There might have been a moment on Thursday afternoon when Governor Andrew Cuomo wondered why he wanted this third term.
For the first time in his eight years and one month as governor of one of the largest states in America, Andrew Cuomo did not get what he wanted. After a grassroots opposition that pressured key Democrats to oppose the deal, Amazon has announced it is walking away from building a headquarters in New York City. No HQ2. No gleaming Long Island City campus and 25,000 to 40,000 jobs. No $3 billion in city and state tax subsidies to make it all happen.
There is an old expression: if you come for the king, you best not miss. And for once, those activists and politicians fueled by their furor did not. They bested Cuomo at his own game.
Some will try to portray this as a failure for both Cuomo and his erstwhile pal, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Certainly, the 2020 wannabe cajoled Amazon and helped close a deal that was never really closed. But don’t make that mistake: this was Cuomo’s show all the way. He controls the Empire State Development Corporation, which circumvented local zoning laws and a democratic, locally-controlled land use review process to try to hand off land in Queens to Amazon. He threatened the state lawmakers he is used to treating as submissives. He offered to rename himself Amazon Cuomo.
What now? Amazon said they weren’t going to reopen the HQ2 search, and that they would “proceed as planned” with their sites in Northern Virginia and Nashville. Perhaps Amazon will eventually hunt for a more pliant locality, or one that just didn’t elect a democratic socialist icon like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was just outside of her district, but that hardly mattered: her upset over Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party boss and Cuomo pal, unleashed a new level of energy and excitement around politics in Western Queens, ground zero for the Amazon campus that never was.
Just as importantly, Ocasio-Cortez's success put the fear of God—or just political defeat—in the hearts of State Senator Michael Gianaris and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, the two Queens pols who in a prior life beseeched Amazon to land its trillion dollar heft in New York City and later realized that wasn’t a very good idea, at least not in the way it was proposed.
Gianaris in particular, who was recommended to be the Senate representative to the obscure Public Authorities Control Board, an entity that at least had the power to kill the $500 million state grant, emerged as a linchpin. His opposition to Amazon only intensified as Cuomo grew angrier. He never backed down.
This is not an Emperor-has-no-clothes moment, but it might be the closest thing Albany ever gets. For two terms, Cuomo was the most dominant governor since a literal Rockefeller, spearheading whatever legislation he wanted, dreaming up and killing transit projects, and, most importantly for him, pulling every last economic development string. The state was unquestionably his. All who stood in his way learned this, whether it was de Blasio, who lost the war over charter school rent, or Stephanie Miner, the former Syracuse mayor, who said a Cuomo associate anonymously threatened to “take me out at the knees” after she was critical of the governor. Public criticism of Cuomo—no matter the transportation crisis or galling corruption scandal—was rare in New York’s typically spineless political class.
Ocasio-Cortez changed history. So did the six insurgents who defeated members of the Independent Democratic Conference, the rogue band of Democrats who, with Cuomo’s urging and blessing, broke ranks with the Senate Democrats to form a Cuomo-friendly majority with the Senate Republicans. There is no doubt Cuomo gets his Amazon campus if the Republicans weren’t washed out of power last year.
In the end, despite the noise the Republicans made, they did whatever the governor wanted.
Now Democrats know they can challenge Cuomo and win. The Senate is firmly in Democratic control and the Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, is forming an alliance with the Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Both represent legislative bodies that are ready, finally, to get out from Cuomo’s thumb.
Of course, the power games won’t relent. Cuomo has tried to turn the suburban Democrats against their more liberal city counterparts, hoping this would somehow save the Amazon deal. No one is better at dividing and conquering. No one is better at amassing power and wielding it for his preferred ends. In that sense, there will be no great change.
Cuomo’s temper, however, could unwittingly unite the suburban and urban lawmakers. After State Senator Todd Kaminsky, a Nassau County Democrat, suggested Amazon could come to Long Island still, a Cuomo spokesperson accused Kaminsky of having “cowered when he should have shown courage,” blasting him and his colleagues for catering to “local socialists” and kicking Amazon out of the state. (“Sen. Kaminsky has always been for an Amazon deal—and the Governor should embrace his attempt to save it,” Alexandra Farbenblum, a spokeswoman for Kaminsky, told Gothamist.)
There are ways a wrathful governor can seek revenge, since he controls the purse strings. He steers the budget negotiating process. He could pull state economic development money for certain projects, slash State and Municipal Facilities Program grants for recalcitrant lawmakers, or try to block certain bills.
But can he do this to the entire Democratic legislature? If they can unite, he loses serious power over them. He can no longer say he dislikes a bill and deem it dead on arrival, as he did for eight years, just as he can no longer declare support for corporate welfare for Amazon and manifest it into reality.
In a few months, New York’s tenant laws expire, and progressive Democrats have been talking about bills that will make Cuomo’s real estate donors blanch, like preventing landlords from evicting tenants after a rent hike deemed, by law, as “unconscionable.” Cuomo has never voiced support for an ambitious bill to combat climate change in New York; the business community doesn’t like it very much. Do Democrats jam it down his throat and dare him to veto?
On transit, Cuomo still wields near absolute control, scuttling the L train shutdown for a dubious alternative. The State Senate must confirm the next MTA chair when Cuomo decides to name one. Will the Senate rediscover its oversight role and only confirm a chair that proves her or she won’t be a puppet of the governor? It’s very possible.
Congestion pricing, suddenly a Cuomo priority, has divided Democrats in the Assembly as well as the Senate, where it has drawn some support among newer members. Its fate remains uncertain. Here, Cuomo needs the legislature as much as they need him, and they will be forced to bargain as equals. A decade ago, it was the Democrat-controlled Assembly that killed plans to toll cars entering Manhattan, not the executive branch.
For the progressive legislative agenda writ large, whether it’s passing single-payer healthcare or achieving more equitable funding for education, some would argue the legislature should have given ground on Amazon as a way to horse-trade with Cuomo for other bills. But Cuomo only respects strength, not weakness. De Blasio, who spent years attempting to forge a working relationship with the governor—campaigning enthusiastically for his ticket in 2014 and repeatedly praising him in public—learned this the hard way.
The great aims of the progressive movement will only be achieved through confrontation with Cuomo, because he will instinctively resist any policies that will cost more money up front or imperil his more generous donors. In Cuomo’s two terms, the legislature lacked leverage because it was divided. Democrats need to be ready to override Cuomo vetoes and meet him on his own level.
Third terms are never easy, as Michael Bloomberg and Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch found out. For executives like Cuomo who so successfully instilled fear in others to drive an agenda, they can be particularly bewildering. Power in politics is often built on illusion: threats are so severe they take on the weight of reality, even if they go unrealized. Machiavelli taught Cuomo the younger well. We will soon find out what happens to a governor who is neither feared nor loved.
Ross Barkan is a political journalist who recently tried his hand at politics: last year he lost the Democratic primary for State Senate in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Read more about his run here.