Cuomo & de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Governor Andrew Cuomo believes in action, rather than rhetoric, and rarely shies away from criticizing those who he believes fail to live up to their promises, including his fellow Democrats. He’s also appeared particularly irritated by the ascendent progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which has challenged him, unfairly he argues, and offers what he says are pie-in-the-sky talking points over the types of achievable results he’s delivered.
Cuomo brought the critiques together on Friday in an op-ed in the New York Daily News, where he inveighed about underfunded schools, the problem-plagued Rikers Island jail complex and the plan to close it, New York City’s homelessness crisis, and the mismanaged city public housing authority (NYCHA). That same day, Cuomo complained of a rising homeless problem on the city’s subways, calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), an entity he effectively controls, to confront it in its upcoming reorganization plan.
But on each of those issues, Cuomo, now in his third term, offered no concrete solutions of his own, and advocates who have watched him hold the reins of power for eight-and-a-half years say his rhetoric distracts from his own policy failures while pinning the blame on others. In this case, the unnamed target was clearly New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is now running for president on what the mayor calls a long list of progressive accomplishments in the nation’s largest city.
In many instances, including the op-ed, Cuomo’s indulges in discussion of “what it means to be progressive” appear to be his attempts to differentiate himself from de Blasio, among others.
“The common denominator of these great failures — Rikers, poor schools, NYCHA — is obvious,” Cuomo wrote in the op-ed, “poor, powerless minorities and basic civil rights violations. Addressing them should be the cornerstone of a true progressive agenda, and yet they continue to languish.”
He went on to criticize “Democratic failures” that fuel Republican success, before taking a shot at the 2020 Democratic presidential field. “Today, every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate is articulating the same basic ‘progressive’ goals: more economic opportunity, better public education, affordable health care, etc. To me, the far more important question is how we achieve these goals and who has the ability to get it done,” he wrote (Cuomo has repeatedly expressed support for former Vice President Joe Biden).
The governor all but shouted from the rooftops that the common denominator on all those issues is de Blasio, a favorite target of his criticism despite the long history the two share. Cuomo’s acrimony towards what he sees as faux progressivism is never as obvious as when it’s directed at the second term mayor, and the two have spent more time arguing over issues they agree on rather than working on solutions.
Cuomo has been quick to fault de Blasio for the city’s homelessness crisis, the long-running problems at NYCHA, and what he inaccurately called a “stalled” plan to close Rikers. Inequity in school funding is another area where Cuomo, despite his own significant power to effect change, has taken a cudgel to the mayor. While de Blasio has struggled to varying degrees with each of the problems Cuomo mentioned, the mayor and others have also sought more state support than the city has received.
The mayor’s office clearly understood who the op-ed was targeting. “We agree - being progressive requires more than just talk,” said Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for de Blasio, in an email. “That’s why we back our words up with action. Our plan to close down Rikers is one year ahead of schedule, we have helped over 117,000 New Yorkers avoid or exit shelter, and we are testing 135,000 NYCHA apartments for lead to eradicate exposure.”
It is not lost on many close watchers and stakeholders that the issues Cuomo has railed about, and targeted de Blasio on, have of course been ripe for gubernatorial action, especially from a governor who has repeatedly sought to outshine, undermine, and overstep the mayor, whose shortcomings are not to be dismissed.
But overall, those working on solutions in the areas Cuomo mentioned say his op-ed says as much, if not more, about him than anyone he sought to call out.
In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Cuomo repeated his criticism of the Rikers closure plan, saying the state Legislature should have acted to close it long ago and that de Blasio’s plan “was unworkable from the day it was announced” -- a claim that does not appear supported by fact at this point in the process currently unfolding.
Though he was ready to offer help -- “Tell me what you need from the state’s point of view and we’ll be however helpful that we can,” Cuomo said -- he did not provide any concrete ideas. And he seemed to suggest that elected officials in the city would be best served if they moved ahead with the plan despite community opposition, which is what appears to be happening, contrary to Cuomo calling the plan unworkable and stalled.
Brandon Holmes, the New York City campaign coordinator for JustLeadershipUSA, which has spearheaded the #CloseRikers campaign, chalked up Cuomo’s rhetoric to a “political game” with the mayor and one that undermines a successful ongoing effort to move towards a closure of the jail complex. Instead, he called out Cuomo’s yearslong efforts to either oppose or water down criminal justice reforms making their way through the state Legislature.
Holmes noted, for instance, that Cuomo opposed the complete elimination of cash bail (it was severely limited for use in non-violent offenses under new legislation this year, which will be a big boost to the Rikers closure efforts given the expected reduction in remand), did not voice support for reforms to the parole system or eliminating solitary confinement.
“Cuomo didn’t support all of these things that would not only improve conditions for people who are currently incarcerated but also ensure that thousands more New Yorkers would never come into contact or return to prison in the first place, and he didn’t support any of that,” he said. “This is really just a political move. I don’t know what games he thinks he’s playing but he really should stay out of the picture and allow advocates and people who are formerly incarcerated to continue leading this movement to decarcerate New York which we’ve had to force him and drag him along the way to doing.”
While Cuomo did champion major bail and other criminal justice reforms that did move this year after Democrats won the state Senate, the governor’s critiques of de Blasio’s efforts to close the Rikers Island jails appear to boil down to calling the timeline too long, which is certainly debatable, though the governor has not followed up that criticism with anything concrete, and the unfounded jabs at the replacement plan, which is moving through the city’s land use review process.
Cuomo has repeatedly criticized the rise of homelessness in New York City, which continued to climb during de Blasio’s first several years as mayor but has plateaued after billions of dollars in additional spending by the city administration. De Blasio has himself repeatedly mentioned homelessness as his biggest failing as mayor, where he said he did not quickly enough grasp the magnitude of the problem and how many city resources needed to be dedicated toward it.
But Cuomo’s more recent tirade was directed more specifically at homelessness on the subway system. “[I]t's something we've all lived with as New Yorkers, but what's striking to me is how much worse it is and it's not just a question of looking at the numbers and the statistics, it's visibly worse,” said Cuomo, who has not ridden the subway in two-and-a-half years, on the press call.
Cuomo called on the MTA, which is currently undergoing a top-to-bottom reorganization of its bureaucratic structure, to tackle the issue without relying on assistance from the city, while he again appeared to distance himself from actually providing state help.
“We need social service outreach workers. We need police in a supporting role. We need transportation accommodations. And the MTA has to have a concerted, efficient, professional effort where outreach workers make contact with homeless people on trains and in terminals doing assessment on-site as to the issues that are being presented by the homeless individual,” he said. “If the homeless individual is violating the laws or the regulations of the MTA, then help that person get the assistance they need. Be it a shelter, supportive housing, mental health facilities.”
But the governor’s comments about additional policing, just a month after a separate announcement that the MTA would add 500 new police officers to patrol the subways for fare evasion (funded by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office), struck some experts as misguided.
Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst at nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement Friday that the state should redouble its investments in permanent solutions such as affordable and supportive housing. “However Gov. Cuomo’s reference to increased policing of homeless people in the subways is misplaced,” she added. “We have always advised State and City leaders that the answer is most definitely not more policing because summonses and harassing vulnerable people to make them move simply pushes them deeper into the shadows without helping them obtain the services and housing each one of them needs. If Gov. Cuomo wants to fix the problem, let him step up with more housing and services specifically targeted for homeless people, stop shifting the cost of shelters off to localities, and stop the prison-to-shelter pipeline from the State’s correctional facilities.”
Cuomo’s has touted state investments in affordable and supportive housing, but experts have shown it has been slow to materialize, and the governor has refused to support a more significant state investment into housing subsidies that the city has provided to those leaving shelter.
JustLeadershipUSA’s Holmes offered rhetorical questions: “He comes out with this investment saying he’s gonna fund additional police officers into the MTA to solve those problems. What if he actually put that money towards providing permanent housing for people who are experiencing chronic homelessness? What if he put that money into repairing public housing buildings across the city?”
The city’s public housing authority has suffered a series of setbacks and self-inflicted problems over the last many years, not the least of which involved the falsification of lead inspection records that led to a federal lawsuit and eventual oversight from a federal monitor. The authority also has an estimated $32 billion capital repair backlog, though the de Blasio administration was able to bring its operational expenses under control after years of deficits, in part by putting more city funds toward the authority.
For over two years, however, while the agency faced investigation, Cuomo has refused to release about $450 million in state funding allocated for repair and maintenance, citing the agency’s mismanagement. “Progressives all espouse the need for affordable housing, but the incompetence of NYCHA has been tolerated for years with children being housed without heat and exposed to lead poisoning, without any coherent solution,” Cuomo said in his op-ed.
The governor also seized on NYCHA as an issue last year, as he was running for a third term, holding a number of NYCHA-related government events at various public housing developments, promising some conditional funding, and threatening a state monitor, pending the outcome of the federal examination.
The governor has not been a frequent NYCHA visitor since winning his primary last September, and he did not allocate any additional NYCHA funding in the new state budget passed April 1.
“On public education, I think the op-ed is a bit of an indictment of his own policies,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an education advocacy group, and a frequent Cuomo critic who supported the governor’s primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in last year’s election.
AQE has long pushed for fully funding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision, which would require billions more in state “foundation aid” funding for underfunded schools in poorer schools districts. Cuomo has repeatedly denied that funding, arguing that the state has no remaining obligation under the CFE decision, and this year pushed his own alternative “education equity” formula that would require districts to direct more funding toward their poorer schools.
In his op-ed, Cuomo critiqued the state Legislature for failing to increase funding for poorer school districts without also increasing funds for richer ones, but his formula accomplishes the same outcome. The governor pushed through additional requirements for New York City to report on how state education aid is being delivered to specific schools.
“He has utterly failed to deliver for high-need schools in this state,” Easton added. “This year the Legislature proposed a plan that would increase funding over the next four years for high-need school districts by $3 billion and he aggressively blocked it.”
Cuomo has at once touted that the state continues to increase overall education funding to record levels each year, and also said that the state cannot keep throwing more money at education, citing the highest per-pupil spending in the country, by far.
He’s backed an expansion of charter schools, particularly in New York City, an effort that stalled this year under full Democratic control of the Legislature despite the state cap on charters for the city having been hit. De Blasio and Easton are staunch opponents of charter schools, which supporters point out often deliver better education than traditional public schools in low-income communities of color, while critics say they often don’t educate representative student bodies, are test-prep factories, and starve district schools of resources.
Easton derided the governor’s so-called pragmatism as one driven more by fiscal conservatism, and noted that the disparity in per-pupil funding between richer and poorer school districts has only gone up under Cuomo’s tenure (though the Legislature certainly has a hand in that as well).
“I think he’s just lashing out. He’s lashed out at de Blasio, he’s lashed out at AOC, he’s lashed out at Cabán,” he said. “He’s lashing out at anyone who’s actually a progressive. He wants the definition of progressive to probably be center-right like he is. That’s just not the reality. The truth is, what the op-ed also shows is that progressives are defining the agenda that Democrats have to respond to. He’s got that intuition, he’s always had the intuition that he needs to brand himself as a progressive but he’s a lot better at branding than he is at delivering on some of the most important progressive priorities.”