Choose your metaphor: When Gov. Andrew Cuomo roused a crowd in Albany last week by promising to stop fingerprinting food stamp applicants, was he stepping on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s toes or kicking him in the shin?
Cuomo didn’t single out New York City, but there was no mistaking which city he was targeting with his call to end the practice.
To Bloomberg, it’s a simple way to guard against fraud, and his Human Resources Administration has argued for years it’s the responsible thing to do. To advocates for the needy, it’s a heartless step that penalizes the poorest: The Empire Justice Center found that 97 percent of New York City’s food stamp denials based on fingerprinting were later overturned. The examples in their report are heartbreaking.
The debate has played out for years on the City Hall steps, where politicians from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on down, powerless to force the mayor’s hand, have decried the policy.
Cuomo, though, can end it with an executive order.
As devastating as losing food stamps is to a desperately poor family, the denials in New York City are hardly the biggest problem facing the state. So why did the governor use his biggest speech of the year to make an example of it?
Sure, Bloomberg is an easy target. He’s a billionaire who keeps his empathy well-hidden, and it’s not hard for a foe to paint him as blind to the suffering of the poor.
But it also points to a flaw in Bloomberg’s style. He is a data-driven manager who runs New York City on numbers, not emotion—except when he makes up his mind on an issue and no one can change it.
Perhaps Bloomberg doesn’t feel like reopening old battles after 10 years in the same job. Perhaps it’s part of the stubbornness that helped make him a billionaire. Either way, challenging it was politically useful for the governor.
Cuomo’s pledge to end food stamp fingerprints was more than a crowd-pleaser and more than an easy way to tweak the mayor; it was a way to show that the governor runs New York, and that the mayor has to accommodate him by changing the way he operates.
In other words, Cuomo wasn’t aiming for Bloomberg’s toes and he wasn’t aiming for his shin. His aim was right in the middle, trying to pinch what he thinks is the mayor’s Achilles heel.
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