The governor of New York suddenly looks like the kind of take-no-prisoners pol his party needs. With one catch.
(sai Bureau) NEW YORK — The scene is unfolding in the shabby headquarters of the Hotel Trades Council just off Times Square in the late spring of 2017, but it’s not hard to imagine the speech somewhere in the Rust Belt in 2020, with a Democratic nominee trying to reclaim the Upper Midwest for his party.
“The truth is the middle class is under attack. The working families are under attack,” Andrew Cuomo bellows, his tough-guy accent coming in a little thick. “Middle-class wages are behind where they were 20 years ago. Think about it. All the pundits on TV say, ‘We don’t understand why there is such anger and anxiety.’”Standing before a crowd of unionized hotel workers several hundred strong, the governor of New York rails against Republicans for feeding workers like them a lie all these years. He speaks to them like he alone understands what they have been going through, watching wages disappear while the rest of the country gets richer. “It’s the labor movement that built the middle class and it’s the labor movement that’s going to have to rebuild the middle class in this country,” he thunders. He has the room, completely.
Cuomo is a big-name politician who has long seemed an extremely unlikely national candidate until now, when suddenly he’s seeming like a very likely one. In theory, he is here to ceremonially sign a bill that would allow union members to deduct their union dues from their state taxes, but it’s clear what he is really doing today is waging a bigger argument against President Donald Trump.
“You want to deport immigrants? I say to them, start with me, Andrew Cuomo, the grandson of Andrea and Immacolata Cuomo, Italian poor immigrants,” he tells a roomful of people who are mostly immigrants.
The hotel workers stand up. They cheer. “Andrew Cuomo for president!” Someone yells. And then all at once. “2020! 2020!”
Cuomo stops. He wags a finger in mock annoyance, a broad smile across his face. “Don’t start trouble for me today. You are supposed to be my friends. This is not helpful.”
New Yorkers love to assume that their politicians are national figures by default, even as one by one they flame out on the big stage. For much of his career, Cuomo has looked like another in this long line: someone too nakedly ambitious, too pushy, with too messy of a personal life—too, well, New Yorky—to play much beyond Buffalo and the Battery. But suddenly it seems that Americans are willing to pull the lever for a muscular, messy, rough-edged leader shouting for the common man, and suddenly the governor is starting to show up on a lot of people’s lists.
“Look at his career, look at his work in New York,” said Jonathan Cowan, president and founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank, and a former Cuomo adviser. “He is laying out a model for what it means to be a 21st-century Democrat. Our party is in a deep hole. You have to look around and say, ‘Who is succeeding? Who is doing it differently?’”
It’s not just Democrats who see Cuomo showing up on the radar. “I would say Cuomo is the one I am most nervous about,” said Michael Caputo, a longtime adviser to Trump who helped put together an aborted Trump gubernatorial run against Cuomo in 2014, and helped lead the campaign for Carl Paladino, Cuomo’s 2010 Republican opponent. “Hillary Clinton wouldn’t take the gloves off. There isn’t a counterpunch Andrew Cuomo won’t throw.”
So far, Cuomo’s forays onto the national stage have been far more muted than some of the other talked-about potential 2020 Democratic nominees. There has been no book tour, no earnest Facebook videos or airport protest bullhorn photo-ops, no whispers that he is even thinking about it—although longtime friends and advisers have gingerly begun to bring it up to him. (They say Cuomo seems intrigued, but noncommittal.) In the world of political betting, most oddsmakers have him in the top 10, but barely.
Subtly, however, Cuomo looks very much like someone doing the spadework to run for president. His speeches, like the one at the Hotel Trades Council headquarters, are increasingly laced with the kind of big themes that become the rhetorical cornerstones of presidential campaigns. He rails against Washington, contrasting the gridlock of Congress against his own relatively smooth management of the previously dysfunctional Statehouse, the misplaced priorities of national Republicans against the steady progress he has made in Albany. Over the past several months, Cuomo has hired Chris Christie’s former chief of staff, a move widely seen as further burnishing his own bipartisan credentials; his aides have reached out to out-of-state donors about a possible fundraising swing later this year.
But if he runs, he’s got one big roadblock in his way first: The energy in the Democratic Party right now comes from a newly energized left. And the energized left, not to put too fine a point on it, hates Cuomo.
“The worst of the worst,” said Nomiki Konst, a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention and frequent cable TV defender of the candidate who now serves on the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Commission. “Andrew Cuomo is somehow the only politician in America who still thinks neoliberalism and triangulation work, who opens up the Blue Dog playbook and says, ‘How can I use this to run for president?’”
Cuomo has in many ways solved New York, a state whose government routinely ranked among the most dysfunctional and corrupt in America. But if he hopes to be taken seriously as a standard-bearer, he has to solve something far more complicated: The Democratic Party, an institution that can make Albany seem like Sweden in its functionality. There are signs he’s already trying to work that puzzle: The state Democratic Party has run ads out-of-state featuring Cuomo alongside Sanders, trumpeting the Sanders-esque free college proposal that he pushed through. After six years of straddling the center line, can Cuomo convince his party’s progressive wing that he is actually one of them?For most of Cuomo’s first six years in office, this was the kind of thing that couldn’t be talked about. Cuomo’s aides were on strict lockdown to never discuss it—not with the boss, and certainly not with reporters trying to catch him thinking about anything beyond the day-to-day running of New York. For years, Cuomo wouldn’t leave the state, even on vacation, as if just crossing the state line would trigger a cascade of “Is He or Isn’t He?” headlines. He even once declining to go to Washington to lobby for disaster relief funds after Hurricane Sandy. “If I went to Washington now,” Cuomo asked reporters at the time, “what story would you write?”
It’s a vintage Cuomo comment, one that speaks not only to his ruthlessness and ambition, but his awareness of how that ruthlessness and ambition are viewed. (Needless to say, he declined to be interviewed for this article about his presidential prospects.) Cuomo was a top political aide to a father who famously dithered in his own presidential exploratory foray, and the son was determined to not get sidetracked by similar whispers. He was aware of his reputation; if Mario was the American Cicero, Andrew was the Dark Knight, his father’s relentless political enforcer. Mario wanted to appeal to the better angels of our nature; Andrew would spear all the bad angels and step over the bodies on the way to higher office.
Cuomo is a kind of Northeastern political royalty—the son of a governor, once married to Bobby Kennedy’s daughter. But his ascent to the Statehouse did not come without a fight. After a stint as Bill Clinton’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and with his marriage to Kerry Kennedy collapsing, Cuomo cut the line and embarked on an ill-fated run for governor of New York, even as the state’s Democratic establishment was firmly behind state comptroller Carl McCall, who would have been New York’s first African-American governor. Cuomo compounded the problem by dropping out just before the primary, denying McCall the chance to fully trounce him.Single, alone in the political wilderness, Cuomo assiduously worked his way back, working on homelessness and rallying with the likes of Russell Simmons and other hip-hop stars to reform the state’s punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws. He won election as attorney general despite resistance from the New York Times editorial board and other left-leaning institutions, and then ran the only two people ahead of him in line—Gov. Eliot Spitzer (with an assist from Client 9 on that one) and Lt. Gov. David Paterson—out of town on a rail.
But he had a perception problem: To New Yorkers who knew anything about him, which was most New Yorkers, Cuomo was political ambition personified. Would he stay governor, or just step over the bodies once more on his way to something else? So he made it his mission to neutralize that attack. He made it known that serving as governor of New York was the highest pinnacle a Cuomo could ever hope to achieve. Former aides say that any mention of higher office during planning meetings in the first years of his administration would have brought quizzical looks, as if they had interrupted a strategy session to talk about your favorite TV shows.
“Everyone thought he was running for president,” said one former aide. “So he decided he would relentlessly communicate that he was focused on running the state.”
When he at last became the second Cuomo to serve as governor of New York, by the standards of the state, he was barely a Democrat. It was in the depths of the Tea Party’s counter-revolt against Barack Obama’s presidency; the state’s economic outlook was disastrous and Cuomo positioned himself firmly as a man of the center. He capped property taxes and let a tax on millionaires expire.
He gathered a bunch of friends in the real estate industry to run an outside spending campaign on behalf of his agenda, rallied for charter schools, slashed pensions and the state workforce. If Spitzer had come to Albany as a crusader, cleaning out the ethically compromised and ridding the state of the Republicans who could slow his agenda, Cuomo signaled from the start that he was willing to work with the powers that be, so long as their powers didn’t get in his way. In 2011, when a group of moderate Democrats announced they were leaving their party’s conference in the state Senate to form an alliance with the Republicans, Cuomo signaled his tacit approval, in part because it meant that his veto pen wasn’t the only thing keeping restive downstate liberals from having the run of the state. He undercut liberal stalwarts like Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, trying to incorporate parts of their offices’ responsibilities into his own, and leaking gossipy and embarrassing details about them to the press.
In the era of Occupy Wall Street, such machinations made Cuomo Democratic Public Enemy No. 1. On MSNBC, Chris Hayes called Cuomo’s power play against a Democratic Senate, “a remarkable cynical display.” “Andrew Cuomo, Fake Democrat,” blared Salon. Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas delivered the death blow, comparing Cuomo to—gasp!—Joe Lieberman. In an era in which moderates were supposed to find no safe harbor save for a couple of hideouts in the Mountain West, Cuomo remained defiantly in the middle, practically delighting in how much he could troll his lefty detractors.
But in 2014, something changed: A little-known, poorly funded Constitutional law professor named Zephyr Teachout ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary and captured a third of the vote, proof that not only was a restive progressivism already brewing in the pre-Trump, pre-Sanders era, but that the party’s liberals didn’t care much for their governor. Cuomo responded by swinging abruptly to the left. Since then, even with the state Senate’s hybrid Democratic-Republican coalition still in place, Cuomo has passed a $15 minimum wage, implemented a robust paid family leave program, raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, rushed through a plan to make tuition free at the state’s public colleges and universities, and banned fracking.
Progressives see a cynical exercise in box-checking. Cuomo’s advisers see someone moving at the pace of the people he was elected to represent, and point out that liberals are naive if they think the conservative forces, even in this blue state, from financial titans to the vast stretches of the Rust Belt upstate, can be steamrolled. Cuomo, they say, was a progressive presiding over a broke and broken state for his first term, and still managed to legalize same-sex marriage, pass some of the strictest gun laws in the nation and embark on an infrastructure rebuilding project unseen since the days of Robert Moses.