Governor Andrew Cuomo sat at the green dais, grinning triumphantly. Flanked by eight Democratic candidates for State Senate who longed for his unwavering support, he held up an innocuous-looking piece of white paper in a blue booklet.
Cuomo had just signed the paper. So had the candidates, all eight of them.
The October 1st rally on Long Island, meant to project unity as Democrats fight to take control of the State Senate and exile Republicans from their last perch of power in New York, was Cuomo to the core—pomp and circumstance, with the undercurrent of triangulation and menace.
Cuomo had gathered the eight Long Island candidates, including two current Democratic senators, to demonstrate his commitment to the Democratic takeover, as well as ensure this potential class of 2019 gets with his program. Publicly, all the candidates signed a pledge to enact particulars of Cuomo’s agenda: keeping his treasured 2 percent property tax cap, adding funding for infrastructure, codifying Roe v. Wade into state law, and reforming ethics and voting laws, among others.
Included in the pledge, and mostly unremarked upon by the media and political observers, was one curious plank: “demand New York City pay its fair share for the MTA.” The suburban candidates happily signed on.
Progressives and left-leaning Democrats, especially those living in the five boroughs, should be very worried.
The demand is a hallmark of Cuomo’s, built upon a destructive fiction that has been wielded with effectiveness against his enemy in government, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Since the subways began to fail in spectacular fashion during the summer of 2017, Cuomo and his surrogates have repeatedly misled the public about the state’s control of the subway system.
A quick recap: the MTA is a state authority. Cuomo appoints the chairperson and a plurality of board members. He almost single-handedly determines the MTA’s fiscal agenda. In 2015, he unilaterally shut the subways down during a snowstorm. Even de Blasio didn’t know about the shutdown until it happened.
Still, Cuomo has falsely claimed the subways are de Blasio’s problem and the city’s responsibility. Baked into this falsehood is another misleading premise: that the MTA, a dysfunctional bureaucracy that routinely blows budgets and wastes far more money than any other comparable transportation agency in the world, is not adequately funded by New York City.
New York City not only pays its “fair share” towards the MTA—without revenue from the five boroughs, the authority would probably collapse altogether. Through taxes, tolls, and fares for subways and buses, the city funds a sizable majority of the MTA’s operating budget. City Comptroller Scott Stringer found in 2015 the city is responsible for 68 percent of that budget. (Nicole Gelinas, a transit expert at the Manhattan Institute, estimates that of the $5.5 billion in dedicated taxes the MTA collects, New York City is responsible for a whopping 73 percent.)
Surely, Cuomo knows this. He’s disingenuous, but he’s cunning. What’s become apparent these past few weeks is that the governor, ready to glide into a third term, is not just going to use the MTA as a cudgel against de Blasio.
Cuomo is ready, once again, to divide and conquer the State Senate.
The last time Democrats threatened unified control, Barack Obama was re-elected president. Democrats won more than enough seats that year to knock the Republicans out of power. Instead, with Cuomo’s blessing, the Independent Democratic Conference formed an unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the Republicans to keep them in the majority.
As an instinctual centrist with an occasional appetite for progressive politics that fits his personal timeline—and no one else’s—Cuomo has always been wary of an entirely Democratic legislature. Over his eight years, Cuomo has outright rejected the idea of raising the minimum wage (he eventually did it) and taxing wealthy people. He has championed charter schools, threatened huge funding cuts to CUNY, refused to significantly bolster the city’s rent laws, and happily allowed big money to dominate New York politics.
When progressives got angry, Cuomo could always blame the Republican Senate for squelching their dreams. If Senate Democrats got too uppity, they could go squabble with the IDC instead of training their ire at the governor who screwed them over, again and again.
The IDC is dead. Cuomo can’t recreate it. But by creating a policy pledge tailored to suburban candidates (and preparing a separate one for those running in the five boroughs), Cuomo can hope to pit Senate Democrats against one another.
Cuomo's spokeswoman, Abbey Collins, declined to provide any explanation for what the "fair share" specifically means. Collins also pointed to remarks the governor made on Friday to a transit reporter, when he said the city wasn't likely to pay its "fair share" toward the MTA and the legislature should pursue congestion pricing as the only funding fix.
Michael Murphy, the spokesperson for Senate Democrats, told Gothamist, “Everyone understands that we need to find a dedicated stream of revenue to fix the crumbling MTA. There are a number of credible options which we will discuss as conference.”
Occupying swing districts with vocal Republican blocs, the Long Island Democrats could be less likely to follow the lead of new leftists like Julia Salazar, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, and John Liu. Without vocal constituencies who live in rent-regulated housing stock, they could be given more of a reason to resist calls for universal rent control, especially with the Real Estate Board of New York, one of Cuomo’s top allies, ready to curry favor with their millions.
There are far more reasons for suburban and city Democrats to unite. On healthcare, housing, education, campaign finance reform, and even transportation, they share common goals. The MTA poorly serves the suburbs. Many school districts are underfunded. Nassau and Suffolk Counties are increasingly diverse, more resembling the makeup of the five boroughs.
But remember this: a unified, proudly progressive Democratic State Senate can foist upon Cuomo the legislation that make him most uncomfortable. They can infuriate Cuomo’s donor base, who represent the wealthiest and most powerful people in this state.
Single-payer healthcare will raise taxes on the rich. Stronger rent laws will mean cheaper apartments and lower profits for landlords.
To foil the rising leftists, Cuomo may just look to the suburbs. There, at least for now, he appears to be cultivating willing partners.
Ross Barkan is a political journalist who recently tried his hand at politics: last month he lost the Democratic primary for State Senate in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Read more about his run here.