The Case Against Cuomo

The corrupt New York governor’s progressive reputation is a carefully stage-managed illusion.

Andrew Cuomo in 2014. Diana Robinson / Flickr

Since Trump’s election, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the son of popular former governor Mario Cuomo, has positioned himself as a leader of the #Resistance.

When Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords, Cuomo announced that he was joining with other blue-state governors “to sustain and strengthen existing climate programs . . . and implement new programs to reduce carbon emissions.” When Trump decided not to extend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in September, Cuomo urged his constituents to call their representatives and demand support for the DREAM Act.

Cuomo recruited Bernie Sanders to stand beside him as he unveiled his Excelsior Scholarship to New York public colleges, which Sanders called “revolutionary,” and he regularly reminds voters of his fights to legalize gay marriage equality, raise the age of criminal liability, and increase the state minimum wage.

New Yorkers get regular email notifications from Cuomo touting these moves and expressing the governor’s outrage at Trump’s misdeeds. But Andrew Cuomo is no Berniecrat. He’s merely figured out how to manipulate New York state’s opaque, oligarchical political system to give himself a left-liberal sheen without risking his connections to his richest donors.

Cuomo’s Three-Card Monte Trick

What Cuomo’s emails don’t mention are the range of progressive and social-democratic bills that would effectively shield vulnerable New Yorkers from the worst excesses of the Trump government, but have died at various stages of the legislative process.

For example, the NY Climate Change and Community Protection Act (endorsed by over one hundred labor, community, and environmental groups) would institute strict emissions controls, publicly invest in renewable energy sources, and create an estimated one hundred thousand jobs — it’s the most ambitious climate change law in the entire United States. This bill, and many others, including the New York Health Act (which would establish single-payer health care) and the New York Liberty Act (a state sanctuary law which would protect New Yorkers from deportation), have passed the New York State Assembly multiple times but failed to become law.

And though the New York State Assembly passes some of the most left-wing bills in the country, their failure to become law is a central part of the Cuomo story and illustrates why New York progressives love to hate their governor. On paper, New York is a solidly blue state. Over 60 percent of voters chose Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the past three presidential elections, and the lower house of the state legislature has a solid Democratic majority. But a corrupt system of bipartisan collusion ensures Republican control of the upper chamber — and Cuomo encourages and benefits from this manufactured partisan split.

It’s an open secret in Albany that Cuomo is committed to maintaining Republican control of the state senate, where creative redistricting deliberately gives the upstate GOP minority an advantage. The governor could have used his veto power over districting maps in 2012, or used some of his vast campaign resources to elect a stronger Democratic majority in the upper chamber. Instead he has carefully maintained this structural barrier to the passage of progressive bills.

But gerrymandering alone isn’t enough to give the Republicans effective power over Albany’s agenda. For that, we can thank the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of eight Democratic senators who broke away from the Democratic caucus to forge a power-sharing agreement with Republicans. In 2012, after Democrats claimed a slim majority in the upper house, four of those Democrats — Jeffery Klein, Diane Savino, David Valesky, and David Carlucci — agreed to caucus with the Republicans, giving the GOP the majority. Since then, the IDC has doubled in size and remained loyal to the Republicans.

This arrangement benefits all the key political players — above all, Cuomo and his presidential ambitions.

Senate Republicans can control redistricting and enjoy the perks and resources of majority status, including the ability to control New York state’s over $150 billion budget. IDC members get pork for their districts, stipends for chairing committees, bigger budgets, expanded staff and access to big centrist Democratic donors (such as charter schools, real estate interests, and hedge funds). Cuomo continues to cut spending and prevent tax increases (particularly on high incomes and property taxes) to appease donors, and casts himself as a moderate progressive who gets things done. Meanwhile, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate can take strong left-liberal positions on a number of social-democratic bills, like single payer, knowing full well that the Senate majority leader will never allow it to leave the committee for a floor vote.

The Assembly blames the Senate. Democratic senators blame the IDC. The IDC blames the Democrats and the Republicans. And Cuomo is spared the need to veto popular social-democratic bills like single payer, which would tarnish his image with Democratic primary voters. This carefully choreographed blame game stymies all attempts by progressive activists to pass reforms. Meanwhile, millions of New Yorkers, including women, people of color, school children, low-income families, and the uninsured and under-insured suffer under Trump’s policies.

The Real Andrew Cuomo

Thanks to this bipartisan run-around, many of Cuomo’s key victories have been far more hollow than they might seem. For example, the Excelsior Scholarship program — already criticized for its extremely strict courseload and grade requirements and its “last-dollar” structure, requiring students to use all federal grants and scholarships toward tuition before state help kicks in — was made even worse by Republican meddling: the GOP added provisions requiring four years of state residency after graduation, or else the tuition scholarship reverts to a loan.

Republicans in 2017 also watered down the Raise the Age law, which was written to bring all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds accused of crimes to family courts rather than criminal courts. But the final Raise the Age bill only redirected misdemeanor cases to family court, while nonviolent felony cases would go to a “youth section” of regular criminal court. Those accused of violent felonies will go through regular criminal courts and thus face the litany of abuses to which the criminal justice system exposes minors. This failure to “raise the age right” was heavily criticized by juvenile justice advocates and black state senators.

Perhaps in his presidential run Cuomo will claim to have evolved on key issues, as he did when he changed his stance on fracking. Following the cues of fellow would-be presidential frontrunners, Cuomo came out in favor of a national Medicare for All — but if Cuomo really wanted accessible medical care, the ultra-blue state where he actually has power would already have passed the New York Health Act.

Indeed, while Cuomo might blame the Republican senate or IDC for the bill’s failure, he has bragged elsewhere about his ability to create bipartisan coalitions to pass his pet projects. In Cuomo’s 2014 political memoir, All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life — itself a focus of controversy thanks to its huge cash advance from the publisher and dismal sales, resulting in a personal profit of about $250 per book — he discussed his skilled and effective maneuvering to pass gay marriage in 2011. Cuomo convinced the reluctant Senate leader at the time to release the bill to a floor vote and made sure he had sufficient Republican Senate support. On health care, meanwhile, he’s chosen not to use political capital to be a bold progressive leader. Cuomo’s timid posture speaks volumes about his actual political positioning.

The case against Cuomo lies not only in his association with the unpopular centrist wing of the Democratic Party, but also in how he governs. Despite claiming a mandate to clean up Albany, Cuomo functions as “an old school political boss, who exploits and worsens the most dysfunctional components of NY state politics to make it worse” according to Bill Samuels, a former friend of the Cuomo family and founder of Effective NY, which advocates for reform of Albany.

His “three men in a room” style of state governance perpetuates the oligarchical tendencies of New York government. He created and quickly shut down a high-powered anti-corruption body, the Moreland Commission, in 2013 when it became clear that he might be implicated in the commission’s own inquiries. This became a major talking point for his 2014 primary challenger, Zephyr Teachout, who surprised observers by claiming over 35 percent of the primary vote on a “shoestring budget” and with no institutional support. And just like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Cuomo had a clear enthusiasm problem, winning votes but little excitement or energy.

Those who vote for Democrats should avoid repeating the mistakes of Hillary Clinton’s overly confident 2016 campaign. Despite his posturing to the contrary, Andrew Cuomo follows the worst aspects of the Clinton playbook. According to January 2018 campaign filings, Governor Cuomo has over $30 million in campaign funds, relying heavily on large donors. A New York Times analysis of his most recent filing shows that only 0.2 percent of his donors give less than $200 – testimony to the complete absence of grassroots excitement or support for Cuomo.

In contrast, the average contribution was $4,800, with large corporations and real estate interests providing donations well above $100,000. These real estate donations occurred through the LLC loophole in NY campaign law, a law that Cuomo himself has denounced as “egregious.” This contrasts not only with Bernie Sanders’s extremely successful small donor fundraising experience, but also the recent moves by mainstream Democrats to rely more on smaller grassroots donations.

We are currently about a year away from when candidates will declare their presidential intentions, and Cuomo will likely continue positioning himself as the #Resistance leader America needs, as he did in his speech to the New York City Women’s March, and as he implied by staging his photo-op with Bernie Sanders. But if we want to see what New York’s governor really thinks of the insurgent left, we should heed his own words in the concluding chapter of his 2014 memoir. Cuomo rejected economic populism within the Democratic party as the impulse of an “extreme left” that seeks to “punitively [raise] taxes on the rich and [transfer] the money to the poor.”  He equated supporters of left redistributive measures — “fueled by emotion and truly outraged at the unfairness of the system” — with Tea Party extremists, holding views regarded as foolhardly by sensible, moderate New Yorkers. He dismissed Occupy Wall Street and its “incendiary, divisive” rhetoric, seeking to demonize the very wealthy.

No amount of woke-washing can hide what Cuomo really is: another uninspiring “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” Clinton leftover.