“We just want to give him a cake,” Alicé Nascimento told police officers as they tried to gently push her and other protesters back into a penned-off area in order to clear a path for Governor Andrew Cuomo to enter the Marriott Essex House hotel. “It’s his birthday.”
Others were chanting angrily about the climate crisis, but Nascimento was smiling, and some of the NYPD officers and state troopers were, too. The inspector in charge, who almost seemed to be having fun, gave her a ‘good luck with that’ look and let her stand next to the news reporters by the entrance, just outside the crowd barrier. She held up the large supermarket sheet cake, which featured blue and white flowers and a large inscription “#MakeBillionairesPay” written in red frosting.
The two main themes in the two-hour protest were the climate emergency and, well, everything else, including education, healthcare, tenants rights and criminal justice reform. The unifying through-line was that if Cuomo taxed billionaires at higher rates, there would be enough money to pay for programs to address all needs.
“If only there were a place in New York where all the wealth of the world were coalesced on, say, a certain street, maybe we could tax it more,” Sarah Lyons, from the Democratic Socialists of America, said facetiously. “So, yes, we have so many wealthy people here, I think we could tax them more.”
Meanwhile, Cuomo donors, staffers and other supporters filtered into the hotel, eyeing the protesters and police with various degrees of curiosity and indifference. None would comment on the birthday party fundraiser they were heading to in a first-floor ballroom -- and where comedian Amy Schumer was reportedly one of the main attractions.
Basic seats cost $1,000, and premium seats were $5,000 per couple. The event came days after the public campaign finance commission lowered the state’s maximum donations to political candidates and created a system for matching small donations with public funding. The commission’s plan -- whose overall purpose was to decrease the influence of wealthy interests -- has the force of law, unless the governor and legislature act to modify it.
“It’s clear that it makes historic changes and it goes a long way to bring down the power of money in politics,” Cuomo said, during a stop in western New York. “Probably in my life time it’s been the most aggressive positive reform of money in politics.”
Those reforms, some of which are being challenged in court, are scheduled to take effect in 2022. New York would continue to allow some of the most generous donations of any state in the country, with candidates for statewide office still taking contributions of up to $18,000 from a single donor, a decrease from the previous maximum individual donation of $69,700 for candidates for statewide office. And events with admission prices like this one would not be affected.
Demonstrators didn’t have all harsh words for Cuomo. They acknowledged that the Green New Deal he and the legislature passed earlier this year could significantly help curb greenhouse gas emissions -- but only, they said, if it’s backed up by action and funding.
“We've just passed a law with aggressive benchmarks,” said Alex Beauchamp, from Food and Water Watch. “But without a huge movement pushing the governor every step of the way I think the state's going to miss those benchmarks, because that's what they've done, really, for decades.”
Protesters also flanked another entrance on the south side of the hotel, and they, too, chanted at black SUVs.
Many suspected the SUVs, which were parked on both sides for most of an hour, were decoys — and they were right. Cuomo had slipped into the hotel undetected, most likely through a loading dock.
“That’s often what happens,” Beauchamp said. “But we see him sometimes, and even when we don’t, I’m pretty sure he knows we’re here.”
A small number of reporters and protestors also made it into the hotel, only to be rebuffed at the check-in desk.
“It’s closed to media,” one staff member said.
Nascimento said she persuaded a staffer to take the cake.
“A woman named Nancy was very friendly, and she promised it would get to the governor,” Nascimento said. “I don’t know if it will, but if it does, I think he’ll like it. It’s vanilla, and it should be very tasty.”
Cuomo’s birthday is actually Friday. He will be 62.