When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted to save money in this year’s budget, he knew right where to look: New York City. Cuomo unveiled a proposal in January that sought to shift some $800 million worth of higher education and Medicaid costs onto the city’s ledgers.
Cuomo quickly backed away from his plan, saying he would work with Mayor Bill de Blasio to find savings in both programs. But it was the latest -- and most expensive -- example of how the feud between these two men is costing New York City. New York governors and mayors have often squabbled, but no one can remember a time when relations were worse. “It should be on HBO boxing,” says Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College in New York City.
Name the issue -- charter schools, taxes, public housing, law enforcement, regulation of car-sharing services -- and Cuomo has gone out of his way to step on de Blasio’s plans and sometimes humiliate him. All of this must have come as a surprise to the mayor, who has otherwise encountered little opposition locally on his agenda to address income inequality. “I don’t think anyone predicted this would be the premiere political dynamic for de Blasio,” says Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “But it certainly has been.”
This is all taking place at a time when many states are putting the kibosh on liberal city desires, such as raising the minimum wage or mandating paid sick leave. But that kind of preemption is happening where Republicans control the legislature and don’t like what’s happening in big cities run by Democrats. In New York, both the mayor and the governor are Democrats.
Given the high profile of both offices, it hasn’t been unusual through the decades for New York mayors and governors to come into conflict. The current state of “open warfare” between Cuomo and de Blasio, however, is worse, reports Capital New York: “On issues grand and petty, the governor has either big-footed the mayor, overruled him, coopted the issue or gleefully exploited the mayor’s weaknesses.”
State law and a long history of court decisions make it clear that the governor can block the mayor at practically every turn. This puts de Blasio in a box. “If you can’t force the governor’s hand, you just end up complaining and you look weak, like you’re not in charge,” Eide says.
De Blasio hoped last summer to show that he wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore, summoning reporters to his office to complain about Cuomo’s “game-playing” and thirst for “revenge.” That didn’t get him anywhere. The governor wouldn’t speak to de Blasio for a month. Cuomo certainly hasn’t acted any nicer since de Blasio chose to air his frustration to the media.
Cuomo has a different constituency from the mayor’s, including parts of the state that have long been skeptical about New York City in general. Although liberal, he’s more of a pragmatist than de Blasio. And, suggests Muzzio, as he appears to have given up on his national ambitions, Cuomo is paying more attention to the state and its largest city.
There are real policy disagreements in some areas. But this dynamic is also clearly personal. It’s the tale of two ambitious men operating on overlapping turf who inevitably view each other as rivals. “As a student of Machiavelli, [Cuomo] knows you’ve got to kill off pretenders, and these guys are in conflict,” Muzzio says.
Like most court rivalries, the battle between Cuomo and de Blasio sometimes takes on the appearance of a schoolyard brawl. Unfortunately, there’s no clear end in sight to a conflict that is creating real pain for the city.