It was thought that the governor was playing chess, the mayor playing checkers. The governor was the feline, the mayor the doomed rodent.
The metaphors were clear and painful for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first budget war with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a master of Albany’s byzantine backrooms–Mr. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, had schooled the upstart Mr. de Blasio this year, securing new and unprecedented protections for charter schools, denying Mr. de Blasio a tax hike to fund his universal prekindergarten expansion and swatting away a demand for a municipal minimum wage increase barely after the words had left the mayor’s mouth at his maiden State of the City address.
But a new tableau was emerging this weekend from the Working Families Party convention, where Mr. Cuomo scored the labor-backed party’s endorsement as he seeks re-election against an underfunded yet feisty Republican: Mr. de Blasio the savior, swooping in from City Hall to convince a party of disgruntled liberals that Mr. Cuomo, champion of corporate tax cuts, should be their gubernatorial candidate.
“The WFP has operated most successfully as the left-wing of the Democratic establishment, not as a band of radical outsiders,” said Dan Morris, a Democratic consultant who runs the left-leaning Progressive Cities firm and has been critical of both the governor and mayor. “De Blasio’s ultimately persuasive pitch for Cuomo was based on the political reality of how the WFP has operated within the Democratic mainstream. He calculated correctly that top labor leaders and top WFP leaders were not going to risk losing their influence as Democratic insiders and their ability to get Cuomo to implement their agenda.”
At the close of Saturday night, Mr. de Blasio appeared to have all he could have hoped for. A powerful governor now owes him a future favor and already promised that he would work to usher in a Democratic majority in the State Senate, a necessity for Mr. de Blasio to eventually cement all of his liberal priorities, many Albany observers argue.
“Bill de Blasio is first and foremost an operative. And stuff like this is his sweet spot. One could argue that in one fell swoop, he will save the WFP from itself and score major points with Cuomo — chits that will come in handy later,” argued a left-leaning Democrat close to the negotiations for Mr. Cuomo’s endorsement. “At the same time, the WFP could look to de Blasio now if Cuomo fails or renegs on these double down promises.”
Mr. de Blasio was in an advantageous position from the moment the WFP balked at endorsing Mr. Cuomo, observers say. Polls had shown that a WFP-backed candidate could drastically cut into Mr. Cuomo’s margin of victory against his GOP rival, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.
Mr. Cuomo, aware that an overwhelming margin of victory in November could be imperiled, desperately sought the WFP’s backing in the past week, bartering with the labor executives that lead the party while trying to sway the more liberal WFP committee members who would ultimately decide the nomination to endorse his candidacy. While Mr. Cuomo and his aides made the argument that his support of legalizing same-sex marriage and stricter gun control laws more than cemented his progressive bona fides, many in the WFP remained unconvinced that Mr. Cuomo–who bragged at the State Democratic Convention about how he had slashed taxes–could adequately represent their party’s core values. (Mr. Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.)
WFP also members resented that Mr. Cuomo took the party’s endorsement in 2010 after he forced them to accept his more centrist campaign platform, exploiting the party’s weaker position in the hierarchy of state politics.
But this year, the party–founded in 1998 by liberal activists close to Mr. de Blasio–was in a far different position. While they did not play a decisive role in the Democratic primary for mayor, the WFP spearheaded the elections of the City Council speaker, comptroller, public advocate and various City Council candidates across the city.
Mostly free of the taint of scandal, the WFP also appeared to seize on the liberal zeitgeist that made politicians like Mr. de Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into national stars. Mr. Cuomo does not fit into this constellation and it became increasingly clear, sources say, that he wanted to both shore up his left flank and ensure that he entered election season with an absolutely united front.
In Mr. de Blasio, the WFP had a crucial ally and perhaps the only person who could broker a deal with Mr. Cuomo that satisfied all sides. Mr. de Blasio was a close friend of a chief WFP architect, Jon Kest, and won his 2009 bid for public advocate with the party’s help. The mayor’s inner circle is populated by activists tied to the WFP.
The party’s simmering divide between labor leaders in favor of maintaining a good relationship with Mr. Cuomo and die-hard liberals became public these past weeks. Mr. de Blasio, a pragmatist with close ties to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and the populist progressives, was able to straddle the ideological gulf.
“From my perspective, New York City and the progressive agenda we’re pursuing are being very well-served now and supported by this governor,” Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday. “So that’s the argument I’ve made and I think that’s a pretty substantial argument and I hope the WFP agrees.”
Huddling with WFP leaders Dan Cantor, Bill Lipton and Bob Master, Mr. de Blasio made versions of that point, sources say. Not endorsing Mr. Cuomo also came with its own perils for the WFP: Mr. Cuomo, if spurned, could actively work to undermine the party’s labor-dependent revenue streams, and a no-name WFP contender could fall short of the vote total needed statewide to keep the party’s ballot status.
Mr. de Blasio’s ambitious agenda–from implementing universal prekindergarten and after-school programs to raising the city’s minimum wage–is highly dependent on the whims of Albany. In his first year as mayor, Mr. de Blasio tangled with a senate that is governed by a coalition of breakaway Democrats and the Republican Party–even with an ally in State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a Republican majority still looms to potentially stifle a leftist, urban platform that polls poorly in many GOP strongholds throughout the state.
“The scandal-scarred Working Families Party shouldn’t be holding elected officials hostage in exchange for an endorsement, legislation and money,” fumed State Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican co-majority leader of the senate, yesterday. “The Working Families Party is bad for taxpayers and it’s bad for New York.”
The WFP and Mr. de Blasio, however, are now having their moment.
“They play the long game and they play it well. Every Democratic statewide nominee in the future is going to have to go through them,” said Ryan Karben, a political strategist and former Democratic assemblyman. “Bill de Blasio is now established as the most publicly recognizable face of that party. That is a huge amount of influence for a mayor to sit on–the mayor of New York City now has statewide reach. It’s de Blasio’s party.”