Gov. Andrew Cuomo is about to meet the biggest challenge to his governorship: New York City Public Advocate (and probable next Democratic mayor) Bill de Blasio.
I know, I know — it ain’t over until it’s over — except if you’re leading in the polls almost three-to-one just a month before election day. So at the risk of being slightly presumptuous, this column will assume a Bill de Blasio victory in the New York City mayoral race next month.
Who is Bill de Blasio? He’s the surprise Democratic candidate who beat the more middle-of-the-road speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn, in something of an upset last month. He’s currently ahead of Republican Joe Lhota by 66 to 25 percent.
A progressive, he has announced that he intends to raise taxes on New Yorkers making $500,000 or more to give every child in the city access to universal pre-K education. Moreover, he has promised to make income inequality, affordable housing and public education in New York City some of the top issues he’ll tackle.
And because of all of this, he’s also the biggest threat to Gov. Cuomo’s governing style and ideology.
Gov. Cuomo has publicly endorsed de Blasio, but truthfully it would have been a huge surprise if he hadn’t. More importantly, we’ve known that Cuomo has been taking a different route than the one Bill de Blasio has his eyes on.
Cuomo has neglected education funding and taken what he calls a “radical, progressive” move: instituting arbitrary property tax caps, as well as an undemocratic process to prevent localities from deciding to go beyond those Albany-imposed limits.
He also pushed through a measure to create “tax-free zones” for certain businesses, potentially costing New York more than $300 million in revenue over three years. (As if we didn’t need the money!)
Generally speaking, he has put business development ahead of workers, unions and teachers — not what you’d usually expect from a Democratic governor. Now, in the run-up to his re-election campaign, Cuomo is seeking to declaw any potential challengers from the right by pre-emptively announcing that he wants to cut taxes even further — and he’s enlisting former Gov. George Pataki and former state Comptroller Carl H. McCall to help him do it. The governor has said he wants to cut taxes by $2 billion to $3 billion by next year, which means even more of a loss for important services and programs than we’ve already had to stomach.
But should de Blasio win the election to succeed current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he would be in a perfect position to provide an ideological counterbalance. After all, unlike most other officeholders in New York state, de Blasio doesn’t really need Cuomo to give him an appointment or full-on endorsement.
Likewise, de Blasio doesn’t really need to acquiesce to Cuomo, as the state Legislature has done time and time again. When it comes to de Blasio’s re-election, it’ll be his own results that will matter.
Should Cuomo oppose de Blasio’s efforts to raise New York City’s taxes on the wealthy, he’ll find himself in a world of political trouble. Why? There just hasn’t been much of an alternative to Cuomo’s conservatism — at least not one that’s found a voice to get behind. Should the economic left find a standard bearer in de Blasio, much of Cuomo’s soft support from liberals could dry up.
It would be very hard to erase that sort of reputation if Cuomo gains it via a one-on-one fight with New York City’s mayor — an office that arguably brings a higher national profile than the one Cuomo currently holds.
No, de Blasio won’t openly oppose Gov. Cuomo. They’ll work together where they can and share in intra-party comity. But a Mayor de Blasio would stymie the “free pass” that Cuomo has gotten up until now, allowing passage of pretty much every major piece of conservative economic legislation the governor has wanted. Maybe the fact that the two are from the same party will encourage them to find middle ground instead of finding strict opposition.
At the very least, having a progressive in the New York City mayor’s office will force a style change for Gov. Cuomo, merely by presenting an alternative economic path. And since New York is our state’s biggest city (and possibly the most influential metropolis in the world), this would be huge. The fact is, for Cuomo to pick too many fights against de Blasio would not only be tactically messy — the fights would also be damaging to Cuomo’s potential presidential run.
The rise of the progressive left as a political force within the Democratic Party means that Cuomo won’t be able to flat-out ignore them in 2016, even if he manages to win without their full-throated enthusiasm in 2014. And if he went against them outright, the left would be unlikely to forget.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.