When Mayor Bill de Blasio eviscerated Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, in an unusually candid press conference earlier today, there was the usual chatter about a vindictive governor readying to punish an unruly mayor who didn’t know his place.
But among progressive Democrats frustrated at an executive who they see as antithetical to their values, there was elation. For Democrats in New York City and Albany, Mr. de Blasio’s sudden decision to publicly air his grievances at Mr. Cuomo was long-awaited, the equivalent of a come-to-Jesus moment.
“The only way to make progress with Andrew is to attack him. If you attack him effectively, he’ll cave. He’s a bully,” said Bill Samuels, a prominent liberal activist and fundraiser. “The verdict for Cuomo for many of us was decided long ago.”
When Mr. de Blasio fumed that he had been “disappointed at every turn” with Mr. Cuomo and admitted he couldn’t “tell you that I can place his philosophy at this point,” liberals found their conscience given voice in the mayor of New York City.
For Mr. de Blasio and the left, the indignities are stacked high. Last year, Mr. Cuomo denied Mr. de Blasio the tax hike he sought to fund his universal prekindergarten initiative and later rammed through a law that guaranteed new charter schools free space in New York City, punishing the anti-charter teachers’ union and the mayor, who was always a charter critic.
“It keeps playing out in ways that I think sometimes are about dealmaking, sometimes about revenge,” Mr. de Blasio said today. “I think each situation obviously is different. But it’s not about policy. It’s not about substance. It’s certainly not about the millions of people affected.”
Despite Mr. de Blasio’s enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Cuomo’s re-election bid in 2014, including a behind-the-scenes push to win him the Working Families Party endorsement, he found only roadblocks and inexplicable slights. There was the time Mr. Cuomo announced a new, controversial Ebola policy with Republican Gov. Chris Christie–and didn’t tell the mayor. There was the time, early this year, when Mr. Cuomo ordered the shuttering of the subways to prepare for a snowstorm–and didn’t tell the mayor. There was the time, less than a month later, when Mr. de Blasio, as a centerpiece of his State of the City address, announced a plan to build an affordable housing complex on a Queens rail yard–and Mr. Cuomo, within hours, shot it down. There was the time last week when Mr. Cuomo all but admitted he was trashing the mayor anonymously to reporters.
Mr. de Blasio and his Albany team had hoped incremental, tactful negotiation, combined with an appeal to logic and a degree of righteousness would win the day with Mr. Cuomo. But 2015, when mayoral control was extended for just a single year and rent laws were barely strengthened, proved Mr. de Blasio’s more honeyed approach to handling Mr. Cuomo failed. Mr. Cuomo’s reflexive dismissal of almost everything the mayor advocated–from a reform of the 421a tax break to a decision to allow more charter schools in the city–baffled City Hall.
So today, Mr. de Blasio tried something new.
“Enough is enough. This isn’t about personalities. It’s about one personality playing politics and using 8.5 million people as pawns,” crowed one de Blasio loyalist.
An Albany Democrat was similarly blunt.
“I think what you are seeing is that the governor has no friends and that is because he has no actual beliefs and vision,” the Democrat said. “He just wants to win.”
Mr. de Blasio’s new posture–far more pugilistic than passive aggressive–represents a realization that he has more leverage in this fight than many, including himself, might have believed. Yes, Albany wields inordinate power over New York City, determining whether it can raise its minimum wage, control its public schools, or alter the web of its rent regulations. Yes, an irate Mr. Cuomo can continue to thwart much of what Mr. de Blasio hopes to accomplish.
Yet Mr. de Blasio, for all his scuffles at home, is the more popular man, at least with progressive Democrats who make up a primary electorate. Mr. Cuomo’s overall popularity continues to plummet, too: just 44 percent of voters gave him a thumbs up earlier this month, and 42 percent didn’t. (The same poll did show Mr. Cuomo with a 52 percent approval rating in New York City, which bests Mr. de Blasio’s 44 percent standing in a May poll.)
Among top Democrats in New York, Mr. Cuomo is virtually friendless. He has burned bridges with Sen. Charles Schumer, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Ditto the rank-and-file party activists motivated more by ideology than Mr. Cuomo’s centrist pragmatism.
If Mr. Cuomo enacts payback on Mr. de Blasio, a city of eight million people could suffer, and Mr. de Blasio can point to a scapegoat in the governor. He has the advantage of the largest media market in the country to disseminate his message; Mr. Cuomo, never one for cameras or microphones, has Albany.
Viewed as feckless by at least some politicos, Mr. de Blasio is still a relatively deft campaigner and messenger, a veteran of several tough elections. Mr. Cuomo has mixed it up with the State Legislature, but how adept he can become at a full-scale public relations war with a mayor of his own party remains an open question.
And Assembly and State Senate Democrats, long cowed by the governor, are feeling emboldened to speak out as Mr. de Blasio has done. If Republicans lose their slim majority in 2016–Mr. de Blasio implied today Mr. Cuomo leaned on them to foil him–Mr. de Blasio will only have more weapons in his arsenal.
In Albany, where strength often matters more than reason, Mr. de Blasio could conceivably hold leverage over Mr. Cuomo if he seeks re-election in 2018. An underfunded challenger, law professor Zephyr Teachout, garnered a surprising 34 percent of the vote against Mr. Cuomo last year. Activists are hoping to coax a bigger name, like Mr. Schneiderman, to take on Mr. Cuomo–if Mr. de Blasio lends his clout and fundraising prowess to an influential challenger, or even feints at doing so, Mr. Cuomo could find himself in a very uncomfortable position.
“We’ve seen Cuomo’s standing plummet as more and more people realize he’s not his father and really has a Republican austerity agenda,” Ms. Teachout said. “Increasingly, what the base cares about really matters.”