Why Can’t Andrew Cuomo and New York Democrats Play Nice?

His party has turned left, but the governor hasn’t followed — and he’s got more than a few frenemies to show for it.

ALBANY, NY - JANUARY 08: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo gives fourth State of the State address on January 8, 2014 in Albany, New York. Among other issues touched on at the afternoon speech in the state's capital was the legalization of medical marijuana, and New York's continued economic recovery. Cuomo has been discussed as a possible Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidential race. 
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Alex Seitz-Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo once earned plaudits from lib­er­als for his tough talk on gun con­trol and suc­cess in leg­al­iz­ing gay mar­riage in the state. But, lately, he’s found no short­age of frenemies to his left.

In the past month, lib­er­al pro­test­ers out­side Cuomo’s of­fice have dubbed him “Gov­ernor 1 Per­cent”; a prom­in­ent pro­gress­ive act­iv­ist has sug­ges­ted that he run for reelec­tion as a Re­pub­lic­an; the head of a ma­jor labor uni­on has called for someone to chal­lenge the gov­ernor in the Demo­crat­ic primary; and a series of be­hind-the-scenes feuds between Cuomo and oth­er top Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials have spilled out in­to pub­lic view.

The prox­im­al cause for the in­fight­ing dur­ing an elec­tion year, when parties typ­ic­ally put aside their in­tern­al dif­fer­ences, is the state’s re­cently con­cluded, highly con­ten­tious budget pro­cess, which ended many Demo­crats’ hopes for sweep­ing eth­ics re­forms this year. On fisc­al policy, Cuomo aides in­sist the budget is “very pro­gress­ive,” but the labor-backed Work­ing Fam­il­ies Party, which en­dorsed the gov­ernor in 2010, is re­con­sid­er­ing its sup­port this year, say­ing that Cuomo “chose in­equal­ity over pro­gress.”

Be­hind the scenes, however, ten­sions have been build­ing for years.

“This is not a minor shift, but it comes after a slow burn that star­ted in 2010 … and fi­nally just ex­ploded in the past week and a half,” says Bill Samuels, a New York City Demo­crat­ic fun­draiser and act­iv­ist. “There was prob­ably no one who liked An­drew bet­ter than me.”¦ He lost most of us per­man­ently. And I mean per­man­ently. I don’t have one friend who is a Cuomo sup­port­er.”

At its root, much of the an­im­os­ity lies in some Demo­crats’ sus­pi­cion that Cuomo is not really one of them. Richard Brod­sky, a former Demo­crat­ic state as­sembly­man who is now a seni­or fel­low at the think tank Demos, has dubbed Cuomo’s world­view “pro­grac­tion­ary” — a mix of “pro­gress­ive” and “re­ac­tion­ary.” On so­cial is­sues, the gov­ernor is a text­book lib­er­al, but on eco­nom­ics, he’s em­braced tax cuts and is skep­tic­al of labor uni­ons.

“At a time when the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic Party seems to be mov­ing in the dir­ec­tion of [fo­cus­ing on] in­come in­equal­ity and fair tax­a­tion, Gov­ernor Cuomo is mov­ing in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion,” Brod­sky says.

Against this back­drop, there was bound to be con­flict between Cuomo and New York City’s new may­or, who struck an em­phat­ic­ally pop­u­list tone in his cam­paign. Days after Bill de Bla­sio’s in­aug­ur­a­tion, an edu­ca­tion-policy battle erup­ted that typ­i­fies the op­pos­ing wings of the party the two men rep­res­ent. De Bla­sio wanted to fund a uni­ver­sal pre­kinder­garten pro­gram with tax in­creases on the wealthy and to rein in some of the city’s charter schools; Cuomo vo­ci­fer­ously op­poses tax hikes and is a staunch de­fend­er of al­tern­at­ive pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

Ten­sions came to a head when each politi­cian mustered his own army in Al­bany on the same late-March day. De Bla­sio spoke in front of a rally in sup­port of his pre-K plan, while Cuomo spoke to an even lar­ger rally nearby to protest de Bla­sio’s per­ceived hos­til­ity to charter schools. The New York Times later re­vealed that Cuomo had worked be­hind the scenes to help or­ches­trate the counter-rally. 

In the end, the budget gave de Bla­sio his uni­ver­sal pre-K pro­gram, though not his tax in­crease, but gut­ted the may­or’s con­trol over charter schools by giv­ing more power to Al­bany. A win and a loss for the may­or. Cuomo also snubbed the may­or on a re­l­at­ively minor tweak to a line in the state budget that would have cleared the way for de Bla­sio’s favored home­less­ness policy.

Then there’s the sim­mer­ing an­ti­pathy between Cuomo and the man who took his old job, At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Schnei­der­m­an. The two men have nev­er been al­lies, but things have got­ten more ac­ri­mo­ni­ous as they fight over the $613 mil­lion that Schnei­der­m­an ex­trac­ted from JP­Mor­gan Chase in a mort­gage-se­cur­it­ies set­tle­ment. Schnei­der­m­an wanted to use the money to pre­vent fore­clos­ures, while Cuomo saw the AG’s move to dir­ect the cash as a power grab, and in­sisted the money be put in the state’s gen­er­al fund.

But lib­er­als are most angry at Cuomo (whose of­fice did not re­turn re­quests for com­ment on this story) for with­draw­ing his sup­port for eth­ics re­forms that he had long sup­por­ted, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing a pub­lic-fin­an­cing sys­tem for elec­tions. In­stead of im­ple­ment­ing a statewide pro­gram, New York is rolling out a pi­lot that ap­plies to only the comp­troller’s race, and only for this year. It’s a move that many see as an ef­fort to in­con­veni­ence an­oth­er Cuomo frenemy, Demo­crat­ic Comp­troller Thomas DiNa­poli, who might now face a Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger at­trac­ted by the pro­spect of pub­lic fund­ing.

“An­drew Cuomo does not play nice with oth­er Demo­crats,” said a New York party op­er­at­ive from the lib­er­al wing who asked that his name not be used.

And then there’s the money. Sev­er­al Demo­crats who spoke privately to Na­tion­al Journ­al lamen­ted that Cuomo ac­cep­ted $87,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from Dav­id Koch and his wife dur­ing the 2010 cycle — more than double the $34,000 that Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er took. Cuomo has also ac­cep­ted dona­tions from John Cat­sima­tid­is, de Bla­sio’s Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent. And he earned praise and money from Home De­pot cofounder Ken Lan­gone, a ma­jor GOP donor who star­ted the group Re­pub­lic­ans for Cuomo. (Lan­gone re­cently caught flak for com­par­ing pro­gress­ives to Nazis.)

This has al­ways been Cuomo’s way. In line with oth­er in­dic­a­tions that he has pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions, he has po­si­tioned him­self as a mod­er­ate, skip­ping most of the 2012 Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion and keep­ing his ap­prov­al num­bers high among New York Re­pub­lic­ans (al­though that ef­fort was hurt re­cently when he said in a ra­dio in­ter­view that “ex­treme con­ser­vat­ives “¦ have no place” in New York state).

But lib­er­als say Cuomo can only push the bound­ar­ies of the term “pro­gress­ive” so far be­fore the base rebels and he un­der­mines his chances in a po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic primary.

“There’s a strong sense among the pro­gress­ive grass­roots that it’s just not enough to be really good on gay mar­riage and abor­tion rights and guns if your eco­nom­ic philo­sophy re­flects Paul Ry­an and the tea party,” says Brod­sky, the former state as­sembly­man. “And that’s what’s bub­bling to the sur­face now.”

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied Richard Brod­sky. He is a former New York state as­sembly­man.

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