De Blasio and Cuomo: Allies or Adversaries

De Blasio and Cuomo: Allies or Adversaries

De Blasio and Cuomo: Allies or Adversaries
January 27, 2014

Is the relationship between the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City inherently doomed to fail?

“It’s not easy for governors and mayors to have a good marriage,” said Bruce Gyory, who worked for former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and is now a Democratic political consultant. “It’s tough. They have to work at it. And the question is: Will they?”

De Blasio and Cuomo have some things going for them.

First, as both sides have gone to great lengths to point out since de Blasio’s big win in November, they have known each other a long time.

The two first met during the Dinkins administration, when Cuomo ran the commission on homelessness for the Big Apple’s first black mayor and de Blasio was a staffer at City Hall. But they really came to know each other in the mid-1990s when de Blasio worked as a regional director under then HUD Secretary Cuomo during the Clinton administration.

Over the years, Cuomo and de Blasio have forged a working relationship and helped each other politically. And as they embark on this new chapter, they are both savvy enough to know that each is now in a position to significantly help—or hurt—the other.

“They start off in as good a spot as any mayor and governor have started off in a while,” said Dave Catalfamo, who served as former Gov. George Pataki’s last communications director and is now a Republican lobbyist in Albany. “We’re not talking aboutpeople who don’t know each other. They have a lot of history together, and a level of trust there that most of those people walking into those positions don’t necessarily have.”

But their needs might be diametrically opposed in the long term.

“If Cuomo’s quest for the presidency is going to be based on his ability to cut taxes or spending, he’s going to come into conflict with the guy who got elected on the premise of making things better for the poor,” said Richard Ravitch, a veteran public servant at both the city and state levels.

“I think de Blasio’s going to find out that the cupboard is a lot emptier than his predecessor has indicated,” Ravitch continued. “Costs are going up—the kind of costs that don’t get talked about, pension costs and healthcare. I think he’s going to be looking for more revenue.”

De Blasio’s top priority in Albany next year will be the signature policy proposal of his successful campaign: taxing the city’s wealthiest residents to pay for universal prekindergarten and after-school programs.

The incoming mayor recently launched a grassroots campaign dubbed UPKNYC that aims to pressure state leaders into giving him the power to tax the rich.

The star-studded campaign features a slickly produced video and actresses Cynthia Nixon and Olivia Wilde, musician John Legend, investor Roger Altman, movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

This effort, while no doubt an effective organizing tool, might be unnecessary.

Multiple sources say Cuomo has already figured out how to give de Blasio at least a semblance of a win on his pre-K quest by providing several hundred million dollars to expand slots in high-needs districts, of which New York City would be the biggest.

That is not too heavy a lift for Cuomo, who has already boosted pre-K funding—albeit through competitive grants—at the advice of his education reform commission.

It is unclear whether the funding for these new slots would be recurring, but it is highly unlikely Cuomo would agree to pay for them through a tax increase—especially when he is already committed to tax cuts in 2014.

So would the new mayor be satisfied with half a loaf? Would it be a true victory for de Blasio if his central theme of closing the income equality gap by making the rich pay more to benefit the poor is not realized?

State Sen. Liz Krueger, one of the chamber’s most liberal members and a de Blasio ally, does not seem to think so.

“We need dedicated funding for this in the tough budget years ahead,” the Upper East Side Democrat said.

“Bill’s proposal to let New York City raise its own funds for universal pre-K is the fairest, most straightforward way to do this, and it’s widely supported.”

De Blasio’s best hope of getting what he wants out of Albany is to build coalitions within the state Capitol outside of the second floor, said Eliot Spitzer’s former top spokesman Darren Dopp, who is now a consultant.

“This is de Blasio’s biggest challenge: He knows how to speak Cuomo-ese, but he doesn’t know how to deal with the Legislature,” Dopp said. “He needs some veteran legislative hands to help him.”

Perhaps cognizant of that fact, de Blasio has hired himself a Legislature whisperer—at least one fluent in the language of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has long tended the liberal flame at the Capitol and who could prove a valuable ally for the new mayor.

In mid-December de Blasio announced he had selected Silver’s former top advisor Dean Fuleihan to serve as his city budget director.

Fuleihan spent some three decades working for the Assembly, about half of that time in Silver’s office. Outside of his budgeting experience, which is considerable, observers believe his Albany expertise will complement the political prowess of de Blasio’s intergovernmental affairs director, Emma Wolfe.

Both de Blasio and Wolfe are known for their work ethic, encyclopedic knowledge—policy for him, politics for her—and dislike of the spotlight.

They are also pragmatic and not in-your-face aggressive or disdainful of intense politicking. That is a departure from the Bloomberg approach in Albany, which netted the outgoing mayor more high-profile losses than wins.

Because he does not have Bloomberg’s billions to throw around, de Blasio is going to need to use more finesse when it comes to getting what he wants out of Albany. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Staff relations are equally important—if not more so— than what transpires between the principals, former aides to governors and mayors say. Staffers toil for long hours negotiating the details of various deals. The bosses are the front men and the closers.

“Staff tends to hold grudges as much as the principals, if not more so,” Catalfamo said. “I remember all these small, stupid wars we had [with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s aides] over which podium would you use, and were you going to have a step and whose seal—little stuff.”

Also in de Blasio’s favor is the fact that he is on the right side of this moment in history. Addressing income inequality is all the rage right now among Democrats—from President Obama on down—thanks to de Blasio’s landslide victory in the November general election.

Progressive advocates are hoping to seize this moment, pushing for action in Albany on everything from creating a public campaign finance system and more equitable state tax structure to passing the DREAM Act and marijuana reform.

Cuomo is on board with some, but not all, of those agenda items. But he can ill afford to further anger the left, which is already upset by his fiscally conservative agenda and refusal to intervene in the state Senate power struggle, as he heads into a re-election year and considers a potential presidential run in 2016.

“If the governor thought it through, he doesn’t need de Blasio personifying a cold war with the liberal wing of the party,” said Gyory. “At this point, the mayor-elect is second only to [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren nationally as the symbol of resurgent progressivism.”

But Catalfamo thinks de Blasio and Cuomo will be able to navigate their differences, at least in the short term, insisting they have “more ideologically in common than maybe people perceive.”

“They’re both smart politicians who will try to work together and give each other the wins they need and find a way home,” Catalfamo continued. “That will be complicated by external forces—a liberal City Council, the Legislature, a Speaker looking to reassert himself. It’s a neat challenge.”

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Liz Benjamin