New York governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio are as contentious as any pair in politics, yet they are fundamentally the same—progressive pretenders, fluent in Berniespeak, who have run essentially conventional urban-Democratic administrations. They have been reasonably good on taxes, real estate, and public safety—being otherwise would endanger the Pax Giulianica that keeps New York City livable and the Empire State’s tax-revenue and campaign-contribution pumps running.
In a different political environment, each might be a contender for the national spotlight. But as ambitious members of an increasingly hard-Left Democratic Party, they must mask their essentially mainstream governance with over-the-top progressive rhetoric. De Blasio, handily reelected last month despite a scandal-plagued first term, was off to Iowa this week to take another shot at building a national presence—earlier attempts having fallen short. Cuomo, burdened by substantial scandals as his own reelection year approaches, has been buffing up his lefty image by attacking President Trump, hectoring New York Republicans, and visiting hurricane-wracked Puerto Rico, falling just short of inviting the commonwealth to become New York State’s 63rd county.
All this is image enhancement of a specialized sort, meant to mask the fact that in New York, the rhetoric may be pure progressive, but the politicking is real-world transactional. Public-employee unions, hedge-fund-flush donors, and the real-estate industry collectively pay the piper, while de Blasio and Cuomo dance to special-interest music. The result has been better governance than the pair’s oratory might suggest: the NYPD is more effective than de Blasio’s cop-baiting core constituency would prefer, for example, and Cuomo is a bona fide charter-school champion, to liberal consternation.
This didn’t happen by accident. The real-estate industry, a major de Blasio backer, has invested scores of billions of dollars in new construction over the past few years; it would not allow a new mayor completely to undo the policing reforms that transformed New York a generation ago. So William J. Bratton became de Blasio’s first police commissioner, and the mayor left most policing policies unchanged. The city’s construction boom continued, feeding demand made possible by some of the safest urban streets in America. Similarly, Cuomo’s enthusiasm for the state’s charter school movement has been rivaled only by the governor’s appetite for campaign support from New York’s hedge-fund industry, well known for its support of charters. Whether by coincidence or design, charters have prospered during the Cuomo years—to the great good fortune of tens of thousands of schoolchildren, mostly in New York City. In both cases, self-interested politicking and deep-pocketed mainstream collaborations combined to forge relatively sound public policies, albeit not of the sort typically taught in Civics 101. But this happy symbiosis could erode, and probably will, as the term-limited de Blasio looks to build a future beyond the five boroughs and Cuomo maneuvers to avoid a progressive primary challenge next year that could diminish his standing among national Democrats.
Each man’s progressive instincts have been mitigated, then, by the hard reality of governing an economically dynamic city and the state within which it resides. De Blasio, recall, came to office promising to reduce what he termed “income inequality” and confront homelessness by dramatically increasing the city’s supply of low- and middle-income housing. Four years later, he says he’s succeeded—though homelessness remains at record levels and there’s no obvious increase in subsidized housing. As for income inequality: the sale this month of an Upper East Side townhouse for a reported $80 million suggests how well that effort is going. No mere mayor can temper the economic forces at work in the global economy’s capital city. But de Blasio can’t admit that; if he did, his Iowa profile-raising would look even sillier than his dalliance with G-20 demonstrators last summer in Hamburg.
Cuomo rejected fracking as an upstate economic-recovery strategy in favor of massive development subsidies and four new gambling casinos. The subsidies yielded bribery scandals but precious few new jobs, and the casinos haven’t come close to performing as promised. Meantime, the shale-oil revolution has brought America to nominal energy independence, crippled OPEC, hamstrung the Russian economy, and created thousands of new jobs in America—but, unfortunately for Cuomo, none in New York. The result: dismal upstate poll numbers for the governor. Combined with the lack of enthusiasm for the governor in his party’s leftward-leaning precincts, it’s unlikely that Cuomo will reach the high reelection numbers he’ll need to boost his credibility among Democratic challengers to President Trump in 2020.
So Cuomo has taken to what comes naturally to him—high-invective attacks aimed at Republicans generally, and at Trump in particular. And he and de Blasio are now sniping at one another over which New Yorker is most fit to carry progressivism’s flag on the national stage. “There’s something wrong in this state,” said de Blasio earlier this month, implying that the problem was in Albany. “The Democratic Party [is] not functioning like the Democratic Party and that has to be addressed.” Not at all, responded a Cuomo aide: “The mayor is on a personal vendetta and seeking revenge against the governor, and we find it troubling.”
The two men have been gnawing at each other for years now, but changing circumstances and personal ambition could make the rivalry more problematic in 2018. De Blasio, free of reelection concerns, has no more need for moderation. So the man who told New York last summer that “if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land . . . and there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents” may now govern to that standard. He’s already talking about seizing private property as an anti-homelessness strategy.
Such policies, and the social-media-driven rhetoric that will attend them, will drive New York politics even further Left. Cuomo won’t need much encouragement to follow. Look for his legislative programs to be filled with progressive plums aimed ostensibly at protecting New Yorkers from Trump and Washington Republicans—but really meant to protect Cuomo from his party’s left wing, come primary time. Lost in this fandango will be New York itself—damaged economically, politically, and socially by a progressive bidding war unlikely to produce any winners.
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