Who is New York’s progressive leader? Cuomo and de Blasio use DNC stages to stake their claim

Who is New York’s progressive leader? Cuomo and de Blasio use DNC stages to stake their claim

Who is New York’s progressive leader? Cuomo and de Blasio use DNC stages to stake their claim
July 27, 2016

On Tuesday morning, hours after Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to rally his diehard followers behind Hillary Clinton, he joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make the same case to the New York delegation. Repeating many of the themes from his prime-time speech on Monday night, the Democratic presidential runner-up went on to applaud Cuomo for several recent accomplishments, including the state’s $15 minimum wage and a groundbreaking paid family leave law. New York, Sanders proclaimed, is a “progressive leader in this country.”

Although the two men grinned broadly as they stood alongside each other at the podium in a spacious hotel ballroom in downtown Philadelphia, the pairing was an odd one: Sanders, the self-described socialist who has attracted a surprisingly strong base of liberal support with his blunt attacks on income inequality and Wall Street malfeasance; and Cuomo, who spent much of his first term in office as a budget-cutting, deal-making moderate in the mold of former President Bill Clinton.

But while introducing Sanders, Cuomo argued that New York is in line with the Vermont lawmaker’s thinking. “We are with the senator when we passed $15, the highest minimum wage in the United State of America, when we passed paid family leave, when we passed marriage equality, when we passed the ban on assault weapons,” Cuomo proclaimed, bringing the crowd to its feet. “We believe in progressive politics. We don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk!”

The crowd, which gave Sanders an even more enthusiastic response, was made up of hundreds of New York Democratic officials at all levels, from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer down to the lowly alternate delegates, and with large numbers of Clinton supporters as well as a significant contingent of Sanders holdouts. One glaring absence was of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had several public events before and after the Tuesday morning gathering of the state’s delegation but no obvious conflicts in his public schedule.

De Blasio, who won the 2013 mayoral primary in part by moving to the left of his rivals and seizing on dissatisfaction with the city’s leadership after 12 years of Michael Bloomberg, has tried to usher in a new era of progressive government since taking office, spurring occasional confrontations with Cuomo while, many believe, drawing the governor to the left at the same time.

Sanders, a more natural ally of de Blasio, also met with the mayor on Tuesday morning, but behind closed doors. A de Blasio spokeswoman confirmed the event, but the mayor’s press staff provided no further details to City & State.

As the featured speaker at a meeting in Philadelphia of the Working Families Party, a third party he has been closely involved with, de Blasio laid out his own record that he said he achieved in the face of widespread skepticism if not outright opposition.

Among the victories he touted are his ambitious plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing, a local paid sick leave law and higher wages for city employees. In addition, his administration implemented a rent freeze for two consecutive years, and its sharp reduction in stop-and-frisk policing has coincided with a drop in crime, despite the warnings of naysayers. Finally, an aggressive expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten “for all kids” put in place over two years went from 20,000 children to 70,000 today.

“We, as progressives, are often challenged as to whether our ideas can work,” de Blasio told the WFP gathering. “Maybe people give us some credit – our heart’s in the right place, we care about people, care about the average man or women – but can these ideas work? Often we have thrown in our face, you know, ‘A minimum wage increase, oh that’s going to lead to greater unemployment,’ ‘Paid sick leave, oh, businesses will go bankrupt, small businesses will suffer,’ time and time again. Common sense progressive reforms work, and they make the economy stronger, they create a more inclusive, engaged economic environment.”

So which of the two officials is New York’s foremost progressive leader? Several current and former elected officials said that the answer depends on how “progressive” is defined. If it’s based on core values and beliefs, de Blasio is the natural response. But if it’s a matter of actual results, it’s more complicated.

“If you’re asking to compare Cuomo and de Blasio based on progressive history and values, obviously Bill de Blasio is more a progressive,” said Mark Green, the author, commentator and former public advocate of New York City. “Now remember, he served a progressive, Brooklyn brownstone district in the City Council, and now of course New York City – and Andrew Cuomo represents the whole state.”

Cuomo started out as a “very centrist Democrat,” liberal on most social issues and center-right on many economic issues, like spending and the state budget, Green continued. The governor’s more recent shift to the left, Green argued, was in response to liberal pressure on issues like pre-K. “But he’s not very liberal instinctively unless people lobby him,” Green said. “He responds to pressure more than principle.”

Meanwhile, de Blasio has fundamentally liberal leanings on both social and fiscal matters. “Now they’ve ended up a bit more similar because the whole party has moved to a more progressive place,” Green said. “Before Bernie Sanders, he proved whites were progressive. Look at the platform, look at Hillary Clinton, who is not running as a Bill Clinton Democrat – she’s running like a Barack Obama, Bill de Blasio, more liberal Democrat.”

Another factor is simply the roles and powers that come with the office of the governor as opposed to serving as mayor, even in a city as large and as important as New York City.

“It seems to me that the mayor obviously has more progressive values than the governor,” New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres said, “but the governor probably has more progressive results, where he’s in a position to do more, he’s in a position to pass paid family leave statewide, pass a $15 minimum wage, where the city has no authorization at all. So again, it depends on how you define it.”

So far, Cuomo has had more opportunities in Philadelphia to be in the spotlight – and to define, or perhaps to redefine, himself as the state’s leading progressive.

Of course, spending more time in the public eye increases the chances of getting sidetracked. While addressing the DNC’s LGBT Caucus meeting and touting the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, the governor was interrupted by a Code Pink demonstrator opposed to his controversial stance on Israel. Cuomo, who was set to address AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby, in a private event later on Tuesday afternoon, issued an executive order earlier this year that bans state business with groups boycotting Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. The order has yet to go into effect.

“His executive order is unconstitutional, as the right to boycott is time honored, from the Montgomery bus boycott through the boycott and divestment movement that helped end South African apartheid,” said Ariel Gold, the Code Pink protester. “It is part of our Constitution to use tactics like boycott and divestment, which are nonviolent tactics, to bring about peace, justice and equality, and human rights to those who are suffering.”

Later on Tuesday, as Hillary Clinton made history as the first female presidential candidate formally nominated by a major party, it was Cuomo who formally submitted the 181 votes for her from her adopted home state. The governor, flanked by Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and other New York party luminaries, used his brief remarks to once again highlight his own achievements, including the wage hike, paid family leave and same-sex marriage.

De Blasio stood with the delegation as the state's votes were tallied, but he was somewhat apart from Cuomo and was left out of the camera for viewers watching at home. On Wednesday, the mayor will have his moment alone in the spotlight, with a speech to the full Democratic National Convention in the late afternoon – not in a prime-time slot, but still another chance to present himself to New Yorkers as the state’s true progressive. 

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.