New York’s Democrats are a liberal lot. Ever since two young state legislators, Al Smith and Robert Wagner, authored the pioneering bills that outlawed a host of labor abuses in the wake of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, New York’s Democratic elected officials and voters have been at the forefront of social reform. As governor, Franklin Roosevelt initiated public works and public jobs programs that became a model for those he implemented as president. In recent decades, New Yorkers have increasingly voted for Democratic candidates, and for increasingly liberal Democratic candidates.
So why on earth would the state’s Democrats want to reelect Gov. Andrew Cuomo?
At a time when Democrats everywhere are seeking to diminish economic inequality, Cuomo, who is running for a second term as governor, has adopted policies that would only widen the economic gaps.
His most recent state budget, which he pushed through the legislature this month, reduced taxes on the state’s mega-banks and raised the threshold for its estate tax. He rebuffed the efforts of New York City’s new Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, to levy a tax on residents making more than $500,000 a year to fund a citywide pre-kindergarten program. (He did allow the state to provide funding for such a program, but its ongoing revenue stream is uncertain.)
Cuomo also rebuffed de Blasio’s bid to raise the city’s minimum wage above $9 an hour, the level the state enacted last year, despite the vast difference between the cost of living in Brooklyn and the cost of living in Binghamton. By denying cities the right to set their own minimum wage to reflect their living expenses, Cuomo has aligned himself not with fellow Democratic governors (California’s Jerry Brown and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, for instance, have not opposed local governments’ wage-setting within their states) but with such Republican governors as Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin, who signed a bill on Monday forbidding such policies.
The push to diminish economic inequality has become the Democratic Party’s raison d’etre, at least for many Democratic voters. A Pew Research Center poll from mid-January showed that 75 percent of Democrats favored raising taxes on the rich and corporations to address the plight of the poor.
Cuomo is marching in precisely the opposite direction. He is also disinclined to address the political inequities that follow from economic inequality. Two weeks ago, he disbanded the commission that was looking into ways to diminish the role big money plays in state politics in the wake of a series of corruption scandals in the legislature. Advocates of campaign finance reform had hoped Cuomo and the commission would recommend a system like New York City’s, in which low-dollar contributions are rewarded with public matching funds (actually, more than matching: six public dollars for every one that accrues from contributions of $175 or less). By discharging the panel, known as the Moreland Commission, Cuomo — a major recipient of Wall Street contributions — has effectively endorsed the outsize role of money in politics.
It’s instructive to compare Cuomo’s record and persona to those of the other Democratic governor of a mega-state, California’s Brown. Both are sons of legendary Democratic governors of their states — Mario Cuomo and Pat Brown — and both have distanced themselves, to varying degrees, from their fathers’ liberal politics. Brown has resisted the efforts of liberal Democrats in the legislature to boost social welfare spending, but he has also raised taxes on the rich, directed more funding to school districts with high percentages of impoverished students and played a decisive role in raising the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. Though in no way as gregarious as his father, he has maintained generally good relations with the state’s other Democratic officials and constituency groups, who view him at best with affection and at worst with a kind of resigned bewilderment.
Cuomo, by contrast, sees his state’s Democratic officials as adversaries and has crafted relationships with Sen. Chuck Schumer, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and de Blasio that may politely be deemed adversarial. Talk off the record about Cuomo with other leading New York Democrats and what you hear is fear and loathing.
So why would New York Democrats reelect this guy? Why doesn’t he have a primary opponent? Yes, Cuomo has raised more than $30 million and the election year is already well along, but the hearts and votes of the Democratic base are there for the challenger’s taking.