Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)
On March 19, New York’s gubernatorial race intensified when actor and activist Cynthia Nixon declared her candidacy. The incumbent, Governor Andrew Cuomo, shifted into high gear, chasing down endorsements from all quarters. He got a few -- a Senator, some labor unions, an old rock star who doesn’t live in New York. All fine and good, but where are the endorsements from the New York City Council, the Public Advocate, City Comptroller and borough presidents? Even more curious, where are the endorsements from the 133 people who know him best?
Who are these 133 people? They are the Democratic members of the New York State Assembly and Senate. They are the elected representatives who ostensibly share an agenda with the governor and, in theory, work with him to pass laws. But all 133 Democratic members of the Senate and Assembly have remained conspicuously silent when it comes to the leader of their party. What’s more, they haven’t criticized Nixon’s primary challenge. Instead, they remain in patient equipoise at a time that Cuomo seems increasingly anxious to secure support against a formidable primary opponent. Why?
The Legislature is tired of Cuomo’s business as usual. First, lawmakers are no doubt angered by Cuomo’s repeated exclusion of the chosen leader of the Senate Democrats, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, from budget negotiations and policy pushes. Never has this been more glaring than this year, when he publicly promised to seek her feedback on sexual harassment laws, and then reneged -- but kept Senator Jeffrey Klein in these negotiations despite the accusations of sexual assault recently leveled against him. In a year where the #MeToo movement has flexed its considerable political power, Cuomo underestimated the impact of excluding women from negotiations (resulting in a sexual harassment package, and budget, that is not even close to as strong as it could have been).
Second, Cuomo has mismanaged his preferred mechanism for excluding Senator Stewart-Cousins from the leadership, otherwise known the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). Albany’s worst-kept secret is that this rogue group of senators, Democrats who have empowered Senate Republicans to run the State Senate since 2011, has been supported by Cuomo. Seven years ago, Cuomo could get away with this. Now, in the age of Trump, enabling Republicans is untenable.
It took Cuomo too long to realize his support of the IDC hurts him at the polls, as it has with fellow Democratic elected officials. In fact, in a miscalculation of epic proportions, he kept the IDC on during budget negotiations. He could have had a trifecta of Democrats (himself, Carl Heastie and Sen. Stewart-Cousins) build the budget, achieved if he had called special elections earlier in the year. Instead, he waited, calling them for April 24 so he could keep Sens. Jeff Klein and John Flanagan in budget negotiations with him instead. As a result, the budget left out major planks of the Democrats’ progressive platform, like early voting, the Child Victims Act, criminal justice reforms, and more. New Yorkers noticed. In particular, many Westchester voters (those suburban voters that Cuomo so eagerly courts) noticed because they went unrepresented in budget negotiations, and their empty Senate seat could have tipped the balance of the upper chamber to the Democrats.
This budget fiasco caused Cuomo to scramble to solve his IDC problem. His promised “deal” to reunify the IDC with the mainline Democrats, originally scheduled for after the special elections, abruptly accelerated. In a hastily devised agreement, Cuomo forced Sens. Stewart-Cousins and Klein to shake hands for the cameras and work out most of the details later, without even the courtesy of a heads-up to Sen. Stewart-Cousins before the meeting where he exerted a unifying power he had not-that-long-ago said he did not possess.
Democratic lawmakers across New York have good reason to doubt the veracity of this rushed reunification. (Progressives are also dubious.) Perhaps they recall 2014, when Cuomo, in order to secure the endorsement of the Working Families Party, promised to undo the IDC (that never happened). They see that the IDC continues to hold high-dollar fundraisers, with Cuomo in attendance, signalling that real unification has not happened at all, and the IDC’s return to the GOP is inevitable. Perhaps they are just tired of Democrats who need to be forced to work with their own party, who hold bills hostage in committee, and suck up an unfair share of legislative resources year after year. Whatever the reason, Cuomo’s after-the-fact “reunification” of the IDC with the mainline Democrats is truly a case of too little, too late.
The governor wants to get these missing 133 endorsements, by hook or by crook. During the press conference announcing the “reunification” deal, Cuomo declared by fiat that the newly united Democrats will support one another, including his gubernatorial campaign. Yet, the 133 endorsements have still failed to materialize. Democratic lawmakers are resisting Cuomo’s machinations in the one way they can, and as they say, the silence is deafening.