How to Make a Corporate Democrat Govern as a Progressive (at least some of the time): Andrew Cuomo, Zephyr Teachout, Bernie Sanders and the Working Families Party

Photo by: Paul Buckowski / Times Union

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was first elected in 2010. Early in his tenure, and no doubt in response to that year’s Tea Party wave, he quickly distinguished himself as an aggressive and effective center-right governor.

Eager to make it clear that he was not a squishy liberal, New York’s new governor sought and won enormous tax cuts for the wealthy. He came into office with a promise to go after public sector unions and then cut their pensions. He embraced the pro-privatization charter school agenda and disregarded the promise of previous Democratic governors to fully fund public schools. It was a surprise, but perhaps shouldn’t have been, when campaign filings revealed that Cuomo received more campaign money from the Koch brothers than any other gubernatorial candidate in the land in that election year, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

At one point, New Jersey Governor Christie mocked Cuomo for adopting Christie’s program on the other side of the Hudson. This was more than a little true, and overall, Cuomo’s first term affirmed that he was a true Bill Clinton-, DLC-style Democrat — quite liberal on social issues (see Marriage Equality) and quite conservative on economic matters. A “progractionary,” to use the phrase of former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, now a columnist for the Albany Times-Union.

In his second term, however, he tacked back to the left in some ways. He supported a statewide $15 minimum wage. He signed the nation’s most generous paid family leave program. He implemented a statewide ban on fracking, after scoffing at the idea of such a ban for years. It’s true that he has never challenged the big economic powers in New York state — real estate and Wall Street — but the accomplishments noted above were long-time goals of progressive leaders in the state.

His latest such move was the recent announcement of his plan to make New York public colleges tuition-free, based on the plan that was first advanced by Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential race. Indeed, Senator Sanders stood by Cuomo’s side at the announcement, and it was front page news across the state. Since the announcement, of course, the proposal has been more closely analyzed. Although it’s not quite what the press releases said, it’s still a move in the right direction.

All of this is not to say that Cuomo deserves unconstrained “thank yous” from the left. For every good move, he makes sure to do something, well, bad: an enormous corporate tax giveaway here, a veto (just last week) of an important legal services bill there. A piece in Jezebel last week was entitled “Andrew Cuomo is a fucking snake.” That’s a bit strong, but it is fair to say that even more than most politicians, he is ideologically unpredictable and concerned mostly with personal power.

The interesting question is: Why did he shift leftward? He was elected in 2010 in the first Tea Party wave and re-elected in 2014 in the second, when they walloped the Democrats again. Yet Cuomo moved left.

The answer is found in his shifting understanding of how best to advance his own political power. In the 2014 election, and then as he watched the rise of Bernie Sanders, he saw a growing base of political power to his left that he could not safely ignore. The combination of the Working Families Party, Zephyr Teachout, the Fight for $15 strikes and Bernie have dramatically transformed Cuomo’s governance, if not his deepest views. No doubt he would scoff at this analysis, but there isn’t an Albany observer who thinks otherwise.

Context is important in politics. In late 2013, the Working Families Party was fresh off a successful set of wins in New York City, having helped to elect not just a new progressive mayor in Bill de Blasio but also a near-majority of the city council. These results built off the momentum of Occupy Wall Street and the emerging Fight for $15 movement; they captured the public desire for change and anchored it in concrete electoral change.

The results were also a rebuke of the Bloomberg-era vision of New York as a playground for the rich, and in particular, a rejection of the “school reform” privatization agenda championed by hedge funders (who do double duty as some of Cuomo’s most generous donors). In those 2013 municipal elections, the WFP faced an ocean of school privatization cash in seven separate city council races, and won all of them.

Entering 2014, the leaders of the WFP wrestled with how to win progressive legislation under Cuomo. Could the party help alter the balance of power, weakening the donor/Cuomo alliance that dominated the state? Almost no political leaders in New York were even willing to criticize Cuomo, and certainly no Democrats.

The plan the WFP formulated was to put forward a specific set of demands — decarceration, Dream Act, public financing of elections, minimum wage — and run a candidate against Cuomo if he refused to deliver them. It was a bold agenda, and the party was serious: they recruited Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, an expert on money in politics and political corruption, as the WFP candidate to run if Cuomo failed to pass the agenda.

By the time the delegates arrived at the WFP convention in June of 2014, most were prepared to back Teachout as a rebuke to Cuomo. Cuomo had not passed the agenda, blaming Republican opposition. Polls showed that Teachout could get a substantial vote. At the last minute, Cuomo made a final offer — a public pledge to enact the WFP’s progressive agenda in the coming year by working hard for a Democrat-WFP majority in the state Senate, which would mean an end to the “Republicans as roadblock” excuse. Mayor de Blasio implored the WFP state committee members to support Cuomo, because so much of his agenda was stymied by Republicans in Albany. In the end, de Blasio’s standing with the WFP produced a victory for Cuomo, who won a narrow victory over Teachout at the party’s convention.

One standard version of what happened is that union leaders who contribute financially to the WFP forced the endorsement of Cuomo. There’s truth in this account, as most labor leaders in the party whipped votes for Cuomo. But it’s not the whole truth: the vote was actually determined by the 200-odd members of the party’s state committee, and the unions controlled only about 35 percent of the vote. In fact, the biggest chunk of votes that shifted to Cuomo came from community organizations and their members on the state committee who were engaged in the fight for a higher minimum wage. The governor’s promises, as unreliable as they may have been, seemed like a more plausible path to a meaningful win on the minimum wage than the long-shot candidacy of Zephyr Teachout.

The WFP took a lot of heat for this decision from the left. Some supporters left the party; some vowed to never support it again. Right or wrong, what is clear to me is that it was a democratic decision. The state committee members who voted had imperfect information, to say the least, about what the governor intended. But they wanted to pursue the path that seemed most likely to improve the lives of working people in the state, and they made a good faith decision to do so. Contrary to the claim made by critics, this decision was not pre-ordained from the start and it was not imposed on the party by WFP leaders. It was a deeply contentious and painful process, which is the reality of messy democracy.

Even though Cuomo won the WFP’s support, of course, he quickly abandoned his pledge to help take back the state Senate and went out of his way to disparage the WFP even as the election unfolded. Weirdly, he disparaged them in a fit of Trump-like macho as “the Working Short People’s Party” in one radio interview. Then, he launched a shell party called the “Women’s Equality Party” — WEP vs. WFP — as a way to siphon votes from the WFP. And he frequently argued that he had made no concessions whatsoever — as a way to protect his own reputation and undermine the WFP.

In the end, he did indeed break his promises. He scarcely campaigned for state Senate Democrats and thus preserved his alliance with the Republicans.

But the land had shifted. The main narratives and political debates of the 2014 election cycle showed the state — and in particular, proved to Cuomo — that his political positioning could cost him as many votes on the left as on the right. Teachout did surprisingly well in the Democratic primary, and Cuomo’s 2014 re-election was the weakest showing by a Democratic gubernatorial incumbent in modern state history. He entered his second term needing to pass at least some major progressive legislation in order to avoid a repeat of the Teachout/WFP scenario in 2018.

Thus, despite his disdain for both the talented Ms. Teachout and the Working Families Party, New York’s most powerful center-right politician decided to move to the left. And in seeking to satisfy progressives, he found as most credible the very issues that the WFP had elevated, especially minimum wage, paid family leave and hydrofracking. While the party took some serious losses to its public reputation, it had managed to shift the political terms of debate in the state and, in so doing, won on some of its most pressing issues.

The WFP has worked to regain the trust of those allies alienated by the decision to support Cuomo and to build political consensus for a left agenda within the party. In 2016, it held an open vote to decide its presidential primary endorsement, resulting in a Bernie Sanders endorsement. It also worked with teachers to defeat Cuomo-aligned pro-charter-school candidates across New York state.They won all four contests.

There is no doubt that this particular battle will continue. Cuomo has felt pressure from the left, including in the form of Fight for $15 strikes; CUNY Rising Alliance organizing; New Yorkers Against Fracking and Black Lives Matter protests. Progressive forces must be able to sustain this work to hold Cuomo accountable to his promises and keep him responsive to what voters want. And he must keep feeling heat in the electoral arena. The WFP’s performance in the 2017 mayoral election and the some 250 county elections on Long Island and upstate will be one key way to do this.

As the Democratic Party struggles to find its direction, left forces must step up their efforts to take advantage of this division. I am doubtful that the Democratic Party can ever be a left party itself, and now is exactly the time to build alternatives where we can. Our movement work is central, but the movements must also be rooted in the fight for political power. The lesson of this entire saga is once again captured by Frederick Douglass’ most famous saying: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

It was true when he said it in 1857, and it’s true 160 years later. The WFP in New York, Connecticut, Wisconsin and another dozen or so states has exercised real power in its short history, and one can only hope that the lessons of its engagement with Andrew Cuomo will help us build left political parties in the years to come.