News Politics

With Nixon as Challenger, Cuomo Once Again Feints Left. It Might Not Work.

Sarah Jaffe

“People’s anger and animus really built over the idea that [Cuomo] continued to try to make these progressive claims while, every step of the way, he undermined progressive issues across the state."

When asked his reaction to community groups’ endorsement of activist and former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon for New York governor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) replied, “I’m not going to punish. It has nothing to do with me. Punishment is for God.”

That response was striking to many who have followed the career of the two-term governor, who is not exactly known for magnanimity toward those who cross him. In 2014, Cuomo twisted arms to get the Working Families Party endorsement, garnering the progressive third party’s ballot line for the second time and the tepid support of the unions and community organizations that make up its base. He survived a challenge from law professor and activist Zephyr Teachout in 2014, though Teachout managed to take nearly 35 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Cuomo was re-elected with 54 percent of the vote in the general election.

Cuomo is widely assumed to have presidential ambitions, but his perennial stumbling block has been his reputation with the left-leaning activists who make up his party’s base. His share of the vote in 2014 was among the poorer performances by an incumbent governor in a primary since 2002, and this year, in Nixon, he’s facing a challenger who has racked up key early endorsements and is rising in the polls as quickly as Cuomo is falling.

Despite his promise not to punish, Cuomo has reacted to his challenger with both threats and the kind of leftward shift that he’s always pulled out when his poll numbers take a hit or an ethics investigation swirls close. Nixon has slammed the governor for the crumbling New York City subways, for his coziness with the wealthy, and for the growing inequality across the state; she has embraced policies like legal marijuana and promised a range of renter protections to alleviate New York’s affordable housing crisis. In response, the governor has proposed a plastic bag ban for the state, acted to grant parolees the right to vote, and moved to break up the Independent Democratic Conference—a group of officials who have for years been elected to the New York State Senate as Democrats and caucused with Republicans, giving the GOP power in the state legislature and preventing the governor from having to take a stand on issues like single-payer health care.

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But Cuomo told labor unions that if they gave money to the community organizations that endorsed Nixon, “they can lose my number,” according to the Working Families Party’s Bill Lipton. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, usually circumspect about criticizing the governor, referred to the threats as “the kind of thing that happens in dictatorships, not democracies.”

To Renata Pumarol, deputy director of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), one of those organizations, it was, “Typical Cuomo, unfortunately.”

“It shocked us when it happened, but in reality this is how Cuomo operates,” Pumarol said, noting that Ginia Bellafante at the New York Times had called Cuomo the “emasculator in chief.

There was a sense of defiance, even glee, in the room at the Working Families Party’s state committee meeting April 14, where the endorsement decision was made, though it was tempered with sadness that several of the unions who had founded the party, and its co-chair Robert Master, were not in the room for the vote. Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make The Road Action, a community group that organizes immigrant workers, described feeling a “moment of joy” at casting her vote and finally being freed from past decisions to go with Cuomo out of fear of his reputation as a bully.

With Donald Trump in the White House, Pumarol told Rewire.News, “it’s more important than ever to have true progressives at the state level and city level passing legislation that will benefit the communities that we organize. Which, frankly, are the communities that turn out to elect politicians—Black women are the people who are constantly saving us from horrible politicians. We need people in office who are going to deliver real progressive legislation that benefits Black women and folks of color.”

Eight Years of What?

Andrew Cuomo was first elected governor in 2010, as a wave of Tea Party-aligned conservatives took power across the United States. Jonathan Westin, executive director of NYCC, noted that Cuomo, while a Democrat, still embraced the economic austerity logic that was common post-housing market crash. “His way to deal with the financial crisis was to impose austerity measures on public school students while allowing millionaires to have their tax breaks,” Westin told Rewire.News.

Cuomo in his eight years in office has a track record allowing him to tout progressive credentials—his campaign website takes credit for “marriage equality, $15 minimum wage,  paid family leave, tuition-free college, and gun safety”—but the reality is that the governor had to be pushed to the breaking point to back most of these initiatives.

“Marriage equality was huge and critically important and it demonstrates that when Andrew Cuomo wants to win something, he is very skilled at doing so,” said Axt, whose organization works among LGBTQ people in the immigrant community. “The trade-off was that the Republicans got to write the state senate line. He gave up his ability to use his veto power in a critical moment that, had he played it differently, would have really delivered a different future for people of color, low-income trans and [LGBTQ] folks across the state,” she said, referencing the deal the governor made to get a vote on marriage equality.

He opposed letting New York City raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour independently of the rest of the state, until he flipped; before that, his preference was for $10.50 an hour. Faced with a corruption investigation that was affecting his poll numbers, Cuomo was suddenly taking credit for being a “leader” on the $15 wage, even as the wage hikes he backed didn’t extend to much of the state. Because New York state government controls wages, rents, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA, or public transit, lately shorthanded #CuomosMTA by activists frustrated with the barely-functioning subway system), Cuomo has extraordinary power over the everyday lives of millions of New York City residents who can’t set regulations they would like, and his deals with Republicansmost of them from upstatehas slanted power away from elected majorities.

“People’s anger and animus really built over the idea that he continued to try to make these progressive claims while, every step of the way, he undermined progressive issues across the state,” Westin said.

Cuomo opposed a millionaire’s tax, a ban on hydrofracking, and a majority for his own party in the state legislature.

Things he’s promised and not delivered include tuition-free college, which in fact is, as the New York Times wrote, “one program for one slice of the middle class,” and his ambitious ten-point women’s equality agenda, which has been repeatedly rolled out, beginning in 2013 after the governor had approved the unwieldy Independent Democrat-Republican deal, sealing control of Albany in the hands of then-powerful Republican state Senate Leader Dean Skelos. Little of it has passed, thanks to those same Republicans.

The governor fought for the right of charter school companies to get access to public property in NYC, froze wages for public workers, and attempted to divert settlement money for foreclosure fraud victims into tax cuts. He stymied rent law reform, prompting campout protests outside his office, perpetuating what Westin called “the largest housing crisis in the country,” but pleasing wealthy donors like Glenwood Management, which had donated some $1.45 million to Cuomo in the four years leading up to the rent-law battle.

Glenwood was entangled in the scandal that wound up bringing down Skelos and the equally powerful former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The investigation circled close to the governor but ultimately left him unindicted; he also avoided charges for shutting down an ethics commission he had empaneled and then abruptly ended.

Skelos, Silver, and Cuomo had been the notorious “three men in a room” who made most of the decisions in Albany and then presented them to the legislature for rubber-stamping. Despite the convictions of both Skelos and Silver on corruption charges, the three-men-in-a-room culture remains in Albany, though because of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the three men became four, adding the leader of the IDC, state Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx, to Cuomo and the replacements for Skelos and Silver. This provoked intense criticism this year in the wake of #MeToo, as the legislature worked on a sexual harassment bill, when critics noted that Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the state senate Democrats and the only woman party leader in state government, was kept out. “The power dynamics are horrible,” Pumarol said.

All this has left Democrats and progressive activists wondering a version of what one state Democrat told Buzzfeed News in 2014: “The core activists are asking, ‘How can we endorse this guy? He’s a right-wing douchebag.’”

Fool Me Once, Shame on You …

Many of the issues swirling around the 2018 election came up in 2014, when after recruiting Zephyr Teachout to challenge Cuomo, the Working Families Party (WFP) wound up endorsing him after he promised to fight for a raft of progressive priorities, including that ten-point women’s equality agenda, marijuana decriminalization, a $15 minimum wage, and ending the IDC and giving his party the control over the state senate that voters preferred.

That Cuomo, despite having gotten the group’s 2010 endorsement, tried to ban the “fusion voting” process by which the WFP maintains its separate ballot line and ability to cross-endorse Democrats or run its own candidates, was just one of the reasons those who opposed the 2014 endorsement cited for doing so. Bertha Lewis, former ACORN national director and WFP founding member, said at the time, “We gave [Cuomo] four years and we said then, ‘Never again.’”

But with the deal in hand, the party’s leadership, union leaders, and even Cuomo’s No. 1 frenemy, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio whipping votes for the governor, the WFP’s state committee voted 58.7 percent to 41.3 percent to endorse Cuomo. The governor sent a video to thank the party for its endorsement, but it reportedly did not contain all the commitments he had made, leading them to ask for another. The day after the vote, the governor was already walking back his promises, telling a reporter, “I opposed municipalities being able to set their own wage. I did and I do.” Longtime WFP activist Michael Hirsch said at the time, “I didn’t support the deal for one reason: because I don’t believe it can hold.”

Despite the WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo, Teachout carried on with her campaign, challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary and emerging with near 35 percent of the vote, some surprising endorsements—including the Public Employees Federation (PEF), the state’s second-largest public employees union and one that had to negotiate with the vindictive governor—and a moral victory, if not an actual one. Teachout, who had literally written the book on corruption in America, and her running mate Tim Wu, wound up facing down a governor who was suddenly embroiled in an ethics scandal.

Teachout and Wu focused on the issue of corruption, but through the lens of inequality. “Right now, the campaign funding system leads to politicians basically being beggars at the feet of oligarchs,” Teachout said in 2014. Wu echoed her, saying, “I think we’re probably just the first of what will be a long-running series of contests within the Democratic party which really divide on the issue of inequality and private power. To a degree we’re figuring out whether we’re a party of voters or a party of donors. Which is a delicate question.”

Cuomo’s bullying tactics didn’t end at the WFP convention. Fresh from the WFP endorsement, the governor launched his own fusion party (there’s that against-it-before-he-was-for-it thing again), flirting with education and immigration as themes before settling, somewhat ironically, on the Women’s Equality Party, perhaps because its initials were so similar to the WFP. Cuomo was a somewhat unlikely leader for women’s equality, given his female opponent, and his continued approval of the three (or four)-men-in-a-room dealmaking system in Albany that left the pro-choice leader of his own party locked out of power. Bertha Lewis told Rewire.News at the time, “I think it’s bogus, I think it’s outrageous, I think it is cynical, I think it is disrespectful to women, I think that it is disingenuous, because he’s not really building a party.”

The tactics weren’t limited to the WFP. Cuomo’s team hit Teachout with a subpoena for records that included her bank accounts, tax returns, rent checks, and phone bills as part of a challenge to her New York residency. Her campaign had to spend thousands fighting to stay on the ballot. The governor refused to debate her, turned his back on her at the Labor Day parade, and sent flunkies to protest her. All of this left a bad taste in the mouths of people who had endorsed Cuomo as well as many voters who chose someone else. Come general election time, the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones got more votes than Cuomo did on the Working Families Party line, pushing the WFP down a spot on the ballot.

The Cynthia Effect

This year things look a little different, even as they look similar—a political newcomer of sorts with a pedigree in activism more than elected office, a woman (whom Cuomo supporter Christine Quinn called “an unqualified lesbian”) is already facing attacks on her qualifications and personal background from the governor and his allies. There is, too, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Jumaane Williams, a longtime New York City councilmember and stalwart of struggles for police accountability, running against Cuomo’s running mate, incumbent lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul.

And both Williams and Nixon have the WFP endorsement as well as endorsements from Make the Road, New York Communities for Change, Citizen Action, and other groups. That decision by these groups has opened them to threats by Cuomo and potential division from the progressive labor unions that helped form the WFP, most of which stepped back from the party before the state committee voted to endorse Nixon.

“I think they’re in a difficult position. I feel for them. I think they made a difficult decision, but I get why it happens,” said the WFP’s Joe Dinkin, the organization’s campaigns and communications director. “We are 100 percent committed to unions, to the labor movement, to workers’ rights, and that’s never going to change.”

Axt said the pressure Cuomo put on the unions not only to split from the WFP but to potentially defund organizations like hers is shameful, particularly in a year when Democratic politicians are vying for the mantle of “The Resistance.” “I’m happy that there’s been a decent amount of light shed on it and attention is being brought to what is normally behind the scenes,” she said.

Cuomo’s moves since Nixon’s announcement have mirrored his earlier ones—promised leftward shifts and even announced policies that sound good on paper, but, as Jonathan Westin of NYCC said, “He announces something with this whole fancy show, and then, when you look at the actual substance, it is not what he claimed it was.” Westin pointed the governor’s announcement that he would restore voting rights to New Yorkers on parole, a move which won him instant praise—until organizers looked closely. In fact, restoration requires a case-by-case decision on a pardon. “We need to be clear that no one’s right to vote was restored this week,” Nick Encalada-Malinowski, VOCAL-NY’s civil rights campaign director, told In Justice Today.

The community groups, anyway, are sticking with Nixon. Westin recalled Nixon’s activism dating back to 2002, when she worked alongside ACORN for equitable funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods. “She has the receipts to prove it. She was there, she did it, she got arrested, she put her body on the line,” he said. “I think it speaks to her commitment to the issues that we care about that even when the cameras weren’t running that she was fighting the fight.”

Beyond education, Pumarol added, “she’s been listening to folks, around housing, around immigration, which Cuomo has never done.” Her attention to immigration issues is particularly important, Pumarol added, under Trump. “There’s been a lot of talk about sanctuary but we still live in a state where undocumented immigrants cannot drive and are facing deportation when they get behind the wheel, we’re still living in a state where ICE can go into courts and grab up folks, where they can do raids. I think it’s also about expanding what sanctuary really means, it doesn’t only mean keeping undocumented immigrants safe, it’s about keeping everyone safe, when you have cops killing unarmed black people you’re not living in a sanctuary state.”

She and Axt argued that despite Cuomo’s “women’s equality” platform, a real platform for women in New York would extend beyond lip service, through reproductive justice and the issues around the tipped minimum wage—which from nail salon workers to restaurant workers is mainly paid to women—and the failure of $15 an hour to extend upstate. “It means having affordable housing,” Pumarol said. “Women and families are constantly displaced when neighborhoods gentrify.”

To the members of these community organizations, Axt said, Cynthia Nixon is a working mom who grew up in New York and has stood by their side and prioritized their issues. “Most of our staff and members haven’t even seen Sex and the City,” she said. Instead, they want someone who is going to fight for them. They don’t know yet what Nixon would do if she won office, but they have ample proof, after eight years, of what Andrew Cuomo will—and will not—do.

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