New York’s Future: Cuomoism Without Cuomo?

Few know his name, but Robert Mujica is one of New York State’s most powerful people: a neoliberal super-technocrat who long served as Andrew Cuomo’s right-hand man. Despite initially promising a clean break, Cuomo’s successor, Kathy Hochul, is signaling that Mujica will stay.

Andrew Cuomo's budget director, Robert Mujica (left), with Cuomo on February 4, 2019. (Darren McGee / Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo / Flickr)

Kathy Hochul, the new governor of New York, has made it clear she wants to make a clean break from the Andrew Cuomo years and shore up her reelection prospects. The former lieutenant governor to the disgraced Cuomo, Hochul has purged numerous holdovers from his administration and made a few concrete policy changes, including announcing the correct number of coronavirus deaths and speeding up the release of funds for rental relief.

But amid the congratulatory coverage of Hochul, who does seem aware that she needs to mark a shift from all things Cuomo, there was one recent decision that should trouble millions of New Yorkers: Robert Mujica, Cuomo’s budget director, will continue to work under Hochul. The announcement of Mujica’s place in the new Hochul administration shows that the new governor will only go so far to listen to progressives.

Mujica, for most, might be another anonymous bureaucrat, a staffer retained for his extensive knowledge of state government. Under Cuomo, Mujica sat on more than thirty boards across the state, holding posts with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees, and the Public Authorities Control Board. This gave him inordinate influence over the workings of state government.

It could be easily argued that there were few, if any, people working under Cuomo who had more power over the day-to-day operations of the state, who decided when and how money would be spent. In Mujica, Cuomo had a loyal solider to carry out his various attempts at austerity, including cuts to CUNY and ailing county governments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hochul’s decision to retain Mujica demonstrates that, at the very minimum, his past means little to her. Before he came to Cuomo, Mujica worked for the State Senate Republicans, who controlled the upper chamber with Cuomo’s encouragement and support. It was Mujica who, with Cuomo, worked to craft a power-sharing agreement between a conservative, breakaway faction of Democrats and the GOP, locking out the regular Democrats from power for almost a decade. This Senate coalition repeatedly blocked laws that would’ve strengthened New York’s tenant protections, helped combat climate change, and allowed undocumented immigrants to access tuition assistance. It was only in 2019, without Cuomo’s help, that Democrats took power in the State Senate and rushed various bottled-up bills to his desk.

Mujica oversaw so much. When Cuomo, in the months before the pandemic, tried to slash Medicaid funding in the state, putting public hospitals in jeopardy, it was Mujica crafting the policy. When COVID-19 hit New York and Cuomo still attempted specific cuts to frontline hospitals, only failing because of backlash in the legislature, it was Mujica leading the fight on the governor’s behalf.

When Cuomo declared a state of emergency in 2020, he won sweeping new powers over the budget, thanks in part to weak-willed legislators who did not want to oppose him in a time of crisis. Cuomo was empowered to make unilateral budget cuts with little legislative input and deputized Mujica to do the cutting. Rather than negotiate with the legislature in the new process created to enact changes in the budget, Mujica dodged them altogether.

Instead, Mujica spent much of 2020 “withholding” funding from K–12 schools, higher education, social services, and local governments, disguising cuts as much as he could. In New Jersey, the possibility of taxes on the rich were raised to fill pandemic-induced shortfalls, but Mujica, with Cuomo’s blessing, shot down the demands. In the fall of 2020, the CUNY system, which serves a largely low-income, nonwhite student body, was thrown into chaos, with mass adjunct layoffs and overcrowded classes. Necessary state funding was not allocated that semester, thanks to Mujica.

Hochul probably believes it’s convenient enough to keep Mujica around. He’s not notorious and wasn’t named in the report that detailed how Cuomo staffers enabled their boss’s serial sexual harassment. He knows enough about how the machinery works. But he is emblematic of everything that must be purged from New York’s government. His ideology is fundamentally neoliberal; he would shred the social safety net and slash taxes on the rich if the politics of the state permitted it. It was why, before Cuomo, he was working so closely with the Senate Republicans.

If Hochul wants to win over progressives next year as she seeks reelection, she either needs to dump Mujica — unlikely, but there’s still time — or marginalize him. If Mujica is steering budget negotiations in 2022, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate will have to unite to combat his worst impulses. There is no Cuomo holdover who can inflict more damage. Mujica has the inclination, the intelligence, and the experience to reign over New York for years to come. His continued employment demonstrates that Hochul will only take the Left so seriously.