Why is Andrew Cuomo shifting left?

May 11, 2016

Julian Guerrero looks at the reasons for the New York governor's liberal makeover.

SOMETHING STRANGE is happening in New York. The two leading Democrats in the state seem to have switched personas: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is now the corrupt political hack and Gov. Andrew Cuomo the great liberal hope.

Actually, the cloud of corruption hasn't exactly left the governor, whose aides are the subject of yet another federal investigation. But it's nonetheless true that he has made a dramatic political about-face in the past year.

Cuomo has long been a fiscal conservative known by his opponents as "Governor 1 Percent" for his close ties to wealthy Wall Street backers.

He first ran for office in 2010, vowing to take on the unions that he claimed had bullied previous governors into bloated budgets. In his 2014 re-election bid, Cuomo angered rank-and-file teachers and parents by promising to dismantle the "public monopoly" of the K-12 public education system.

From the day that de Blasio was elected in 2013, Cuomo seemed to enjoy undermining the new mayor's self-styled progressive agenda, starting when Cuomo spoke at a pro-charter school rally organized by de Blasio' nemesis Eva Moscowitz, founder of the Success Academy charter schools.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Azi Paybarah)

IN RECENT months, however, Cuomo has moved to the left on a number of issues.

In 2013, Cuomo shot down de Blasio's effort to allow New York City to set its own minimum wage, and in 2015, he countered the mayor's call for a $15 an hour minimum with his own proposal of $11.50. But this year, Cuomo pushed through a bill that will phase in a $15 minimum wage in many parts of the state--and added the country's most extensive paid-family-leave act.

Earlier this year, Cuomo backed construction unions when they attacked de Blasio for not requiring real estate developers getting the infamous 421-a tax break to use union labor.

Most recently, on the issue of the city's infamous Rikers Island jail, Cuomo supported the idea of closing the jail down, an idea that de Blasio dismissed as "noble" but unrealistic.

Cuomo's recent actions have earned lavish praise from some in the labor movement. George Gresham, president of the largest union local in the country, SEIU Local 1199, praised Cuomo for his support for a $15 an hour minimum wage, calling Governor 1 Percent "a national leader in the fight against income inequality...a champion of working people."

Most New Yorkers disagree. A Sienna poll conducted in February shows that the majority of people in the state still see Cuomo as a "conservative" or a "moderate" as opposed to "liberal."

Meanwhile, Ted Fertik in Jacobin argues that Cuomo's left turn is the result of pressure from the Working Families Party (WFP) and other liberal forces that have endorsed Cuomo in both 2010 and 2014.

This is the wrong lesson to draw from New York's experience--which shows that, like most well-funded Democrats, Cuomo is a shrewd politician who can tell which way the wind is blowing and responds to the pressure of grassroots pressure like the Fight for 15 and the opt-out movement.

De Blasio is the negative example of the same lesson: The mayor has been almost uncritically supported by liberals and has barely changed anything.

THE HUGE response to Bernie Sanders' call for a "political revolution" has been a political revelation for many elite Democrats that it is time for them to shift left if they want to avoid the buildup of greater resentment and class struggle.

A February New York Post article quoted an unnamed "prominent Democrat" about Cuomo's recent liberal makeover:

Hillary may not implode, but if she does, Andrew is already making course corrections to position himself more favorably to the national Democrats in light of the rapid leftward turn of the grassroots.

Andrew is to the left of Sanders on guns, will have done a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, he's banned fracking--his total transformation from centrist to "a leftist that actually gets things done" will be complete just in time for the beginning of the next presidential cycle.

There are plenty of reasons for a political revolution in New York. Forty years of a pro-business political and economic agenda by New York's "permanent government" has left working-class people angry at their ever-worsening living conditions.

New York's unemployment rate is currently higher than the county's unemployment rate with 7.7 percent upstate and 8.1 percent downstate. Despite being one of the country's wealthiest states, 16 percent of New York's people live in poverty--including a quarter of Blacks and Latinos and half the children in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.

In New York City, low wages and high rents force many to spend over half their earnings on housing, which helps to explain the sharp rise of homelessness. More than 60,000 are in dangerous and underfunded shelters, while others struggle to stay warm on the streets and the subways, where they face directives from de Blasio's police department to clear them away.

Anger at economic inequality has broken out in different forms in recent years, from Occupy Wall Street and fast-food worker strikes to protests against police murders and the mass civil disobedience of the "opt-out" test boycott.

These movements contributed to two left-wing electoral challenges to Cuomo in 2014: first, when Zephyr Teachout embarrassed the governor by winning 30 percent of the vote in the Democrat primary for governor--and then in the general election when the Green Party's Howie Hawkins won 5 percent of the vote plus historic endorsements from teachers unions and local Democratic clubs.

Add to this context the anti-corruption crusade of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who convicted two of the most powerful (and corrupt) politicians besides Cuomo, and is now targeting aides to de Blasio--it's no wonder that Cuomo is trying to paint himself as a liberal crusader against moneyed interests.

IT'S IMPORTANT not to get caught up in the hype and overestimate how much Cuomo has done.

Cuomo's criminal justice reforms are extremely limited. Creating a special prosecutor to investigate cases where cops have killed people hasn't led to justice for families who have lost loved ones to killer cops. Separating adolescent prisoners and adult prisoners shouldn't gloss over the fact that New York is one of two states left in the country to treat adolescents as adults when charged with criminal allegations.

And the minimum wage increase is far less that the $15 minimum that it's been touted as. The actual plan calls for a gradual phase in to $15 by 2019--but only in New York City. In the surrounding suburbs, the wage will rise to $15 by 2022 and upstate, it will only get to $12.50. And the planned increases can actually be reversed starting in 2019 if state officials decide they are hurting the economy.

Even Cuomo's paid-family-leave act is funded by a tax on workers--employers don't contribute a cent.

As the Green Party's Howie Hawkins pointed out to the Gotham Gazette, this is consistent with many of Cuomo's reforms, which don't rely on a permanent and stable raise in taxes that could actually redistribute wealth to the many from the few:

[Cuomo is] making gestures, but look at the budget--it is still fiscal austerity, especially cities and towns. There are unfunded mandates and lack of aid from the state, and while he has provided more money for education, it is less than the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement [the 2006 court ruling requiring the state to pay billions in backpay to shortchanged school districts]...When [Assembly Speaker Carl] Heastie proposed a slightly progressive income tax, he just rejected it. So he is not dealing with basic fiscal structure.

In a state mired with political corruption and known for its shady backdoor deals, the sudden leftward shift of one of the New York's most powerful and shameless politician hides the continuation of the business agenda that lies underneath all of Cuomo's progressive rhetoric.

Malcolm X once famously said, "If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that's not progress." It's equally true that you can't stick a nine-inch knife into the collective backs of working people and then re-brand yourself a progressive when you pull it out two inches.

FUNDAMENTALLY, IT'S the big increase in class consciousness--and the more modest increase in class struggle--across the country and in New York state that is driving Cuomo's liberal tilt.

These types of shifts by politicians, even those like Cuomo who loyally serve the 1 Percent, are entirely possible within certain determined limits of profitability for the business elites who fund and provide political support for their favorite politicians.

"The problem," as Todd Chretien recently pointed out at SocialistWorker.org, "is that as long as profitability for capitalists determines the extent of reform, we will remain hostage to the ups and downs of the business cycle."

Because most of the working class institutions in New York City are still beholden to the Democratic Party, Cuomo's left turn is less of a fundamental break with neoliberal politics and more of an attempt to re-consolidate influence within the Democratic Party while securing progressive forces from breaking with the party machinery.

This is to say that rather than showing a Democratic Party that is weak and susceptible to being taken over by the left, Cuomo's example demonstrates the ability of the Democrats to bend to pressure without breaking.

For a real break with the Democratic Party to occur, there would need to be some independent political machinery that could provide an alternative that working people can take part in shaping themselves.

Those on the left who advocate for an "inside strategy" of taking over the Democrats often point to left shifts inside the party as proof of the vulnerability of the Democratic establishment. They should consider the recent experience of de Blasio.

When de Blasio and many City Council members won office in 2013 with the enthusiastic support of the Working Families Party, Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News spoke for many when he called it a "new era in New York City politics."

Three years later, that new era seems to have taken a wrong turn on the New York Thruway and ended up in Albany--in part because Cuomo has been pressured by movements that have too often given de Blasio a pass.

The clear lesson from the past few years in New York is the need to build movements and organizations that are independent of the Democrats and strong enough to force them to move towards our agenda, rather than the other way around.

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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