The near total rupture between the governor and the progressive establishment makes one wonder: How did their relationship last this long? One big reason is Bill de Blasio.
As scandals swarmed Andrew Cuomo over the past month, no voice has been louder in denouncing him than Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has compared the governor with Donald Trump, labeled his past acts “disgusting” and called for him to resign. Meanwhile, the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Cuomo three times for the highest office in the state, has also called for his ouster. Both the mayor and the party have long had deeply contentious relationships with Cuomo. Now, the break is absolute, part of a near total rupture between the governor and progressive Democrats.
The speed and savagery of the condemnations—not just of the governor’s alleged sexual misconduct but of his personality and record over the past 11 years—makes one wonder: Why did it take so long for the progressive establishment and Cuomo to call it splits?
One big reason for the delay, ironically, was Bill de Blasio.
In most accounts of Cuomo’s rise to power and descent into crisis, the 2014 Working Families Party state convention is just another point on the timeline. The broad outlines of the story are well-known: The WFP toyed with the idea of backing law professor Zephyr Teachout instead of the incumbent Cuomo, decided instead to give the governor their ballot line in exchange for policy and political promises, and then watched as Cuomo reneged on those commitments and set out to destroy the party.
What has been discussed less often is exactly why the WFP cut the deal—and who was most responsible for their doing so—or what the long-term impacts of the episode were.
In an era when political events are often pre-packaged and stage-managed, the 2014 WFP convention was very different. On a spring Saturday night at a hotel set back from Route 155 about a mile from Albany’s airport, a tense and dramatic standoff between Cuomo and the Democratic left ended in a shaky truce—a pact whose creation and destruction cemented feuds, stained reputations and in some ways set the stage for the existential threat now confronting the governor.
Considering a break with Cuomo
Cuomo was elected by an overwhelming margin over right-wing Buffalo developer Carl Paladino in 2010, winning 63 percent of the vote. He pursued a decidedly un-progressive agenda during his first term: passing austerity budgets, targeting public-employee unions, cutting taxes on the wealthy, going to bat for charter schools and either accepting or actively encouraging the power-sharing deal between the Independent Democratic Conference and the GOP that solidified Republican control of the State Senate. As the governor raked in donations from limited liability corporations, he disbanded early a commission he had set up to investigate corruption.
His centrist stances led to increasing friction with the Working Families Party, a coalition of labor unions and progressive groups that formed in the late 1990s to use New York’s fusion voting—through which one party can endorse another party’s candidate—to pull Democratic candidates left by delivering votes on the WFP line. The party had endorsed Cuomo in 2010 and generated about 155,000 of his 2.9 million votes.
WFP support was hardly decisive that year, but by mid-2014 the governor’s re-election race was looking somewhat tighter, in part because a gun-control measure backed by Cuomo was extremely unpopular upstate. While Cuomo’s survival did not appear to hinge on WFP’s support, he certainly wanted their backing. Yet he hedged on committing to some of the policy goals cherished by the party, like raising the minimum wage, passing the Dream Act, public financing of campaigns and—most important and the key to all the other goals—a Democratic State Senate.
So the WFP, which had rarely picked fights with the Democratic establishment, moved to the brink of nominating a general election challenger to a sitting governor: Teachout, an academic and a veteran of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. The evening before the May 31 convention, that was the plan: The nomination would go to Teachout, and the WFP and Cuomo would be at war.
“I was literally on my way to Martha’s Vineyard on vacation thinking, ‘This is all headed to Zephyr,’” recalls Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change and a WFP leader. “I think everyone was pretty aligned that we were going to go with Zephyr. Well, a lot of people weren’t aligned, like the labor unions. But the party leaders and the community organizations all believed that we were going with Zephyr.”
But then, de Blasio spoke.
“I think what really decided where the WFP went with the endorsement was de Blasio, which is the most ironic thing about all of this,” Westin says. “There was probably no one else in the country that could have swayed folks other than de Blasio at that time. I felt like it was all headed towards Zephyr and like, ‘We have to do this. We have to do this,’ and then de Blasio weighed in at the 11th hour and it really just swung everything back to Cuomo.”
When Bill was big
It’s hard to remember there was a time when Bill de Blasio was on top of the world. In mid-2014, not yet six months into his term, the mayor was still the national poster boy for progressives. He’d been elected by a landslide, already achieved his primary policy goal of establishing universal pre-Kindergarten and was starting to build alliances with other progressive mayors around the county. This was before Eric Garner, Officers Liu and Ramos, Rivington House, the Campaign for One New York, “agents of the city”—before any of that. Back then, de Blasio had juice.
“De Blasio was a central actor in this drama because we were deeply invested in his success,” one WFP insider says. “He was newly in office. We wanted to show that progressive government could succeed. His message to us was that he desperately needed this, that he couldn’t succeed in Albany without a Democratic Senate.”
While several member unions were also pushing the WFP to repair its relationship with the governor, party leaders say it was the mayor who sealed the deal. They knew it was risky to trust Cuomo, but they believed that de Blasio and the unions could force the governor to stick to his commitments.
After all, the member unions had made a very significant commitment themselves: a promise to only back Democratic state Senate candidates. That was a major departure from earlier practice, when unions like 1199, hoping to maintain their sway in Albany, sometimes supported Republicans who were likely to win.
“The decision for a unified approach was a seismic shift in the political landscape,” Karen Scharff, a WFP leader and the former head of Citizen Action, says of the union commitment. A run against Cuomo would have been satisfying, she says, but almost certainly would have ended in failure, and perhaps the destruction of the WFP. Plus, Cuomo was committing to work for a Democratic Senate. “I personally felt at the end, although I was very much against the governor, given that that was the choice, that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to change the Senate. We saw an opportunity to deliver very concrete improvements for struggling New Yorkers, which is what the WFP was created to do.”
In the deal crafted by all the players, the party would back Cuomo in exchange for his commitment to bringing the IDC back into the mainstream Democratic fold, work for a Democratic-controlled Senate and pursue a progressive policy wishlist. Negotiations stretched over several weeks and continued until the very last minutes before the vote.
The convention itself was a day of furious politicking at the Desmond Hotel, leading up to the evening convention at which labor leaders and de Blasio spoke and Cuomo addressed the crowd via a deeply weird videotaped message. In the end, Cuomo won 58 percent of the delegates to Teachout’s 41 percent. The ballot line was his.
“I don’t think Cuomo could have won that vote without the mayor’s intervention,” Scharff says. City Hall did not respond to requests for comment.
The recent swirl of allegations against the governor, about sexual misconduct and nursing homes, has opened the floodgates for scorching criticism of Cuomo’s record and personality, especially from progressives. The volume of pent-up rage makes one wonder if the WFP’s decision to back Cuomo in 2014 represented a missed opportunity for the left to take a stand against the governor early on.
Asked if Teachout could have won, Bertha Lewis, a veteran WFP activist who supported the insurgent in 2014, is certain. “Considering what is happening now and without any support the numbers she got, yes,” Lewis said. “The left f—-d up. There is always a choice to do the right thing instead of the right-wing thing.”
But WFP leaders say that in 2014, there was never any belief that, even with WFP backing, Teachout would have beaten Cuomo in the September Democratic primary.
Running without WFP support, Teachout snared just over 33 percent in the primary—an embarrassment to a sitting governor, to be sure, but a country mile from a competitive performance. With the WFP behind her, she might have hit 40 percent, a party insider says. It’s hard to say for sure, however, because Cuomo might have run a more aggressive primary race if he’d faced a stiffer challenge. In addition, Cuomo had threatened to pull the WFP’s unions out and create a new party if Teachout received the WFP nomination. It’s unclear whether he would have made good on that threat, but he certainly would have brought significant labor support to the contest.
Even if she’d won the WFP nomination that night outside Albany, it’s unclear whether Teachout would have ended up being on the WFP line for the 2014 general election. The party might have opted to replace her with Cuomo once the Democratic primary was over, in a bid for unity.
However, if Teachout had stayed on the WFP line in November, a party insider believes she might have received 200,000 to 300,000 votes—nowhere near enough to win, but possibly enough to make election night more uncomfortable for Cuomo. In the general election, the governor bested Republican Rob Astorino by 532,000 votes statewide, and would have lost the election were it not for his margin of victory in New York City.
The deal disintegrates
In the weeks after the WFP convention in 2014, Cuomo began hedging on some of his promises. But he appeared to be making good on others. He got the head of the IDC, Sen. Jeff Klein, to promise to caucus with Democrats in the next legislative session. The WFP dropped its support for candidates challenging Klein and other IDC members as a result.
But then Cuomo moved to create a new third party, the Women’s Equality Party, that seemed an effort to steal votes from the similarly named WFP. In the run up to the general election, Cuomo did little to help Democrats take over the Senate.
On Election Day, the Democrats ended up losing seats, so Klein went back on his deal and maintained the IDC’s partnership with the GOP. These developments spelled trouble for the progressive policies that Cuomo had committed to pursue. The governor did propose some of those measures, but with the GOP in charge of the Senate, they didn’t go very far. (A minimum wage hike, with a very slow phase-in period for some parts of the state, did come in 2016.)
As the governor turned against the WFP later in 2014, he also rounded on de Blasio. In the fall, just months after de Blasio went to bat for Cuomo at the convention, Cuomo left the mayor in the dark about steps he and New Jersey’s governor were taking in light of the Ebola outbreak. The governor a few months later shut the subway system down during a snowstorm with barely a heads up to the mayor. Then he resisted de Blasio’s proposal for reforming the 421-a affordable-housing tax break, insisting that a prevailing wage requirement be added. Other clashes soon followed.
It would be inaccurate to say that Cuomo’s enmity triggered all of the trials that have beset the mayor since those high-flying first six months. Many of the mayor’s problems were self-inflicted. But it is safe to say that de Blasio’s mayoralty was significantly less successful because of the feud with the governor and the persistence of a Republican state Senate until 2019, both of which came in spite of de Blasio’s efforts to patch up things between Cuomo and the WFP at the 2014 convention.
Westin sympathizes with de Blasio’s thinking back then. “You’re the mayor of New York City and so much of what you want to get done is dependent on the governor,” he says. “You think about it, logically it makes sense that he would try to be on the side of the governor and try to deliver for the governor, who’d then reciprocate. That makes sense logically. It being Andrew Cuomo, it’s a completely different calculation.”
A changed landscape
In the first years after the WFP’s decision to abandon Teachout and stick with Cuomo, it looked as if the party had been totally outplayed. But then things began to shift, and party leaders believe that is in large part because of the moves made at the 2014 convention.
After the disastrous 2014 election, Cuomo was somewhat more helpful to Democrats’ efforts to take control of the state Senate in 2016. The party still fell short of the numbers it needed, and the governor resisted pleas from mainstream Democrats to help broker reunification with the IDC.
The more significant development in 2016 was that the unions remained committed to Democratic Senate candidates. That commitment was again crucial in 2018, when a unified Democratic caucus finally won solid control of the Senate. “They never went back,” says the party insider of the unions. “That was gigantic.”
The Senate success in 2018 occurred despite the WFP initially deciding to nominate Cynthia Nixon over Cuomo, prompting several unions to abandon the party. Nixon lost badly in the Democratic primary and the WFP, sheepishly but strategically, reversed itself and gave Cuomo its ballot line.
Democratic control of the Senate facilitated a surge of progressive lawmaking in 2019. The alliance between progressives and unions helped Democrats win a veto-proof Senate supermajority in 2020. And it is that Democratic Senate majority, dominated by progressives, that would vote on whether to remove Cuomo from office should the Assembly impeach him.
De Blasio and the WFP made a colossal miscalculation in 2014, wrongly believing they could hold Cuomo to his commitments and never anticipating that the governor would target them for retribution. But the move had unexpected benefits. The member unions’ commitment to a Democratic Senate fundamentally altered state election dynamics, many believe. Cuomo moved steadily left, for which the WFP claims some credit. The fact that the IDC survived 2014 was a defeat for the WFP, but that setback helped to stoke progressive anger which, after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory energized the left, led to the defeat in the 2018 primaries of most of that breakaway conference. That in turn created a much more progressive Democratic caucus in 2019 than would have existed if the Senate had gone blue in 2014 with multiple ex-IDC members in prominent roles.
Even if impeachment never occurs, the Democratic supermajority is likely to make life very difficult for Cuomo for the remainder of this term. Should he seek a fourth term, the WFP would again be asked to decide whether they can stomach Andrew Cuomo as their nominee. This time, the answer will almost certainly be no.