Gov. Cuomo celebrates new progressie policies (photo: Don Pollard, Governor's Office)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched himself onto the national political stage this month by orchestrating a budget deal that made New York the first state to pass a $15 minimum wage and a paid family leave program. With Vice President Joe Biden at his side the governor pushed family leave; weeks later, Cuomo signed the package of “economic justice” legislation at a celebratory rally with Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. He was subsequently congratulated by President Obama.
All the while, labor union members cheered the governor who had, finally, made their agenda his.
Unlike other major policy wins from earlier in his tenure that sprung the governor into the national spotlight, like marriage equality and gun control, the minimum wage and family leave bills speak directly to socioeconomic issues that some of the state’s liberal base felt Cuomo, a Democrat, had been insensitive to. Cuomo had indeed rejected as flights of fancy those very policies only months before announcing campaigns to support them, first saying that they would be non-starters with Republicans controlling one house of the Legislature, then pursuing them with the intensity Cuomo has given to his must-wins.
Cuomo’s path to his moment as progressive trailblazer on economic issues was a winding one, mystifying some, including those calling political opportunism, while others point to the influence of four powerful figures: Mayor Bill de Blasio, gubernatorial challenger Zephyr Teachout, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Democratic voters who could deliver the governor a third term in 2018.
On the way to a second term, Cuomo found himself in positions generally foreign to him: out-leveraged and outworked. First, Cuomo was humbled by the Working Families Party as it sought a 2014 alternative to a governor many of its members felt had betrayed their union members and progressive mission. Aided by de Blasio and making promises many now feel he did not intend to keep, Cuomo convinced the WFP to call off its third party challenge from Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout.
But then, the unknown, liberal Teachout, took Cuomo on in the Democratic primary, where the incumbent governor lost 30 counties and took home only 60 percent of the vote. Cuomo entered term two significantly weakened.
For Cuomo, known for crippling his rivals and bullying major organizations into submission, these were positions he never wanted to be in again.
It's a situation that insiders, pundits, and elected officials see as having given birth to the 2016 political environment in which Cuomo would fully embrace the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign and launch his own paid family leave push, invoking the name of his recently deceased father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, in both efforts. Cuomo traveled the state in an RV plastered with the Fight for $15 slogan, picking up the mantle of an effort led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its labor and liberal allies that Cuomo has often distanced himself from on economic issues.
“The original policy rests with de Blasio,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, of a liberal agenda. “The timing coincides with Teachout. But it leads to the governor deciding to tack left.”
Critics, even some supporters, see the governor’s leftward lurch as evidence of political opportunism.
“He doesn't give a damn about getting people out of poverty,” said Ed Cox, the chair of the New York Republican State Committee. “He cares about his own power. He had to do it to secure his political power, but in the end that kind of governing comes back to bite you.”
Cox is speaking at a time when state Senate Republicans went along with Cuomo’s minimum wage program, albeit a “calibrated” one, as Cuomo called it, where they were able to lengthen and regionalize the phase-in.
Congressional Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican who has announced an exploratory committee for a 2018 gubernatorial run, also noticed the governor’s very public change of opinion. “You would have to talk to him to understand his motivation, but arguably the most persuasive critic against a $15 minimum wage is Governor Cuomo five minutes ago,” Gibson said.
As Gibson prepares a potential bid to unseat Cuomo, the governor appears to have a clearer picture of the base he needs to withstand such a challenge.
In Spring 2014, heads of the union-backed, left-leaning Working Families Party were ready to hand the powerful incumbent governor their endorsement but they had underestimated rank-and-file party members, activists turned off by what they saw as a fiscally conservative, transactional governor who cozied up to Senate Republicans, tussled with public employees unions, and generally thumbed his nose at the Democratic base.
The governor appeared by video during the WFP convention in late May 2014, acceding to a list of party demands in an endorsement deal brokered by de Blasio. When party members weren’t satisfied Cuomo was forced to follow up with a phone call promising to back a Democratic Senate, a higher minimum wage, and a push to enact the DREAM Act.
Cuomo looked forward to an easy reelection, whether he actually planned to follow through on his pledges to the WFP or not. But Teachout and many in the WFP didn’t get the memo, and the Democratic primary that followed was bruising and embarrassing for Cuomo as his campaign took on a bunker mentality while Teachout worked the base across the state.
“If you needed any more evidence that in New York state leaders of organizations have no control over their followers you just need to look at that situation,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “The governor thought he was dealing with an interest group and he had won their support, but a lot of their members weren’t happy with the governor and in fact an awful lot of voters shared their view.”
And what was that view exactly? “People’s lives aren’t good and they want them to be better,” said Sherrill, referring to working class voters.
It was a message that Cuomo appeared slow to pick up on - he backed a variety of wage increases but balked at de Blasio’s plan to raise the minimum wage and allow the city to set its own in February of 2014, saying it would be “chaotic” to have different wages across the state. “God bless them — shoot for the stars,” Cuomo said sarcastically in March, 2015, dismissing the Assembly Democrats’ plan to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018. During a public cabinet meeting in February, 2015, Cuomo said the Legislature had “no appetite” for paid family leave.
Cuomo ran in 2010 as a leader who could provide competence to a capital that had seen one gubernatorial term split between Eliot Spitzer’s partisan bickering and scandal and David Paterson’s chaotic tenure characterized by a power struggle in the Senate and more scandal. The state was still reeling from the financial crisis and accustomed to late budgets and tax increases. Cuomo used his first term to prove he had a firm hand on the state’s finances and operations, negotiating tough deals with unions, delivering on-time budgets, instituting a property tax cap, and even delivering on socially liberal policy like marriage equality. But pundits say Cuomo missed a sea change in the electorate.
“There's some academic research that indicates legislators misestimate their constituents’ thinking,” said Sherrill. “They tend to believe they are more conservative than they really are. So when confronted with public opinion from their district they are shocked how further left [constituents] really are. I think that’s what happened to the governor. He had no idea public opinion had shifted the way it had - and it was not just the governor. The good politician that he is, he made a wise strategic adjustment.”
Howie Hawkins, who challenged Cuomo on the Green Party line in both 2010 and 2014, said he agrees with Sherrill. “I generally think constituents are more liberal than their representatives think, and I think the poll in this case being the votes in the primary and general elections showed [Cuomo] his mistake.”
Cuomo’s “adjustment” involved a change in agenda and messaging. Suddenly the governor who was known for dismissing the “poetry” of campaigning that his father so embraced took to the stump using lines from his father’s famous speech from the 1984 Democratic National Convention:
“But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
The younger Cuomo used the speech excerpt in a television campaign for his wage push, leading to the official Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice, launched by Cuomo and labor leaders. The language and imagery mirrored the “Tale of Two Cities” motif de Blasio used for his 2013 mayoral campaign.
Hawkins, who told Gotham Gazette he is prepared to run for Governor again depending on the circumstances, said he doesn’t believe Cuomo has changed his general approach to governing. “I think he’s making gestures, but look at the budget - it is still fiscal austerity, especially cities and towns. There are unfunded mandates and lack of aid from the state, and while he has provided more money for education it is less than the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement,” Hawkins said, referring to the 2006 court decision by which New York City is still owed billions according to advocates. “When [Assembly Speaker Carl] Heastie proposed a slightly progressive income tax he just rejected it. So he is not dealing with basic fiscal structure.”
Hawkins said he believes Cuomo’s action on minimum wage and paid family leave will protect Cuomo from a challenge from inside the Democratic Party if the governor runs for a third term in 2018. Hawkins, who performed best in the Capital Region where Cuomo went to war with public worker unions early in his term, said he isn’t so sure the anger is going to be there again in 2018. “I don’t know that people are going to be that upset with him,” he said.
Cuomo’s Republican opposition sees the governor’s support of the $15 minimum wage as a political calculation designed to undercut his Democratic rival, de Blasio, while boosting his national standing. They imagine the governor has sapped de Blasio’s momentum and hopes to use it to land the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention this year, or perhaps even the Vice Presidency or a major cabinet position.
Political analysts call these scenarios unlikely. Cuomo has gone on the record saying he plans to win and serve a third term as Governor, unless, he says, he keels over from a heart attack induced by the Albany press corp. The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.
“In 2010 he understood he had to run as a fiscal conservative,” said Cox, the chair of the New York Republican State Committee. “In 2013 Bill de Blasio wins saying he is the progressive leader of the free world. In 2014 Cuomo’s running in his own primary and he has to beg to get the backing of the Working Families Party and he only gets 60 percent as a sitting Governor in his own party’s primary.”
Cox said that Cuomo slowly began taking on de Blasio’s positions, “just as Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton has done with Bernie Sanders.” And eventually “adopted the SEIU’s ‘Fight for 15’ campaign whole hock” to “avoid insulting his very important constituents in labor.”
Meanwhile, Cox points out that Cuomo made a number of his major policy announcements alongside Vice President Joe Biden, who was very much thought to be a presidential contender at the time.
Cox believes the governor’s minimum wage plan that embraces different phase-ins across the state - in direct contradiction to his previous statement calling such a system “chaotic” - will not only hurt the economy but leave the governor vulnerable to a Republican challenger.
Rep. Gibson, the most likely such challenger at this point, said he would have liked to see a less “politicized process” that tied the wage to inflation and focused on growth across the state. “When my dad was out of work it was devastating,” said Gibson. “People want to work. But I believe this wage increase will prevent people from working. It will kill jobs.”
Noting that a number of counties in his Congressional district border other states, Gibson said he believes businesses will soon flee across the border to avoid new mandates. Asked if he would look to slow the increase of the minimum wage should he be elected, Gibson said, “I need to look at any kind of action like that. I think it’s important to listen and to get the facts.”
There are still some Albany observers who believe Cuomo is looking past re-election and is ready to enter the national scene on the back of his victories on minimum wage and paid family leave. Cuomo has embraced the praise of both Hillary Clinton and President Obama, who commended the passage of paid family leave. “There’s no doubt he has national ambitions, he wants to win with big numbers and not be embarrassed in his primary,” said Sherrill. “So he is relocating himself, perhaps more to his own feelings or maybe not. It is very difficult, especially with [U.S. Attorney] Preet Bharara watching, to satisfy the Senate Republicans he helped elect and his Democratic base.”
Cuomo remains opposed to tax increases - he beat back an Assembly proposal for a new millionaire’s tax, passed a series of tax cuts this year, and is extremely sensitive to the notion that New York has some of the highest taxes in the nation. But Sherrill believes by being on the forefront of a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave the governor is part of a developing national trend that gets big business to pay without actually raising taxes. The paid family leave program also rests upon employee contributions.
“Cuomo, like his father, supported very big liberal policies that don’t cost money - marriage equality, gun control doesn't cost money,” said Sherrill. “He chalks up these kind of wins in an age where you can’t raise taxes.”
“A substantial number of voters want politicians to make their lives better, but they can't raise taxes,” Sherrill continued, explaining the broader political climate. “At some point the sheer number of voters outweighs the people with lots of money. You can't raise taxes, but you can do other things to make the wealthy pay, like raising the minimum wage. However, a lot of programs de Blasio and Cuomo are advocating are in fact ways to get money into people’s hands while raising the cost on the people who refuse to pay taxes,” said Sherrill. “At some point I think the business community just asks for its taxes to be raised because it will be better for them.”