Politics

Opinion: De Blasio’s beef with Cuomo ignores the constitution

It would be a mistake to see the very real tension between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a personality conflict. Instead, the mayoral-gubernatorial rivalry has at its core deep constitutional roots, important history and a now-chronic electoral deficit plaguing New York City. The solution lies not in a continuation of their public spat but in de Blasio realizing that any mayor needs a pragmatic and politically savvy "foreign" policy when it comes to Albany, based upon realpolitik.

First, under our state’s constitution, every locality, including New York City, exists as a creature of the state. This is not a point of view; it is deeply embedded in Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. A distinguished state constitutional scholar, Richard Briffault of Columbia Law School, said it best: “The state role of establishing local governments is fundamental … local governments are established by special state action or in accord with general law, and derive their legal authority, their regulatory powers and their public service responsibilities from the state constitution, state statutes, and state-granted charters.”

Gotham’s mayors have long chafed at this constitutional reality. Last spring, I read Richard Norton Smith’s biography of Nelson Rockefeller and chuckled when I came across this quote: “Like every New York mayor before and since, Robert Wagner bitterly resented the city’s status as a ward of the state, unable to set its own property, sales or cigarette taxes without obtaining Albany’s permission.”

Wagner bristled at first, both under Govs. Thomas Dewey and Averell Harriman (a fellow Democrat) as well as in his early days with Nelson Rockefeller, but learned the importance of supporting Rockefeller publicly in order to secure results in Albany. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia turned contentious early political relationships with both Govs. Herbert Lehman and Dewey into productive governmental partnerships benefiting New York City. De Blasio would be wise to follow their path rather than imitating the John Lindsay/Rockefeller cold war turned hot, which hurt both men politically and all New Yorkers governmentally.

Second, de Blasio should ignore Anthony Weiner’s flawed punditry. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Weiner bemoaned that a senator in faraway Oswego should have a say on a housing incentive deal on 57th Street in Manhattan, calling for a “return” of more governing “authority” to New York City.

The problem is that Weiner’s postulate fails the test of law, history and politics. As Briffault reminded us, under our constitution, the state creates its cities, not vice-versa. Weiner also ignores the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when but for the state’s intercession, New York City would have gone bankrupt. Taxpayers from Oswego, Otsego and Ossining kept New York City afloat after the city proved it could not run its subways, maintain CUNY or balance its budget without state help. Nor does the city’s current affluence make it immune from the need for state support, as Nassau County has proven time and again.

Which brings us to the political source underlying any recent mayor’s governing dilemma vis-a-vis Albany: New York City today has 43 percent of the state’s population and 39 percent of its registered voters, but in the 2014 election cast only 26 percent of the vote for gubernatorial candidates. It has been 32 years since the city cast over 30 percent of the state’s gubernatorial vote, when it hit a mere 31 percent share in 1982.

If de Blasio wants to have a bigger say in Albany, he should work tirelessly to build up the city’s share of the statewide vote in future elections, setting a benchmark for the gubernatorial share to at least 35 percent – the level from the state’s 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. De Blasio would also benefit from building broader regional coalitions by working with upstate mayors and county executives from swing counties. An unformed alliance with upstate school districts over shared interests in education funding formulas is there for the taking.

Attacking the governor personally, however cathartic, thwarts those important goals. U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries got it right when he told The New York Times recently, “It shocked me when the mayor decided to go after Gov. Cuomo in such a highly personal way. With each week, it appears to be more of a miscalculation.”

Meanwhile, the optimist in me believes that de Blasio can find a foreign policy that holds its own in Albany. To do so, he should remember, to paraphrase the Bard, that the fault is not in our stars; the solution is in ourselves.

 

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at University at Albany, SUNY.

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