The once private and plausibly deniable feud between fellow Empire State Democrats Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has spilled out into the public square. The battle for the soul and the future of the Democratic Party in New York City has attracted national attention, and both figures are coming to represent camps within the party that will shape its future. The ultimate outcome of this internecine clash could have far-reaching implications for the future of a Democratic Party that is struggling to determine its course in the post-Obama era: will it moderate or continue to drift leftward at an ever accelerating pace.
The drama unfolding between Cuomo and de Blasio has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy, particularly within the context of the 2016 presidential race. Both Democrats came up under the wing of Hillary Clinton; de Blasio served as her campaign manager during her 2000 U.S. Senate run in New York State and governor, scion of the dynasty Cuomo, was among her most prominent (and controversial, at times) backers during the caustic 2008 Democratic presidential primary. “This will be the best relationship between a mayor and governor in modern political history,” the governor declared in February. Surely he was surprised by the enmity that has come to characterize their relationship.
While Cuomo flirted with making a break with the prohibitive Democratic nominee as recently as early last year, he declined to challenge her for the Democratic nomination and has positioned himself as loyal party man. De Blasio, by contrast, embraced the role as liberal foil to and thorn in the side of Hillary Clinton. The limelight-seeking, self-described champion of progressive politics in Gracie Mansion soon began to clash with his state’s governor, but the tensions have only increased as the fissure separating the Democratic Party’s moderates from its radical progressives has grown into a chasm.
By the summer of 2015, these two former allies were very publicly at each other’s throats. The New York Times blamed legislative inaction in Albany on the growing feud between the two figures, and quoted one connected Democratic figure who contended that the activist mayor’s “mission-driven” style clashed with Albany’s culture of transactional politics. “[A]llies of the mayor argue that Mr. Cuomo’s behavior went beyond the usual hardball tactics and entered the realm of the vindictive, even the irrational,” the Times reported, noting that the arrest of the two most powerful lawmakers in New York on corruption charges sapped the governor of much of his political capital.
At a speech in April, the governor seemed to invite officials outside of Albany, including the real-estate industry, to work out their own plan for 421-a, the tax incentive program to encourage developers to create affordable housing that was set to expire this year. Mr. de Blasio did just that, surprising some supporters by proposing a compromise plan supported by the Real Estate Board of New York, a traditional Cuomo ally. (The mayor was willing to give tax breaks to developers in exchange for a tax on some pricey apartment sales.)
Mr. Cuomo responded with claws out: Rather than welcome the plan, he attacked the liberal mayor as a turncoat to the left, saying the plan was a giveaway to real estate and a betrayal of union labor. (Mr. de Blasio called that attack “disingenuous.”)
By the end of June, Gov. Cuomo was taking the extraordinary step of providing to reporters anonymous quotes accusing Mayor de Blasio of carelessly souring his relationship with Albany and imperiling the city he runs. “He is more politically oriented in terms of his approach … and then he makes it almost impossible for him to achieve success,” an “anonymous Cuomo official” told the New York Daily News. That anonymous official was likely the governor himself.
De Blasio has not played the shrinking violet in his confrontation with the governor. In July, the progressive firebrand who had sought tougher rent stabilization measures and an overhaul of tax breaks for real estate developers than what passed out of Albany said Cuomo had “disappointed at every turn.”
“I started a year and a half ago with the hope of a very strong partnership,” de Blasio told NY1 reporters. “What we’ve often seen is if someone disagrees with him openly, some kind of revenge or vendetta follows.”
Some might dismiss this dynamic as just more of New York state’s famously esoteric politics; an almost naturally occurring facet of the tensions that have arisen between upstate and downstate Democrats since Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to wrest control of his party away from Al Smith, if not earlier. But the public’s response to this increasingly personal dispute is indicative of a dynamic that might have broader implications.
When Sienna College asked New Yorkers if they counted themselves members of Cuomo’s or de Blasio’s camp, a solid plurality of the state’s voters said they backed the state’s governor. “Statewide, by a two-to-one margin voters say Cuomo is more effective than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a plurality says Cuomo is more trustworthy and his political beliefs are closer to theirs,” read a summary of Sienna’s findings. By 39 to 28 percent, New York residents chose Cuomo over de Blasio despite the governor’s precipitously declining job approval and favorability ratings.
The exception was, perhaps expectedly, in New York City where a narrow plurality of city residents backed their mayor over the governor. In the city, de Blasio is still viewed positively by nearly 60 percent of respondents. Outside the boroughs, however, de Blasio’s popularity has plummeted. “De Blasio has a negative 37-43 percent favorability rating statewide, down sharply from 41-27 percent in November 2013, immediately after his election,” Sienna College pollster Steven Greenberg revealed.
Among Democrats, an old source of family tensions is again spilling out into the streets. Urban versus rural; radicalism versus gradualism; progressive versus conservative — many of these conflicts date back to the turn of the 20th Century. Cuomo, a figure who inspires little love and is viewed as a scheming fixer, still maintains the support of the public over the upstart, idealistic demagogue. It’s a dynamic similar to that which is playing out on the national stage as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fends off a surprisingly robust challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who is casting himself as an uncompromising populist demagogue. And, as is the case in New York, the outcome of the presidential primary is likely to be the same; through gritted teeth, perhaps, Democrats will cast their vote for unloved administrative competence over aspiration and admiration.