by Alex Pareene
It’s not a perfect measure of partisan leaning, but according to the 2012 election results, New York is more Democratic than California and Minnesota, two states where Democrats control the entirety of the state governments, and where things have not yet completely collapsed in a morass of welfare handouts and tax hikes. So it’s a bit strange that the Republican Party controls the New York state Senate, the body where, traditionally, liberal legislative priorities have gone to die. It’s stranger when you learn that New York voters did actually give Democrats the majority in the Senate in 2012, at which point a coalition of state Senate Democrats known as the Independent Democratic coalition broke off from the party and formally allied with the GOP. Thus, the longtime state Senate Republican majority – the majority that had successfully thwarted nearly every liberal policy push made by the previous two Democratic governors – was preserved.
Andrew Cuomo likes to paint himself as the governor who saved New York from the political dysfunction that typified state politics during the reigns of his predecessors, David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer. Cuomo is the man who forced the sclerotic state legislature to finally act on marriage equality, criminal justice reform, and gun control. You would think that such a governor would prefer to work with Democratic majorities in both state legislative bodies, because, you know, those are all Democratic party priorities that Republicans (mostly) oppose.
You would be wrong. Blake Zeff (full disclosure: he’s my former editor) has a story at Capital New York that confirms what most observers of New York politics already suspected: Cuomo was instrumental in forging the alliance between the IDC and the GOP, because he never actually wanted his own party to wield real power in Albany:
When the coalition was created, Cuomo spoke with IDC leader Jeff Klein to offer advice on how to publicly sell the arrangement and move it forward. According to multiple sources, the governor advised the leaders of the new alliance to emphasize “progress on key issues,” such as campaign finance reform, stop and frisk and increasing the minimum wage. (The conference would use just that language in its announcement, and later release a minimum wage report that February and campaign finance plan in April.)
To move the arrangement forward, the governor and Schwartz would talk directly to Republican leaders and Klein. To help make the coalition work, the governor regularly spoke (by phone and in person) with GOP deputy majority leader Tom Libous, who was effectively Cuomo’s go-to person in the Republican Senate conference. GOP majority leader Dean Skelos was also involved in the discussion, and the governor would talk often in particular with top Skelos aide Robert Mujica. Meanwhile, another top administration official, Joe Percoco, was dispatched to deal with the Senate Democratic conference to try to assuage their concerns even as the governor helped their rivals.
Why would Cuomo do this?
In part because Cuomo’s method of “getting things done” is actually a very old fashioned one, with a rich history of use in New York in particular: It involves shady back-room dealing, obsessive secrecy, strong-arming of opponents, and frequent outright dishonesty. (Spitzer did try similar tactics, but his fatal flaw was that he fought state Republicans instead of governing with – and like – them.) The IDC, then, has been extremely useful for Cuomo. The alliance allows him to push through legislation that liberals would balk at if they held power in the Senate, and the coalition also makes a convenient scapegoat for the times when Cuomo is unable – or, more likely, unwilling – to advance a particular liberal cause.
Cuomo, understand, is a ’90s vintage pro-corporate “New Democrat” – he’s still that Clinton-era DLC type who blames his party’s failings on traditional liberalism – and he is attempting to maintain power in a state where the Democratic Party is, mostly, to the left of the national party, especially on economic issues. But Cuomo believes the key to his own political future rests on appealing to right-leaning whites, because he assumes he won’t have to do anything in particular to win the votes of liberal, black, and Latino New Yorkers. And he seems to just genuinely dislike liberals, period. (See: his not-at-all subtle undermining of New York City mayor and economic populist Bill de Blasio.)
Cuomo is running for reelection this year, and he sort of belatedly realized that he may have a bit of a problem with the state’s liberals. So rather than risk an unpredictable three-way race, he negotiated himself the support of the left-wing Working Families Party. (He then promptly announced plans to undermine them by founding an unasked-for new political party, for women.) As part of his agreement with the WFP, Cuomo agreed to finally denounce the GOP-IDC alliance. He did not do so with much enthusiasm. This is the very alliance that thwarted Cuomo’s much-touted women’s equality and campaign finance bills, and the governor was still unwilling to publicly go on the record and say that he thought his own political party should control the state Senate:
Cuomo finally condemned the alliance, under pressure, after he was given a choice this spring by the Working Families Party between publicly calling for the IDC to caucus with Senate Democrats and losing WFP’s endorsement and ballot line to Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who he now faces in the primary. At first the governor resisted the demand, with two sources saying he initially refused to include it in a video he recorded for WFP delegates at the party convention in late May. But ultimately he blinked and made the deal, saying in the video, “the Senate has been a problem” and “we must change the leadership of the Senate.”
Cuomo can’t seem to wrap his mind around the crazy idea that maybe the easiest way to get things you support passed is to help elect people who also want those things to pass, instead of people who don’t support those things but are open to being bribed or threatened into changing their minds.
After the convention, Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s challenger for the WFP nomination, launched a Democratic Party primary campaign. The election is Tuesday, September 9. There’s a decent chance Cuomo will be forced to ditch the very conservative running mate he selected, which would be funny.