenda.” The end result, according to Reznick, is that money is funneled away from state Senate campaigns. “There’s only so many dollars out on the street, so in essence this comes at the expense of a Democratic state Senate because Cuomo largely isn’t sharing.”

Some New York Democrats we’ve spoken to believe that Cuomo will have to reunify the Democratic Party if he is really serious about running for president in 2020. Others, like Ken Sunshine, believe that it’s up to Senate Democrats to come together. “Don’t you think that he would fix it with a wave of his hand if he could?” he asked. “It’s up to the IDC and the Senate Dems, once and for all, to lock themselves in a room and work this shit out.“

This is the line Cuomo has taken, in the face of widespread suspicions that he helped create the IDC for his own benefit. On Tuesday he told reporters he has no interest in playing a role in bringing the IDC back into the Democratic fold. “If they don’t want to marry, I have no power or role in forcing the marriage,” he said. “There is no political shotgun marriage equivalent of the old days.”​

Cuomo has worked to debilitate the left beyond the state legislature. Take his relationship with the Working Families Party, New York’s progressive third-party alternative. In 2014, the WFP recruited Teachout to challenge Cuomo from the left. In talks brokered by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo promised, in exchange for the WFP’s support, to back progressive policy priorities, including a higher minimum wage, the DREAM Act, decriminalization of marijuana, and the public financing of elections. Crucially, he also promised to push for a Democratic majority in the Senate. In the end, WFP backed Cuomo instead of Teachout. As Cuomo stated at the time, “It’s very simple. At these political conventions, you either win or you lose. And I won.”

Then Cuomo failed to uphold his end of the bargain, most egregiously in allowing Republicans to maintain control of the state Senate. The WFP had little to show for its compromise, while its reputation as a liberal bastion was damaged. “Over three years ago, the governor promised the WFP State Committee to bring the IDC back, build a strong progressive majority, and pass legislation in a host of critical areas,” Lipton says. “With the election of Trump, those unkept promises are smoldering.” That year, Cuomo also created another third party, the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), which was seen as a jab at the WFP and an attempt to siphon off its voters. Progressive critics have observed that the WEP’s acronym is only one letter off from the WFP.

In fact, it often seems as if Cuomo takes greater pleasure attacking his rivals on the left than the right. Nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with his frenemy Bill de Blasio, who has become a living, tortured example of what happens to progressive politicians who dare to fly too close to Cuomo’s sun. Cuomo has worked to compromise, overshadow, or undercut de Blasio at every turn, starting with de Blasio’s signature campaign promise in his 2013 mayoral campaign, universal pre-K. Cuomo agreed to it, but stripped the program of its funding mechanism (a tax on the wealthy). Cuomo then took the lion’s share of the credit for the construction of the 2nd Avenue subway line, while trying to shift blame for the subway’s general woes to de Blasio. He elbowed de Blasio out of the way after a bomb exploded in a Chelsea dumpster in 2016 and after a man drove his car into pedestrians in Times Square in 2017, but was invisible when the city’s police officers literally turned their backs on de Blasio for his remarks about police brutality. Cuomo closed the city’s subways in 2015 without notifying its mayor. He tried to rescue a stranded deer from euthanization and, when it died anyway, pinned the blame on de Blasio. The list goes on and on.

Of course, it takes two to tango and de Blasio has instigated confrontations with Cuomo. But, as New York’s subway system has buckled under the weight of a growing ridership, Cuomo has tried to wriggle out of responsibility, claiming control of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in mid-June, despite already controlling it. (“Who’s in charge? Who knows!” Cuomo mused.) While Cuomo was more than happy to imply that de Blasio was in charge of the MTA, which is a state agency, the governor’s falling poll numbers in New York City suggests voters are figuring out who’s responsible. “Subway riders are suffering, and they’re going to make Governor Cuomo suffer too, at least until he fixes the MTA so everyone can get to work,” John Raskin, president of the Riders Alliance, told the New Republic. “The subway meltdown has become a question about Governor Cuomo’s abilities as a leader: Will he fix the subway and find a sustainable funding source, or does he try to push the problem into the future for someone else to deal with?” (Cuomo has since pledged an extra billion dollars to help fix the subway’s decaying infrastructure, though it later emerged that the MTA was using those funds for other purposes.)

“What we’ve often seen is if someone disagrees with him openly, some kind of revenge or vendetta follows,” de Blasio told NY1 in 2015. “And I think too many people in this state have gotten used to that pattern and thrown a bit by it. But I think more and more of us are saying: We’re just not going to be party to that anymore.”

But if there is a wide-open position in New York for a strong progressive voice to Cuomo’s left, de Blasio has not stepped into it, preferring instead to build his profile as far away from New York (Iowa, Germany) as possible. That is because Cuomo has made it clear, through a relentless campaign of harassment and one-upmanship, that he does not want another power center in his backyard, particularly one with the potential to energize the left.

It should be no surprise, then, that the list of potential progressive challengers to Cuomo in 2018 is thin. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, recently fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and rising stars like Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone are seen as possible contenders, but none of them are making noises about a run. Furthermore, any potential challenger would have to declare a run soon, to build the kind of Bernie Sanders–like grassroots fundraising operation needed to counter Cuomo’s formidable war chest.

This lack of activity on the left comes despite the fact that one could easily imagine a progressive candidate mounting a serious challenge to Cuomo. More and more people are angered over the existence of the IDC, staging protests at defectors’ town halls. New Yorkers are literally begging to be let off aging subway trains. A string of corruption scandals trails just one step behind the governor, which could crop up to complicate any presidential bid. All that’s missing is a candidate who can combine a Teachout/Sanders-style good governance platform with a message of economic uplift for upstate voters, a promise of a Democratic majority in the state Senate, and a genuine proposal to get New Yorkers to work on time.

The ultimate irony, however, is that Cuomo may have made a grave miscalculation. The political environment is now ripe for full-throated progressivism, while calculating, centrist Democrats are seen as being part of the failing establishment. Cuomo has engineered the politics in such a way that no one can touch him—but to pitch himself as a true progressive, he will have to win back many of the players that he has burned with such evident relish. For now, he is in total control, but as he pivots to a possible 2020 race that may prove to be his undoing.