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How Andrew Cuomo Screwed Democrats for Almost a Decade
Getting to Know the #Resistance Superstar of the Moment
Governor Andrew Cuomo spent much of March and April in a whirlwind of remarkable publicity. As COVID-19 ravaged New York, killing hundreds daily, the Democratic governor was winning plaudits from a wide range of prestige pundits and ordinary TV watchers, most of them of a liberal persuasion. Some began to fantasize that Cuomo would replace Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket for president.
New York and national Democrats couldn’t help but love the tough-talking bruiser from Queens, the perfect antidote to another Queens-born brawler in the White House. In New York, Cuomo’s overall approval rating is north of 70 percent. For those who hate Donald Trump and consume daily doses of MSNBC, Cuomo is yet another Resistance-minted superstar, following in the footsteps of Adam Schiff and Robert Mueller, who achieved votive candle status before failing to realize the liberal fantasy of jailing Trump. (Cuomo is no slacker in the fan-made merch department.)
Today I am not going to dwell on Cuomo’s actually disastrous response to the pandemic or his desire to gut the funding of public schools. Rather, I am writing this piece for Democrats who have recently fallen in love with Cuomo, who view him as a strong progressive bulwark against Trump. This piece is for those who’ve contributed money to Democratic candidates, volunteered for Democratic candidates, and voted in Democratic primaries. This is for those who dream of Democrats retaking the Senate, protecting the House, and ending Trump’s presidency.
Here’s the crux of it all: for nearly decade, Andrew Cuomo directly helped Republicans hold power in New York State.
For those who follow New York politics closely, what I am about to write isn’t terribly surprising or new. But there are many people who have busy lives and can’t possibly know the intricacies and oddities of 2010s New York. For them, I hope this is all useful.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2010, Andrew Cuomo was elected governor, campaigning as a socially liberal, fiscally centrist Democrat who would break the power of labor unions in New York. Though his father was governor, he positioned himself as a reform-oriented outsider, claiming he would challenge entrenched special interests in Albany. Chief among Cuomo’s promises was a vow to create an independent redistricting process when state legislative districts were redrawn in 2012.
Cuomo repeatedly promised to shoot down district lines that were not independently drawn. “I will veto lines that are not drawn by an independent commission that are partisan,” Cuomo declared in 2011.
Why did this matter? Unlike California, for example, districts in New York for Assembly, Senate, and U.S. House seats were always designed by the legislative leaders in Albany. This meant that politicians, every 10 years, were gerrymandering many of the districts in the state. New York State has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984, but Republicans have played a prominent role in every redistricting process in modern history. With the exception of one brief and chaotic interruption a decade ago, Republicans controlled the State Senate from the 1960s until 2019. Some of this was a function of demographic and political realities of a bygone era—the relative strength of conservatives in the suburbs and upstate. As voter rolls turned increasingly Democratic, though, Senate districts would have to be radically gerrymandered to keep Republicans in power. Republicans needed to create bizarrely-shaped districts that directly disempowered black and Hispanic communities downstate, since they were overwhelmingly voting Democrat. At one time, all nine state senators in Nassau and Suffolk Counties were Republican, even though Democrats were routinely electing county-level legislators and nonwhites were majorities in a growing number of towns.
Gerrymandering explained most of the GOP’s success in New York by the dawn of the 21st century. The rest was a corrupt bargain between high-level Democrats and Republicans, one that Cuomo didn’t pioneer but took to new heights. New York’s last Republican governor, George Pataki, formed a close alliance with 1199 SEIU, the largest labor union in New York State. In exchange for concessions to the healthcare workers, the union would refuse to support Senate Democrats while endorsing and funding Republicans. In 2016, the year Donald Trump stormed to the presidency, 1199 SEIU was still endorsing Senate Republicans. 1199 SEIU wasn’t alone. At various points in the last 30 years, large, influential unions representing healthcare workers, hotel workers, construction workers, and civil service workers would back Senate Republicans or ignore the pleas of Democrats.
Still, with fairly-drawn districts, the Senate Republicans were doomed in 2012, no matter what a triangulating labor union tried to do. They knew it. President Barack Obama was running for re-election and he was guaranteed to drive Democratic turnout in the state. In 2008, Democrats briefly captured the State Senate on the coattails of Obama’s historic victory. In 2010, following a deep dive in Democratic turnout, Republicans retook the majority.
By 2012, Cuomo had lost interest in reforming the redistricting process. Breaking his promise to veto gerrymandered lines, Cuomo allowed Dean Skelos, the Republican majority leader, to draw State Senate districts as he saw fit. In turn, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, could do the same for his chamber, but this hardly mattered since Democrats held a supermajority there and had run the Assembly since the 1970s. Cuomo handed Senate Republicans their only shot at survival. Skelos’ team went to work gerrymandering the Senate as aggressively as they could.
At the heart of Cuomo’s backstabbing of reformers was a political deal. Cuomo wasn’t at war with all labor unions anymore—private sector heavyweights like 1199 were now allies—but he still disliked public sector employee unions. In return for drawing their own district lines, legislators approved Cuomo’s new pension plan for most new state and local employees and raised their retirement age by a year to 63. Lawmakers also approved an expansion of the state’s DNA database to include samples from those convicted of any crime, including all misdemeanors.
Finally, Cuomo got the legislature to back a constitutional amendment that eventually allowed seven new casinos to open up in New York State. They were pitched as economic engines to revive moribund communities upstate. (They’ve mostly failed to do so.)
The sin of letting Republicans draw their own district lines was particularly great because redistricting only occurs once a decade, following the Census. This fall, Democrats and Republicans will still be competing in State Senate districts that Skelos, now in prison on corruption charges, sketched out eight years ago. Cuomo let him do this.
Still, despite the gerrymander, Democrats won enough seats to take control of the State Senate in 2012. Badly-drawn districts couldn’t tamp down the natural advantages of Democratic candidates running in a largely Democratic state. (Normal districts, it should be said, would have made the Democratic gains much larger and probably prevented the absurdity I’m about to describe.)
A month after the election, something strange happened. Five Democratic state senators decided to create an unprecedented governing coalition that would allow State Senate Republicans to remain in the majority. The Democrats belonged to a new group called the Independent Democratic Conference, which has formed a year earlier. Their leader, State Senator Jeffrey Klein, had deep personal disagreements and generally more conservative politics—he was closely aligned with the real estate industry and strongly supported charter schools—than his former Senate Democratic colleagues. In many ways, his politics closely aligned with those of Cuomo’s.
Most Democratic governors would condemn such an arrangement, since Republicans would roadblock their progressive priorities. Democratic governors like Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin would probably want nothing more than to flip their state legislatures blue. Not Cuomo. “The governor will withhold judgment until he sees how the Senate functions and acts on critical issues facing the state,” a Cuomo spokesperson said in 2012.
Two years later, Politico’s Blake Zeff would definitively report what all close watchers of New York government suspected for a long time: Cuomo actively encouraged the IDC to form a coalition to keep Republicans in power. “The governor’s interest, say knowledgeable sources, was ensuring that Republicans had control over the agenda in the Senate, so that he wouldn’t be handing over power to New York City Democrats,” Zeff reported.
Republicans would retain control of the State Senate from 2013 through 2018, despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2:1 in New York. Their majority would span the Obama and Trump eras, aided by gerrymandered districts and their IDC alliance. Cuomo, meanwhile, would repeatedly refuse to actively campaign for or fund Senate Democrats. In 2014, the year he won re-election, he ended his campaign with more than $9 million in the bank as Republicans outspent Democrats to expand their majority. The IDC-GOP alliance would only end when progressive challengers ran primaries, unsanctioned by Cuomo who tried desperately to ward them off, against all the IDC members, defeating most of them.
It’s important to remember Senate Republicans, for much of their tenure, could not have kept their slim majority without the IDC’s help. Had the IDC partnered with Democrats in 2013, Republican rule in New York would have been history.
By now, you may be wondering why Andrew Cuomo, a Democratic governor who is the son of another Democratic governor, would want Republicans to control the State Senate. There are a few possible reasons. One, of course, is politics. As I wrote earlier, Cuomo was a Clintonian centrist who hated the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy, once dismissed a proposal to hike the state’s minimum wage, warred with public sector unions, and forged an enduring relationship with Wall Street and the state’s powerful real estate industry. State Senate Democrats are more liberal than he is. A united Democratic majority could have forced him to sign bills he didn’t want to sign in his first and second terms. He was not going to let them force him further to the left. He would go there on his own terms. Last year, in part, was an illustration of all Cuomo tried to avoid. State Senate Democrats joined with their Assembly counterparts to pass a wide range of legislation that Republicans had blocked for years: historic protections for tenants, tuition assistance and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a far-reaching bill to combat climate change, and the partial end of cash bail and creation of new discovery laws. It was the most productive legislative session in anyone’s memory.
The second reason is power. A Republican State Senate would always be at odds with a Democratic Assembly. The legislative leaders could not join forces to combat the authority of the executive branch. With each chamber belonging to a different party, Cuomo could divide and conquer the legislature. On some days, he could more closely align himself with the Republican majority leader. On others, he could court the Assembly speaker. Both would need him to govern. The Republican majority gave Cuomo cover if a progressive piece of legislation he didn’t particularly like got stopped there—advocates would have to blame the Republicans, not Cuomo. Cuomo could shrug his shoulders and say it was the business of the legislature.
A divided legislature typically won the approval of centrist editorial boards who confused bipartisan rule with efficiency. The thinking went that if the Democrats had full control of government, chaos and corruption would ensue. This logic was more enduring than you think. I had many an argument with those who accepted Republican rule as price to pay for the vague goal of competence. Never mind that Skelos would end up in prison and the primary outcome of a divided legislature was the stifling of bills Cuomo never wanted to prioritize.
It’s important not to lose sight of history. Cuomo was elected in 2010 and didn’t govern with a Senate Democratic majority until 2019. This was no accident. Cuomo could have deployed his enormous campaign war chest—for each of his re-election bids against nominal Republican opposition, he raised tens of millions of dollars—on behalf of Senate Democrats and never did until it was clear, in the fall of 2018, there was no way for Republicans to keep their majority. Cuomo could have condemned the IDC in 2012 and used his profound leverage as governor to break their budding alliance with the Republicans. He could have told the state’s most formidable labor unions to stop supporting Republicans and the IDC and they would have listened.
The consequence of this all was a decade devoid of progressive legislation that should have been passed in 2013, when Democrats had enough seats to chase Republicans from power for good. In New York City, this meant six years of tenant harassment and the permanent loss of affordable housing, as rent-stabilized housing stock was legally deregulated. This meant six years of low-income defendants pressured to take bad deals from prosecutors because their attorneys couldn’t see the faulty evidence against them until it was too late. This meant six years of undocumented immigrants failing to get tuition assistance for their public university education.
All of this is Cuomo’s fault. It is the defining feature of his three terms in power. Today he stands up to Trump. For most of his governorship, he was elevating and empowering the party of Trump.