It’s the hip thing in some corners of Brooklyn and other capitals of the regional progressive universe to complain about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s potential run for president.
And yet: such a run could be the best thing to happen to New York progressives in years.
The progressive case against Cuomo, which has been building at least since Zephyr Teachout campaigned against him from the left in 2014, goes something like this: he’s a pragmatic dealmaker at heart, so you can only trust him to advance progressive causes as far as you can throw him (or his muscle cars).
The relationship between Cuomo and the progressive movement has soured even further since he escaped Teachout. He has campaigned only halfheartedly to help Democrats take control of the State Senate. In the era of President Donald Trump, many on the left are in less of a mood for compromising. That includes beating back the Independent Democratic Conference, the classic manifestation of Albany politics in which a handful of elected Democrats empower Republicans.
Cuomo’s star is endangered by other issues too: his former close aide is now on trial for corruption and there’s at least a dawning understanding that Cuomo controls the MTA.
So why would this flawed messenger be good for progressives as the siren call of Iowa beckons?
Because of what Cuomo might be encouraged to do in the meantime.
Progressives hold the key for 2020
If Cuomo wants to have any chance at winning a Democratic presidential primary in which progressives will have outsized influence, he’ll have to start putting points on the board for an audience looking for a more muscular, safety-net-ensuring government. And the time is now, as budget season gets started in earnest in Albany, kicking off the weeks of concentrated compromising, dealmaking, and strongarming that amount to basically everything that happens in the legislative year.
This year, Cuomo’s State of the State address kicked off that period by highlighting a number of startlingly progressive priorities including robust packages on voting and criminal justice reforms.
“Progressive” cred is in the eye of the beholder and the label can cover a wide spectrum from gadflies and good government groups to Black Lives Matter activists and democratic socialists. That being said, advances on these measures would certainly be of interest to critics on Cuomo’s left. Decades of entrenched political interests have stalled same day registration and early voting in New York. Prosecutors and law-and-order politicians of both parties have long opposed bail reforms and laws forcing prosecutors to share evidence. In that January speech, Cuomo put his weight behind those issues, creating at least the possibility for them to become law.
It’s still a long session, so there’s plenty of time for these proposals to be quietly dropped entirely, as tends to happen with ethics reforms.
The proposals could also be significantly watered down, as has happened with past progressive dreams Cuomo has shepherded into law. A $15 minimum wage passed in 2016 was a step forward, but is actually a tiered increase that hasn’t hit the headline number in some parts of the state. The Excelsior college scholarship program, launched with the imprimatur of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is far from free state-college for all.
But this year, if a presidential primary really is on the horizon, Cuomo might have reason to keep the compromises to a minimum — providing leverage for progressives looking to get some wins out of the season.
Speaking the language of expediency
There is precedent for this version of Cuomo. In the State of the State address Cuomo succinctly summarized his governing philosophy by decrying “theoretical progressive politics” as opposed to “practical politics” that makes a difference in people’s lives.
He has often smartly read the political winds and tackled high-profile issues, such as gun control legislation soon after the horror of Newtown in 2012. In 2011 he wrestled through same-sex marriage legalization. If his 2018 budget priorities are any indication, the governor seems to read this as a key moment to pass progressive legislation.
Cuomo’s most immediate sailing expedition will be his campaign for governor this year. To rack up a big margin there he’ll have to do well in moderate, non-five-borough districts, which could put a damper on leftist zeal.
All the more reason that a surprisingly effective progressive chant might be: Run, Cuomo, run.