Governor Andrew Cuomo’s very public humiliation of the New York Working Families Party last week was a spectacular example of revenge served cold but sweet. Cuomo had been fretting about the party since it endorsed gadfly actress Cynthia Nixon for governor last May, but with Nixon’s demise in September’s primary, progressives hoping to challenge the governor from the left next year almost certainly will do so without a structured political base. Indeed, Cuomo is on the verge of a blowout reelection victory on November 6. He will begin a third term having positioned himself as New York’s most powerful governor in modern times— despite a long-simmering influence-peddling scandal that continues to yield convictions and soon will see three former top aides head off to prison.
But cutting legal corners is how politics is played in the Empire State these days, and Cuomo’s relationship with the Working Families Party is a case in point. Founded in 1998, ostensibly as a vehicle to advance progressive causes, the party largely prospered by trading its ballot line for concessions important to the state’s public-employee unions. It reliably supported Cuomo in the past, but this year a progressive cadre staged a coup of sorts, nominating Nixon and earning Cuomo’s enmity. Nixon resoundingly lost her bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last month, leaving the WFP twisting in the electoral wind, before it crawled back to Cuomo last week—and leaving virtually every political power lever in the state either firmly in Cuomo’s grasp or close at hand.
Consider that the governor is an odds-on favorite to hold functional control of the legislature when it convenes in January. He already has a commanding relationship with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and though few doubt that progressive Democrats will help the party take control of the senate next month, there’s no reason to believe that the new leadership will have the organizational strength, experience, or will to resist the governor. (The last time Democrats won outright control of the Senate, in 2009, chaos followed, and several political leaders wound up in prison, where some remain.)
Cuomo has appointed every member of the state’s Court of Appeals, giving him enormous influence over the state’s judicial system, which the chief judge runs from top to bottom via the Office of Court Administration. While such influence is normally applied gingerly, Cuomo is not known for subtlety in his exercise of power.
Cuomo’s hand-picked candidate for attorney general, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, will almost certainly win next month, replacing the disgraced Eric Schneiderman, a Cuomo bête noir. A former AG himself, Cuomo has insider knowledge of that office and should have no trouble persuading the extraordinarily limited James to see things his way.
All governors enjoy considerable constitutional control over their state budgets, but Cuomo plays the process like a concert piano. At $170 billion and growing, the budget document is a formidable tool for keeping pork-barrel-conscious legislators and other political interests in line. It’s also a major generator of the so-called pay-to-play contributions that have fattened Cuomo’s campaign accounts for years.
Meantime, Cuomo has never been bashful about deploying New York’s lushly funded economic-development engine to serve his interests. Sure, he’s been clumsy about it—most of his scandals are rooted in economic-development baksheesh schemes like the Buffalo Billion embarrassment—but plenty of money remains available, and he’ll surely use it if he thinks he needs it.
Structurally, not much of this is new. Cuomo began pulling New York’s power levers in 1983, after his father Mario was elected governor, and he’s been at it in one form or another ever since. The cumulative effect of such practices has helped eviscerate the state’s Republican Party. Disorganized and demoralized, New York’s GOP is in no shape to mount credible campaigns for statewide office this fall. Indeed, it will take an electoral miracle of sorts for Republicans to maintain their vanishingly slim control of the state senate. Once that’s gone, so is the party’s sole remaining source of power, and with it, the last link to any meaningful political opposition in New York.
In sum, Governor Cuomo stands to enter 2019 in de facto control of all three branches of government; of the attorney general’s office; of a huge, extra-legislative “economic-development” slush fund; and of the tattered remnants of the Empire State’s once-vibrant two-party political system. In other words, New York won’t be electing a governor next month. It will be crowning a king.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen