His overwhelming victory seemed to indicate that a new day had dawned. "Today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York," de Blasio said in his inaugural address. He pledged to "put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love."
Many speculated that de Blasio's victory could herald a new national trend. The new mayor has "turned himself into the standard-bearer for what some see as a new era of urban populism," John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker. In the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart went further, writing that de Blasio's election could prefigure "the defining story of America's next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left." As the year went on, a French economist's book criticizing concentrated wealth became a best-seller, and even the Pope emphasized similar themes. Income inequality seemed more important than ever — and increasingly important to the future of the Democratic Party, as well.
Yet New York progressives now worry that the party's future lies not with the city's mayor — but the state's governor. Though Andrew Cuomo is frequently described as a centrist or a moderate, that's too simplistic. On social and cultural issues, the governor has fought hard for progressive priorities, and managed to win groundbreaking new laws on same-sex marriage and gun control. Indeed, he may have achieved more on those issues than any other Democratic governor in office today.
On economic issues, though, Cuomo has blazed a very different trail. Repeatedly, Cuomo has tried to cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy. He's cut the estate tax, repealed the state's bank tax, capped local property taxes, and reduced an existing tax on millionaires. He's stymied de Blasio's attempts to raise New York City's taxes on the rich and to increase the city's minimum wage. And he's consistently been skeptical about the value of government spending, and proven willing to cut billions from health and education. "He's adopted the philosophical and political posture that the problem with government is overtaxing and overspending," former assemblyman Richard Brodsky tells me. "How is that different from a Tea Party conservative?"
Many New York progressives think that Cuomo has made a bet on what Democrats truly care about — that if he gives activists what they want on social issues, he can get away with giving the wealthy what they want on economic issues. Worse, they fear the combination might be politically irresistible to the Democratic Party: as the rich get richer and the Supreme Court systematically dismantles limits on money in politics, what if a Democrat who pleases the wealthy becomes the only kind of Democrat who can win an election?
Cuomo, whose office didn't respond to requests for comment, has leveraged the rise of the rich perhaps better than any other Democrat — and maybe even any politician — in the country. He hasn't just catered to them on economic issues, he's mobilized them in favor of liberal social causes, using their support to get things done. And so far, his strategy is working. "If he's successful — if in a state like New York one can be an acknowledged champion of progressive politics with those kinds of economic policies — there's no reason that argument can't be made nationally," Brodsky warns. "You'd get a re-definition of progressive politics that takes the economic component out of it for the first time ever."
Cuomo's presidential aspirations are no secret. And so, in New York, the state's unusually powerful progressive infrastructure is beginning to think about stopping Cuomo — before it's too late.
"A progressive Democrat who's broke"
Decades ago, New York's governor Mario Cuomo eloquently brought attention to economic inequality, and the cause of the less fortunate. "In many ways we are a shining city on a hill," he said at the 1984 Democratic Convention. "But there's another part to that shining 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." But during his 1994 reelection campaign, Cuomo's liberalism got him branded as a big-spending tax-hiker. His Republican challenger George Pataki won by three points, and Mario Cuomo's political career was over.
As Mario's son Andrew announced his own gubernatorial candidacy in May 2010, it was clear he'd learned from his father's fate. He said immediately that he'd oppose any tax increase, freeze state worker salaries, and cap state spending and local property tax increases. It was a time for austerity. "You're going to have to cut where the money is," he said. "The money is in education. The money is in health care." This was a far cry from Mario's rhetoric. "He is pledging to wreak some serious havoc on his father's legacy of big-government generosity," Jonathan Mahler wrote in the New York Times magazine. Andrew won the general election by nearly 30 percentage points.
Shortly after his swearing-in, Cuomo declared New York state "functionally bankrupt" and proposed to close a $10 billion deficit almost entirely through spending cuts. "I am a progressive Democrat who's broke," he said. "I disagree with the concept that the only way to get better services is more money, more money, more money. We've been spending a lot more money. We're not getting better services." And he also ruled out reducing the deficit through tax hikes: "The old way of solving the problem was continuing to raise taxes on people, and we just can't do that anymore. The working families of New York cannot afford tax increases."
These views helped Cuomo win some valuable allies. New York's budget process was infamously dysfunctional — the state hadn't managed to complete a budget on time in five years. Cuomo argued that the state's unions were at fault. "We've seen the same play run for 10 years," he said. "The governor announces the budget, unions come together, put $10 million in a bank account, run television ads against the governor. The governor's popularity drops; the governor's knees weaken, the governor falls to one knee, collapses, makes a deal." Cuomo had a strategy to prevent this: he'd mobilize the 1 percent. At his urging, a group called the "Committee to Save New York" was formed to pay for ads backing his budget proposal. The committee raised $12 million from just 20 anonymous donors in 2011, and appeared to be heavily funded by real estate interests. It ran ads lavishly praising the governor and his budget.
On March 31, 2011, Cuomo accomplished what had seemed impossible. The legislature agreed on a budget on time for the first time in five years, and it overwhelmingly reflected his initial proposal: billions in spending cuts and no tax increases. He had tailored his Medicaid cuts so that the state's influential health care workers' union could accept them, while effectively wielding the threat of a government shutdown that the legislature feared it would be blamed for. The New York Post's Fred Dicker wrote that Cuomo's "triumph" was "a feat of grit and cunning," achieved though "force of will and a fierce work ethic."
The governor's fiscal conservatism wasn't just limited to spending cuts — tax cuts were central to his agenda too. So he soon turned his attention to capping local property tax increases at 2 percent a year. Since property taxes are the main source of school funding, the New York Times editorialized that his proposal was "radical" and "would devastate school districts." But Cuomo soon got the cap passed. "This issue is probably the most powerful and pervasive in the state," he said. "I can't tell you how many times somebody has come up to me and said, 'You have to do something about property taxes; I just can't afford to stay in my home anymore.'"
By September, protesters were beginning to gather in New York City's Zuccotti Park, in what soon became known as the Occupy Wall Street movement. Frustration with growing inequality and the state of the economy was starting to boil over. Though Occupy supporters were later criticized for lacking a workable agenda, one thing they wanted in New York was perfectly clear: a millionaire's tax. An Occupy protester told the Albany Times-Union, "If you're in the top 1 percent you get a tax cut, if you're in the 99 percent you get service cuts ... We think it's fundamentally unfair."
New York state had a so-called millionaire's tax — actually on people with incomes of over $200,000 a year — already, but it was set to expire at the end of 2011. All year, Cuomo had adamantly insisted that he wouldn't renew the tax, because he had committed to opposing any tax hikes. Yet many progressives argued he'd just be renewing an existing tax, not hiking it further. As Occupy gained steam, Cuomo was asked if he'd change his mind. His response was revealing — not only did he stick to his guns, but he also bragged that he was taking a courageous stand, and compared it to his father's politically unpopular opposition to the death penalty. "I'm not going to go back and forth with the political winds," he said.
Cuomo would eventually sign on to a compromise retaining some of the tax, but his arm had to be twisted. "The activists had to actively fight the governor to get him to agree to tax millionaires," says Michael Kink, head of the advocacy group Strong Economy for All. That fall, Occupy protesters dubbed Cuomo "Governor 1 Percent." But the governor seemed untroubled by his new nickname — perhaps because his approval rating was near 70 percent. Ken Langone, the billionaire cofounder of Home Depot and a harsh critic of President Obama, proclaimed Cuomo was "one of the greatest governors I've seen — ever." And soon, Zuccotti Park was cleared of protesters, and the Occupy movement fizzled out.
"The most progressive leader of our party"
On June 24, 2011, the late-night vote came down to the wire — but four Republicans chose to cross party lines, and the bill passed 33 to 29. Cuomo walked onto the Senate floor minutes later and raised his fist to the sky, as supporters cheered. Just over an hour later, he went up to his office on the second floor of the State Capitol, and signed same-sex marriage into law. "What this state said today brings this discussion of marriage equality to a new plane," Cuomo said. "That's the power and the beauty of New York. The other states look to New York for the progressive direction. And what we said today is — you look to New York once again!"
The gay marriage law made national news, and the chatter about a Cuomo presidential run started immediately. "The 2016 Democratic presidential race just began," two Politico reporters wrote. "It's not just that he delivered on a major civil rights issue for the Democratic base in a huge state, it's how he did it — winning bipartisan support and sticking with it when it seemed it might fail," a Democratic consultant told the Washington Post. And Socarides told Politico that Cuomo was "clearly" now "the most progressive leader of our party." Reflecting on the issue three years later, he tells me, "On gay marriage, this guy changed the world."
Cuomo would soon have another opportunity to lead on a social issue liberals cared deeply about. On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The shootings took place in Connecticut, only a few minutes' drive from part of the state's border with New York. Days later, President Obama began a review of the federal government's gun policies, and kicked off a turgid national debate. No new gun control legislation would make it through Congress. Progressives who thought the time had finally come for tougher gun laws were disappointed yet again.
But in New York, the governor swung into action. He immediately adopted gun control as his top priority and began pressuring the state house to pass new legislation. "Forget the extremists — it's simple. No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer. End the madness now," Cuomo said in his State of the State address on January 9, as cheers and applause resounded through the chamber. He again threatened to arrange a multimillion-dollar ad campaign against reluctant Republicans, wooed a breakaway group of Democrats, and granted some minor concessions to the GOP's senate leader to ensure he wouldn't hold up the bill on the floor.
"Forget the extremists — it's simple. No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer. End the madness now," Cuomo said
On January 14, the first day of the 2013 legislative session, Cuomo officially announced his proposal — though behind the scenes, he'd already ensured he'd get the votes he needed. He then controversially declared the issue an "emergency," because this would let him skip the usually-required three-day waiting period between a bill's introduction and its passage. There were no hearings or testimony from opponents, just a quick landslide vote of approval in each house. Conservative activists and the NRA were furious.
The following afternoon, Cuomo signed what many observers called the nation's toughest gun-control law. It drastically limited assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, while creating a background check system to better keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. "People who are mentally ill should not have access to guns! That's common sense!" Cuomo said at the signing ceremony. "I am proud to be a New Yorker because New York is doing something — because we are fighting back."
"On social and identity issues, Governor Cuomo is really quite progressive," Brodsky says. "It's not just that he's taken positions — he's invested political capital in it, and made the process respond." At a time when President Obama seemed ineffective and stymied, Cuomo was scoring victory after victory. "Cuomo is one of the most effective politicians I've ever seen. Nobody thought that the Albany legislature could be made functional until he did it," says Eric Alterman, author of The Cause, a history of American liberalism. "He's kind of an instinctive legislative genius — similar to Lyndon Johnson, though perhaps not to the same degree."
"Governor 1 Percent"
Two weeks after the gun bill was signed, New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio launched his long-shot mayoral bid. "Let's be honest about where we are today," de Blasio said at his announcement speech in front of his Park Slope house. "A city that in too many ways has become a tale of two cities, a place where City Hall too often has catered to the interests of the elite rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers." His rhetoric called to mind Mario Cuomo's, from back in 1984. As his campaign went on, his anti-Wall Street, economically progressive message took him to the top of the polls, and then to victory.
But after his inauguration, de Blasio quickly ran into trouble — in the form of Andrew Cuomo. The governor thumbed his nose at de Blasio's two most economically progressive proposals. When de Blasio said he'd ask the state legislature to let New York City raise its minimum wage, Cuomo declared his opposition less than 24 hours later. As for de Blasio's marquee campaign proposal to tax the city's millionaires to fund universal pre-K? Cuomo nixed that too, though he did later agree to provide most of the money de Blasio asked for. "There's a battle over which wing of the Democratic Party will be the ascendant one," says Alterman. "And you can see it in the fights between de Blasio and Cuomo."
"Did anyone, four years ago, think this was the administration that would repeal the bank tax and cut the estate tax?"
Indeed, as Cuomo's 2014 reelection loomed, his economic conservatism was more prominent than ever. This January, he rolled out a new proposal for $2 billion in tax cuts seemingly designed to infuriate progressives concerned about inequality. He wanted to repeal New York's bank tax. He proposed to dramatically slash the estate tax — exempting New Yorkers with estates worth less than $5.25 million, and cutting the rate from 16 percent to 10 percent, in a change that would have cost the state over $500 million a year. Only the exemptions, not the rate cut, ended up passing. But, Brodsky says, "It benefits 3,000 families in the state per year. Did anyone four years ago think this was the administration that would repeal the bank tax and cut the estate tax?" Cuomo also proposed to cut the corporate income tax rate overall, and to eliminate it entirely for manufacturers in certain regions. The New York State Senate GOP leader said that Cuomo's budget plan made him sound like "a good moderate Republican."
Cuomo was unapologetic. He argued that his proposal fit New York's unique circumstances. Though he said he supported raising federal taxes on the wealthy, his state already had some of the highest in the country. So he said his cuts would lure businesses to the state, and make it more competitive. He called the estate tax the "move to die" tax, saying wealthy seniors were moving out of New York to dodge it. Plus, the final deal restored $1 billion in education funding, and had some cuts aimed at the middle and lower classes, including a tax credit for renters — wasn't that enough for liberals? Many activists weren't convinced, and protested because their priorities weren't addressed, chanting, "Governor 1 Percent! Who do you represent?" But the budget, including most of Cuomo's proposals, soon passed right on schedule, as his previous three budgets did.
It was Cuomo's treatment of campaign finance reform that was most upsetting to many progressives. David Schwartz, a state committee member for the Working Families Party, says, "It underpins all of our other issues. If we can get the big money out of politics and get new blood to run for office in this state, we believe we can advance our issues." De Blasio, for instance, likely would not have been elected without early help from New York City's public financing system.
During the budget negotiations, progressives pushed to expand the city's matching funds to statewide and legislative elections. Though Cuomo avowed support publicly, the proposal would certainly have made his life more difficult, since he'd already raised tens of millions of dollars, and his Republican challenger had raised relatively little. Meanwhile, the GOP Senate leader was staunchly opposed — which meant that if Cuomo really wanted it, he would have to jeopardize his cherished on-time budget streak to fight for it. (The passage of the budget would mean Cuomo would lose much of his leverage over the legislature.) The governor's fiscally responsible record was now pitted against an important progressive priority.
He chose his record. When the Democratic Senate leader wanted to keep fighting for public financing, Cuomo told him to drop it — and that he'd lose his leadership position if he didn't fall in line, the New York Post reported. In an attempt to save face, the legislature instituted a pilot program for public financing in just one race, the comptroller's. The comptroller quickly opted out of it, saying the law was poorly written and perhaps even intentionally designed to fail. It was a joke. "As with any legislative matter there is much blame to be spread around," campaign finance reform activist David Donnelly wrote afterward, "but in this instance, I believe Governor Cuomo deserves the lion's share of it."
"It became clear he was not going to budge"
Progressive activists felt mocked and belittled — and finally, many of them had had enough. A challenge to Cuomo in the primary seemed hopeless, so in most states, that would've been the end of it. But there's an outfit in New York that seemed tailor-made to resist Cuomo: the progressive Working Families Party, whose main mission is to combat economic inequality. Founded in 1998 by several unions, ACORN, and other public-interest nonprofits and community organizations, the WFP has since become "the most effective political operation the American left has seen in decades," according to the American Prospect.
In contrast to other US third parties, which tend to be stuck running no-hope fringe candidates, the WFP has mainly gained its influence by endorsing major party contenders. New York ballot laws allow multiple parties to endorse the same candidate, and most politicians naturally prefer winning as many party endorsements as they can. In recent years, the WFP's endorsement has come to be seen as an important indicator of a candidate's progressivism. And in the 2013's New York City elections, the WFP had its best year ever — de Blasio was a longtime ally, and 12 of its endorsed candidates won city council seats. "Is the de Blasio moment, the Elizabeth Warren moment, a real transition to a new period?" asked Dan Cantor, the party's executive director, soon afterward. "Not unless we make them that."
In 2010, the WFP had endorsed Cuomo despite his evident fiscally conservative leanings. "I stuck with the party leadership," WFP state committee member David Schwartz tells me. "For many of us it was uncomfortable, because we didn't like the Cuomo agenda from the beginning. But we felt by and large we should work with Cuomo, we should sit at the table with him." Yet he and many others grew increasingly disillusioned as the term went on — culminating with the disappointing 2014 budget and the failure to pass public financing. "It became clear that on these basic fiscal and economic issues that really impact low and middle-income families in the state, he was not going to budge," Schwartz says. So increasingly, rank-and-file WFP members began to broach the possibility of dropping their endorsement of Cuomo.
The WFP's leaders weren't seeking a fight with the governor. But local activists like Schwartz eventually became vocal enough that they had to take notice. On March 29, 2014, the WFP held a conference call with about 100 of its state committee members to hear their views on Cuomo, and the feedback was overwhelmingly negative. "We just do not see the man as progressive," Schwartz says. "And those of us arguing strenuously not to endorse him are saying that if we do, the very essence of the party, the whole reason the party exists, will be weakened if not destroyed."
The burgeoning rebellion got little attention — until, on April 22, Siena College released a poll with some eyebrow-raising numbers. It found that if Working Families ran a progressive third-party candidate, Cuomo's support plummeted from 58 percent to 39 percent. The dramatic drop-off revealed that Cuomo had a much bigger problem on his left than were previously known. Though the poll still showed Cuomo ahead, a win by such a small margin would have serious implications for his political future. Any presidential run would be much less credible if he got only 40 percent of the vote in New York state. "The Siena poll shows very clearly that the public understands what's going on," Michael Kink of Strong Economy for All says. "It found the public believes Governor Cuomo puts bankers above workers, and that he's a moderate to conservative politician rather than progressive or liberal."
The WFP will make its decision on May 31st, at its state convention. The party does have close ties to several unions that are remaining on the governor's team, but the actual endorsement will be determined in a vote by about 200 state committee members. These tend to be local activists like Schwartz — the vice chair of a WFP chapter covering Westchester and Putnam county — not party insiders. "The WFP state committee is not a controllable organization," Brodsky says.
Of course, it's possible for the party's leaders to make their wishes known, if they decide to do so. But Schwartz says, "The leadership has been very respectful. I haven't felt pressured at all, either way." WFP co-chair Karen Scharff emphasized that she was speaking only for herself, but told me, "The progressive movement is very concerned about economic justice and inequality, and the governor's out of step with that." In May, party leaders did arrange another conference call where two Cuomo supporters made the case for endorsing the governor. "I think the leadership did that because, on these conference calls, the opponents had so outnumbered the supporters so far," Schwartz says.
Characteristically, Cuomo and his team have responded with both carrots and sticks. In recent weeks, Cuomo granted key concessions to several WFP-affiliated unions to ensure they'd stay on the team, Capital New York reported. The same story quoted "Albany insiders" suggesting that Cuomo might try and cripple the WFP by restoring a one-time rival, the Liberal Party, to prominence. It will likely take much more to win over the WFP's local activists, though — Cuomo might need to go back and get campaign finance reform passed. "He really has to give them a game-changing concession for them to endorse him," says Harold Meyerson, who profiled the WFP for the American Prospect. "My sense is that everything depends on public financing and what Cuomo does about it." The governor's team has recently been discussing the issue with the Republican Senate leader, but it's not clear whether a deal is possible.
If the WFP drops Cuomo, it will face some obstacles. It would need to find its own candidate, for one. And that candidate would then have to win 50,000 votes for the party to maintain its favorable ballot position — though that seems plausible, since that's only 1 percent of 2010's turnout. For his part, Socarides is skeptical that the WFP's threat has teeth: "They're trying to maneuver as best they can for their issues, and I certainly don't fault them for it. But I'd be surprised if at the end of the day a challenge to the most effective progressive governor in the country materialized on the left."
But it's possible that Cuomo has already lost too much credibility among rank-and-file WFP members to salvage things. "I get the sense that a lot of people in the New York City press or the New York state press kinda figure we're gonna fold in the end and endorse him anyway," Schwartz says. "But I don't think it's going to happen. Our feeling is that Governor Cuomo is not a true progressive and that to endorse him would be to belie everything the party stands for, and really destroy its essence."
What's the matter with New York?
Ten years ago, Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas? was published. In it, Frank argued that the Republican Party appealed to rural, white, low-income voters with social issues — God, guns, and gays — so they'd accept economic policies that go against their own self-interest and benefit the wealthy. Since then, Frank tells me, "The table has really been turned on a lot of those social issues. On gay marriage, public opinion has shifted so dramatically that it's actually Democrats who are bringing it up whenever they can, and using it as their own successful wedge issue." Meanwhile, economic issues have come increasingly to the forefront among Republican voters and activists.
Could the Kansas strategy now be adopted by the Democratic Party? "I think that's probably true to a certain degree," Frank says. "There are a certain number of Democrats who don't really understand why people are upset over the fate of working class America, but gay marriage and other culture war issues are very resonant to them." And, importantly, that's the group that has the money. "Democrats are supposed to be the party of the workers and the poor, but they're also the party of the professional class, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the universities," Frank continues. "And until 2008, they thought of themselves as the party of Wall Street — they used to celebrate it as where innovation was happening. The Democratic Party that exists today isn't interested in doing anything substantive about inequality, because it would be costly to all those Democratic donors."
Brodsky sees Cuomo's governorship as a particularly crucial moment for progressivism's future. "This is the culmination of about a 50-year movement on the left in which what I'll call the politics of identity and social issues have become a substitute for the politics of economics and class," he says. "If the movement is headed toward pure identity and social content, then I think there's reason to worry. There's got to be a political voice for progressive economic policies." Eric Alterman agrees: "We liberals have won the culture war already, it's just a matter of time. The battle is now over income inequality. And the question is, will the Democratic Party make that fight?"
"I would say the true economic populists wield little power in the Democratic Party"
Since it still doesn't seem conceivable that Cuomo will lose reelection this year, attention will soon turn to his presidential ambitions. Speculation about this is already a favorite parlor game among New York political insiders. The conventional wisdom is: if Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, it's unthinkable that Cuomo will. But if she doesn't run, there's no obvious rival for Cuomo in the field — and certainly none with the record of progressive achievements on social issues that he has. Alternatively, if Clinton does run, it's quite possible that she could lose the general, which would nicely position Cuomo to be the front-runner in 2020. Anything further ahead is an eternity away — but, observers note, Cuomo would only be 66 years old in 2024.
With growing disappointment over Obama's inability to get his agenda through Congress, some Democrats think a dose of Cuomo's leadership is exactly what the party needs. "The governor is a smart politician in that he can calibrate better than most where he can successfully lead people, and where and when it's going to take a little more time to get to a place where you can pull the trigger," Socarides says. "It's the classic liberal dilemma: do you want someone who's effective and who can get progressive things done, or do you want someone who'll put a stake in the ground for you? From the very start, he's wanted to be effective."
Yet a significant third-party challenge from the left this year could tarnish Cuomo's appeal in any Democratic presidential primary and make him look less competent and strong generally. Considering that, the WFP endorsement may be the only thing that has derailed Cuomo's political strategy so far. Furthermore, the implications of a challenge would be broader — it would send notice to all ambitious Democrats that they defy the economically progressive wing of the party at their peril.
"There's straw in the wind on this," Harold Meyerson says. "Among the base, and in the states, things are bubbling up. It will take a while for it to reach the leaders, but any politician who can read polls understands that inequality is an issue that's not going away, because the problem is not going away, and if anything the problem is getting worse." But other progressives are more pessimistic. "I would say the true economic populists wield little power in the Democratic Party," says Frank. Alterman agrees: "I'm used to losing, so I think Cuomo will win. I fear he'll be able to buy off the left-wing opposition at a very low cost."
Perhaps the most frightening possibility for economic progressives is that Cuomo has made a correct political calculation. A recent study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that the political preferences of the wealthy, but not those of average people, predict whether policy change occurs. "Cuomo takes the positions that money takes, whether it's liberal or conservative. And money is more important than anything else in American politics," says Alterman. What if this approach — mobilizing the wealthy to achieve progressive change on social issues — is the only way to be an effective Democrat in this post-Citizens United, post-McCutcheon landscape? If so, Cuomo's rise would in fact mean a redefinition of progressive politics — an inevitable one.