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The Left's Biggest Challenge Is Taking Down Andrew Cuomo. Planning Must Begin Now.
2022 is right around the corner. Beating Andrew Cuomo will be incredibly hard to do.
I tend to think a lot about elections. That’s probably because I’ve covered too many to count—everything from presidential races to city council contests—and run in one myself. I often wonder about what it takes to win, why certain candidates lose, how campaigns are implemented in the first place and why they matter at all. Ironically, I also believe we in the media focus too much on elections at the expense of government. Campaign politics has always been our shiny object.
With Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York’s most powerful figure, elections and governing collide. Cuomo is a creature of history who always has his eye on his next re-election. The son of a popular governor, he is wholly conscious of his legacy. First elected in 2010, he is winding down his third term and undoubtedly seeking a fourth in 2022. I truly believe he may try, like Watchmen’s Richard Nixon, to win a fifth and sixth. Governors, like state lawmakers, are not term limited in New York. Cuomo is merely 62. Remember, Robert Moses wasn’t dumped from the newly-created MTA until he was almost 80. In some sense, Cuomo’s reign could just be beginning.
I throw in the Watchmen reference not because I’m a devotee of the graphic novel or the miniseries (quite good!) but to hammer home the concept of generational rule. For those unaware, the Watchmen graphic novel is set in alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still president. He has served for nearly 20 years, which is presented as a fantastical element of the universe’s otherwise gritty realism. In the miniseries, America’s monumental president is Robert Redford (yes, that one), a liberal elected in 1992 and still presiding as of 2019. Cuomo’s tenure, approaching a full decade, could match either fictional reign, impacting multiple generations of New Yorkers. Today’s incoming college class may only have working memories of a Governor Cuomo. The same could be true of the class of 2030.
Those who ask whether Andrew Cuomo will run for president always miss the point. Cuomo is smart enough to understand, unlike Bill de Blasio, the odds are wholly against him winning and any failed bid weakens his hand at home. Look at Kirsten Gillibrand, who was branded as a rising star until she undertook a presidential bid and attracted vanishingly little support. Her political capital is gone. If she doesn’t snag a plum in the Biden Administration, an ambitious challenger like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t find it all that difficult to drive her from office. As I’ve said before—you could call this a theme of my newsletter—the governor’s office in New York is invested with phenomenal power. Why bother running for president? Presidents exert their influence most profoundly on foreign affairs; the domestic is still largely guided by 50 state governments and subject to meddling by Congress. That’s what federalism is. Cuomo doesn’t care a lick about the military-industrial complex or whatever it is that happens in Libya or Yemen. And even there, he can only do so much.
A state government, however, is an entirely different matter. New York has the third largest budget in America, behind the federal budget itself and California’s. Pre-COVID-19, New York State’s GDP was around 1.7 trillion, roughly the size of Spain’s. The budget is $177 billion. All of it, as I’ve written before, Cuomo has inordinate power over, able to determine how much funding is provided to public schools, hospitals, roadways, public transportation, the criminal justice system, Medicaid, and a wide array of other social services. The MTA, which controls the New York City subway system, is under his authority. So too are tenant laws, traffic laws, and tax laws. There is no facet of public life in New York State that is not, directly or indirectly, guided by the whims of Cuomo. If he wants, he can unilaterally close the subways or impose a curfew on New York City. Virtually all policy that came from New York’s tragically misguided pandemic response was conceived in the governor’s office. Being governor of New York, I would argue, affords even more clout than the governor’s office of California. The Golden State is larger but more unwieldy. Gavin Newsom must contend with a wide range of semi-autonomous county governments and large metropolitan areas with their own political quirks. New York City is the state’s lone power center and Cuomo, thanks to state law enacted during the 1970s fiscal crisis, can cow its leadership whenever he chooses.
Cuomo wants to surpass his father, who failed to win a fourth term, and eventually Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s only four term governor. Rockefeller and Moses each serve as models for Cuomo; it’s not a coincidence that it was only Rockefeller, the scion of the world’s wealthiest family, who could finally depose Moses. It’s important to underscore that Cuomo does not have absolute power. He lost leverage when Democrats finally took control of the State Senate in 2019 and began working together to pass bills in quick succession without Cuomo’s input. Before the pandemic, with more newly-elected progressives in the legislature outwardly willing to challenge Cuomo, it appeared Cuomo would govern with a weakened hand, unable to pit the Democrat-controlled Assembly against the Republican-run State Senate. This changed in 2020 as Cuomo’s popularity skyrocketed and the two understated legislative leaders, Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, willingly handed him fantastic new powers over the budgeting process, allowing him to impose rolling cuts throughout the year.
Progressives in New York have long understood Cuomo is the roadblock to real sweeping and lasting change in the state. Cuomo’s former top aide now sits in federal prison on corruption charges. New York’s patronage-ridden system for overseeing elections is among the very worst in America, thanks to Cuomo, who has never demonstrated any interest in changing it. The byzantine and politics-infested judicial system is just as bad. The MTA has been a bloated, dysfunctional mess for years, and Cuomo chased away the only competent bureaucrat, Andy Byford, who earnestly attempted an overhaul there. Most of the reforms won in 2019 around strengthening rent, environmental, and criminal justice laws could have happened nearly a decade earlier if Cuomo had not thwarted Democratic attempts to take control of the State Senate. What’s damning about Cuomo is not merely his triangulation and distasteful centrism; it’s the toxic mix of incompetence and arrogance, on display most tragically as 31,000 died from COVID-19. Cuomo delayed imposing a shelter in place order on New York City and shutting down schools statewide. He repeatedly downplayed the virus in early March. He then forced nursing homes to take coronavirus patients, leading to more than 6,000 deaths. He made attempts to cut Medicaid funding to public hospitals during a pandemic and will probably succeed, ultimately, in getting those crippling reductions. The case against Cuomo is long.
Cuomo has run in relatively few competitive elections. He rose to power because his predecessor, David Paterson, was an accidental governor, filling in for Eliot Spitzer after he resigned from a prostitution scandal in 2008. Paterson, a Democrat, stepped aside for Cuomo, averting a Democratic primary. Cuomo then crushed a right-wing Republican, Carl Paladino, winning easily in the general election. Cuomo last had to compete in 2006, when he triumphed in a Democratic primary for attorney general over Mark Green and Sean Patrick Maloney. In 2014, a law professor named Zephyr Teachout campaigned on an anti-corruption platform against Cuomo and won nearly 34 percent of the vote, despite only spending a half million on her campaign, relative to the roughly $20 million Cuomo spent in the election cycle. In 2018, actress Cynthia Nixon attempted a stronger version of Teachout’s campaign, winning the support of the Working Families Party and many progressive organizations in the state. Nixon won 34 percent of the vote in a higher turnout environment, a disappointing figure that seemed to affirm Cuomo’s relative invincibility in a Democratic primary. But the differences in campaign spending were remarkable. Nixon managed to spend a little under $3 million on the primary. Cuomo, meanwhile, barraged her with more than $26 million, flooding the airwaves with TV and radio ads. In the summer of 2018, Cuomo’s name was ubiquitous. It’s safe to say there is no way to run a competitive campaign statewide without copious TV expenditures. Field and digital will only get you so far.
New York State has among the worst campaign finance laws in America. It is legal for Cuomo to accept up to almost $70,000 from an individual donor in the primary and general elections combined. (If Cuomo is batting away a Democratic primary challenger, he can take $22,600 from one donor.) To put this in perspective, were Cuomo to run for president, he could only accept $2,800 from a single donor. Since campaign finance reform has never been a priority for Cuomo and he actively foiled attempts to create a reasonable statewide public matching funds system akin to what exists in New York City, he is allowed to raise unseemly amounts of money from wealthy individual donors, corporate PAC’s, and LLC’s. As of January, he had banked nearly $12 million for his re-election bid. He will have much more in a year from now.
Cuomo cannot be beaten in a general election because the state is too Democratic. The only hope is a primary. Cuomo has won twice now by vastly outspending his opponents and running up huge margins in New York City, where a vast number of votes are. Cuomo performs well in the vote-rich African-American and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. White liberals, thanks to fawning media coverage during the pandemic, are more receptive to him as well. Defeating him will be incredibly hard. Against Nixon, Cuomo won 62 percent of the vote in Brooklyn, 73 percent in Queens, and 83 percent in the Bronx. He broke 70 percent in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. Nixon ran strongest in the Albany area and the liberal Tompkins County. For the left to have any hoping of ending Cuomo’s reign, a candidate will need to be recruited who has progressive bona fides, strong name recognition, and the ability to raise copious amounts of money. To defeat Cuomo, who will likely spend $30 million or more to win another term, a challenger will need to spend many millions. Ideally, the challenger will also not be white, so downstate African-American and Latino voters will be in play.
The strongest candidate will probably not run. Attorney General Letitia James won a competitive statewide race just two years ago. She’s African-American, a Brooklyn native, with longstanding relationships with elected officials and organized labor. But she won her AG’s race with Cuomo’s strong support. It was Cuomo, after all, who threw his weight behind her to stop Zephyr Teachout, his old rival, from becoming attorney general. James is unlikely to abandon her post so soon to try to take down Cuomo. If she did, Cuomo would have every reason to worry. James is Cuomo’s heir apparent.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is the most obvious Cuomo challenger and he may very well take a shot in 2022. He has indicated he doesn’t want to run for mayor next year. In 2018, he ran for lieutenant governor, won the endorsement of the New York Times and many progressive groups, and captured nearly 47 percent of the vote against Cuomo’s running mate, Kathy Hochul. Williams, a former city councilman who is Afro-Caribbean, soundly defeated Hochul in Brooklyn and won Manhattan as well. Had Williams taken his fundraising efforts more seriously, he may be lieutenant governor today. Williams didn’t even raise $500,000, a paltry sum for a statewide race. (Competitive congressional races are routinely more expensive.) Williams is an ideal challenger to take on Cuomo, who will be far harder to beat than Hochul, but he will need to spend far more time hitting the phones for money. Having done it myself, I know how awful it can be. But most of fundraising, especially for sitting elected officials, amounts to effort. If Williams is able to raise $5 or $10 million—or, preferably, a lot more—he could be the next governor of New York.
If Williams declines a run or can’t win, there are other intriguing prospects. Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones are both progressive darlings who appear to have won their congressional primaries overwhelmingly last week. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they will enter Congress as popular figures who campaigned on unabashedly left platforms and won. Both men will represent suburban constituencies that will be key to any primary victory. They are both strong fundraisers, taking in more than $1 million for their campaigns. They are both African-American. One day—or even in two years, if they so desire—they could mount credible statewide bids. Bowman is a former middle school principal who can speak compellingly on education issues. Jones is a former lawyer in the Obama administration. If I were Cuomo, I would watch both carefully.
Ocasio-Cortez, of course, is the elephant in the room. Unlike fellow progressives in the state legislature (Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos come to mind), she has been relatively shy about challenging Cuomo, as I’ve noted before. Calls for more public school funding or rent cancellations don’t typically name Cuomo directly, though he is the one opposing both. Ocasio-Cortez, as an already famous figure, could bring more negatives to a statewide race than Williams, Jones, or Bowman. It’s unclear how well-received she would be in the suburbs or upstate. I do believe she could win a Senate seat from Gillibrand. Cuomo, however, would be a bloody match, and it’s not apparent she’d see it in her interests to take it on. Her destiny is to run for president and maybe win. Federal office is a better perch for that.