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Cuomo vs. de Blasio: Clash of egos ends with a whimper

The mayor is the last man standing amid his epic feud with the governor

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), left, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) in March 2020. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

NEW YORK — Of course Bill de Blasio was on vacation when the news broke.

In eight years of epic public feuding, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has taken jabs at the mayor of New York City for everything from his proposed tax on millionaires to leaving town to potentially, maybe, taking a nap. (“I’m not a napper, really. I never have been,” Cuomo said in 2017, responding to a tabloid report that his former friend and fellow Democrat sometimes got shut-eye on the job.)

So who woulda thunk that the final scene of this battle royal would be the lame-duck mayor with the basement-scraping approval rating relaxing in Massachusetts with his family while the governor, with the $5 million book deal and his once proud legion of “Cuomosexuals,” is resigning from one of the most powerful political offices in the country, ending a family dynasty?

Cuomo’s resignation is coming on the heels of a scathing report from the state’s attorney general, released last week, that found that the three-term governor had sexually harassed 11 women and that some of his aides worked to undermine accusers.

De Blasio paused his vacation Tuesday to release a statement supporting the accusers. But several of his advisers said it was hard to overstate the enthusiasm, excitement and relief of those around the mayor. Some began drinking before 5 p.m. Tuesday. Several of his longest-serving advisers said they had noticed an uptick in his mood and his desire to do the job since Cuomo has been under harsh scrutiny. On Thursday, the mayor returned early from vacation to do a victory lap disguised as a news conference. “Let’s be clear,” he said of Cuomo. “He did horrible things.”

“Poetic,” says Jonathan Rosen, a longtime political strategist who guided de Blasio’s 2013 campaign and advised him for some time in office, adding, “I’m declaring this National Schadenfreude Day.”

De Blasio as the last man standing — and outliving Cuomo politically — is simply not what most in New York expected.

And de Blasio’s constant complaining about Cuomo in public, as ineffectual as it was, is starting to sound less like an immature squabble than the ringing of a warning bell. Cuomo’s downfall came from his alleged treatment of women but has exposed a far larger web of bullying power grabs, including the myriad that de Blasio battled daily.

Kathryn Wylde, chair of Partnership for New York City, a business group whose interests often aligned with Cuomo’s, says Cuomo’s fixation on de Blasio was “unprofessional” and detracted from his ability to make good decisions. Both men, Wylde says, handled themselves badly. “It’s played out in public. It’s been childish. It has undermined public confidence in leadership. And we’re glad it’s over.”

Asked to comment, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi responded, “For eight years we’ve had an incompetent, haphazard and ideological government running New York City, and everyone can see the results.”

De Blasio spokesman Bill Niehardt said that “‘feud’ was always the wrong word to look at it. It’s constantly been de Blasio pointing out Andrew’s transgressions.” Then he threw in another jab: “Andrew M. Cuomo is a remarkably horrid political creature who also happened to be a horrendous governor.”

The Washington Post spoke with 11 former and current Cuomo and de Blasio aides, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation.

Cuomo aides said the governor would grow enraged when he would even hear de Blasio’s name mentioned. “He woke up in the morning wanting to destroy him,” one of these people said.

How Cuomo’s flexing of political power became his undoing

In an unpublished draft of Cuomo’s book, reviewed by The Post, the governor wrote several pages about de Blasio, even unfavorably comparing him to former president Donald Trump, but he was persuaded by advisers to remove them from the final draft. “In this pandemic Trump and de Blasio [were] ironically the same personality from different ends of the political spectrum,” Cuomo wrote. “However, as de Blasio is ultimately irrelevant because he has no legal authority and no confidence from the people he is just annoying and counterproductive. Trump is a serious threat.” The draft was titled “MDR edits,” for Melissa DeRosa edits. DeRosa, who was Cuomo’s top aide, resigned Sunday.

There was more. “De Blasio passed virtually nothing of significance,” Cuomo wrote in the draft. “Meanwhile city services all suffered and while the mayor has a short period left before his term limited, he is currently viewed as one of the worst mayors in modern history.”

The feud manifested in, among many things, public disagreements over funding for the subway system, universal pre-K, schools and public housing; the euthanizing of a deer; a deadly disease outbreak in the Bronx; staff hiring; whether to allow topless women in Times Square; and that time Cuomo shut down the subway in a snowstorm and de Blasio found out at the same time the public did. During the pandemic, they spoke at separate news conferences and issued competing mandates that critics argue confused the public and endangered public safety.

Now Cuomo has imploded and de Blasio is arguably having his best summer as mayor, just as he is about to leave office.

So how did it all start?

Amicably, at first. The two first met in the mid-1990s when de Blasio was a New York political strategist and Cuomo a rising star in the Clinton administration. When Cuomo became President Bill Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development in 1997, he asked de Blasio to join as regional director for New York and New Jersey.

They were friends, keeping in touch through their rises, as Cuomo became state attorney general and governor and de Blasio became a New York City Council member, New York City public advocate, then mayor. The true measure of how close they were came in 2002, during Cuomo’s failed first run for governor. Cuomo was reluctant to drop out, even though his run was harming his standing with the Democratic Party and the African American community. “Bill was very helpful in negotiating for Andrew to diplomatically exit the race,” says a former official in de Blasio’s administration.

During Cuomo’s successful 2010 gubernatorial campaign, de Blasio “totally hung out in our office,” says a former Cuomo aide.

Former advisers in both camps cannot recall any tension until 2013, when de Blasio surged from fourth place in the last months of the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, running on a liberal agenda appealing to people of color, to become its decisive winner.

The win was a shock to everyone, including Cuomo, and for a brief moment it made de Blasio seem like “a very attractive national figure to the Democratic Party,” says Rosen, the former de Blasio campaign consultant.

Things started going south six days after the primary, when the rest of the Democratic mayoral field gathered on the steps of City Hall to endorse de Blasio, as a show of unity. Cuomo came to endorse him, too. Normally, at such an event, endorsers speak and then the candidate accepts the endorsements. Cuomo insisted on speaking last, resulting in a near-fistfight, witnessed by reporters, between his and de Blasio’s top aides.

Then a few days after de Blasio took office in January 2014 came what a former Cuomo aide calls “the original sin.”

During his run, de Blasio had promised to establish a universal pre-K program, funded by a tax on millionaires. Cuomo was running for reelection in 2014 on a plan for sweeping tax relief. According to a former Cuomo aide, the governor had agreed to universal pre-K but proposed a compromise where he would find funding in the state budget rather than raise taxes. But De Blasio wanted to make a statement about wealth disparity — not only pushing back but holding a news conference on the morning the governor was going to announce the universal pre-K plan in his State of the State address. Cuomo was enraged, aides said.

“De Blasio’s mistake was not taking yes for an answer and getting churlish about funding,” says Bob Hardt, political director for NY1, the local cable news channel. “I’m not defending Cuomo, but he basically said: ‘I think universal pre-K is great. We should do it.’ And if that’s your main goal, then you should be like, ‘Great. I’m so thrilled,’ versus, ‘No, you’re not paying for it the way I wanted,’ and then going public about how upset you are.”

New York governors and mayors have always had tense relationships. To this point — until Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) becomes governor with Cuomo’s exit — they’ve all been men vying for the title of top dog in New York. The power balance is in the governor’s favor, since the state controls most of the money — from the subway to the city’s ability to tax its residents. The national-attention balance has always favored the mayor, who is center stage in an international media hub.

Kathy Hochul, New York’s next governor, vows a clean break from the leadership style of Andrew Cuomo

The point of no return, many say, came in June 2015, a year and a half into de Blasio’s first term — after months of behind-the-scenes bickering.

That month, de Blasio hired Karen Hinton, a longtime Cuomo ally, as his press secretary. When she took the job, she says, Cuomo called her “disloyal” and “a traitor.” After a year of Cuomo “bashing” her in the press, she quit. She remained cordial with de Blasio but cut ties with Cuomo.

Hinton said Cuomo was thrilled about de Blasio’s win after four years of losing influence under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire seen as not kowtowing to anyone. “I think he saw it as, ‘My underling will become mayor and I will be able to control him,’” Hinton says.

Hinton was not one of the 11 women in the attorney general’s report, but earlier this year, as women stepped forward, she accused the governor of having groped her while she was his employee at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cuomo denied the allegations and called Hinton “a longtime political adversary” with an ax to grind.

Soon after hiring Hinton, de Blasio went public with his Cuomo feud. He called the press corps into his office, sat them around in a circle and unloaded on the governor. He also went on NY1 and aired his grievances with Cuomo on television using vivid language.

“If someone disagrees with him openly,” the mayor said, “some kind of vendetta or revenge follows.”

The word “vendetta,” infuriated Cuomo because it is associated with the Mafia, and he and de Blasio were two Italian American men in a dispute.

The mayor then went on vacation to the Southwest, leaving the governor to use his absence to make calls to bad-mouth him. Rosen and others called that a strategic mistake. “It’s hard to say that calling the guy a bunch of names and leaving town was a deeply strategic plan,” Rosen says. “It was a public airing of therapy.”

Since then, people close to them say, the relationship has only deteriorated.

Both men, Wylde says, are highly competitive with big egos and a need to be right. De Blasio is a liberal idealist who holds on to his beliefs and won’t compromise, Hinton says. “That created political problems for him as mayor,” Hinton says. He is known for not diving into minutiae of city government, former aides said, and being tardy. Cuomo is more of a centrist pragmatist — and often traded ideology for compromise. “It’s this weighing of the political scales as opposed to the scales of justice.”

As New York City became a global coronavirus hot spot, the feud that for so long had been playing out in local papers gained a national television audience.

“Before covid, it really wasn’t a serious problem. It was just two politicians, baiting each other,” says Wylde, the leader of the nonprofit business group. “But during the pandemic, when it came down to them issuing conflicting guidance and protocol and mandates, then it got scary.”

Cuomo would make announcements to upstage de Blasio if he heard the mayor was making one, or call federal officials if he felt they were doing things that would give de Blasio credit, according to people with knowledge of the events.

It continued with the vaccine rollout. One official who worked on the state’s vaccine effort said the governor was fixated on preventing de Blasio from receiving credit for vaccine distribution in the city. In a September meeting, as New York Department of Health officials outlined a plan to distribute vaccine throughout the state, Cuomo grew angry and objected, according to the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal fights.

“They can’t do s---,” Cuomo said in a phone call with state officials in response to a proposal that local health departments be given vaccine to distribute to their residents, according to the official.

On other occasions, he lobbied federal officials to give all vaccine to the state and not the city, people with knowledge of the discussions said. At another point, the state delayed approval for the city to vaccinate first responders, so state officials could make the announcement, according to two city officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private disagreements.

Cuomo also interfered in announcements related to the closing of New York City schools. According to a de Blasio administration official, the mayor’s office informed the governor’s office of the decision and when it was announcing it, only to see Cuomo go on NY1 and announce it himself 30 minutes earlier. In both places, the fighting caused confusion.

When de Blasio announced that New York City should prepare for stay-at-home orders, Cuomo went on TV to shoot him down that night — and the next day signed an executive order preventing New York City and all other municipalities in the state from issuing their own orders to deal with the health crisis. De Blasio aides viewed this as a direct effort to block the mayor and neuter his power. Cuomo’s move delayed New York City’s shutdown by five days.

“Honestly, de Blasio’s people were often the first to come up with what ended up to be the right solution,” Wylde says. “But Cuomo would feel a need to countermandate, so it went back and forth until the right solution is delayed. It was the opposite of what you would want from the government in a crisis.”

When Cuomo started hour-long news conferences with PowerPoint slide shows that got national attention, leading to legions of fans and talk of a presidential run, he refused to do news conferences with the mayor, say former de Blasio administration officials.

When, during the darkest days of the pandemic, the USNS Comfort naval medical ship came to the city as a floating intensive care unit, there were plans for a joint news conference with the governor, the mayor, and Navy representatives to greet it. The morning of the news conference, after the stage had been built, the governor’s team pulled out. They held their own news conference an hour earlier than the scheduled original time, one pier away.

The fight may not be over yet. Cuomo’s resignation means he can run for governor again, or president. De Blasio aides say they will nervously be watching Cuomo for the next 12 days.

On Thursday, de Blasio said what he’s looking forward to most now is “a professional, normal discussion” with the new governor, in which he asks questions and gets answers back. He, too, is free to run for governor. So, he might still wind up a punching bag. But it will at least be his choice.


A previous version of this story misquoted Bob Hardt, political director for cable news channel NY1. Hardt said De Blasio's mistake was in getting churlish, not trollish, about funding.