ALBANY, N.Y. — The election of Bill de Blasio means that Democratic legislators in Albany will have an ally in Gracie Mansion for the first time in 20 years. After years of being at odds with the head of the city that most of them represent, Albany Democrats now hope to have a partner to help them push a progressive vision through the state Legislature.
It could be a paradigm shift for the relationship between city and state. “It’s been a long time since Democrats have had a partner in the mayor’s office and we are very much looking forward to it,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
It could also mean help from one of the state’s most popular Democrats in the party’s ambitions to regain the majority in Albany. Senate Democrats say they have received indications that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will team up with de Blasio to primary city members against the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, which Democrats blame for stymieing a number of pieces of progressive legislation. Not only do Cuomo and de Blasio share a vision of what government can do, they have had a personal and professional relationship for over a decade.
In a conversation with the Gotham Gazette last week, Staten Island state Sen. Diane Savino, one of five IDC members, welcomed a Democratic mayor but also had a warning. “I think the new mayor needs to understand that legislators have their own constituencies to answer to,” said Savino. “It doesn't have to be a war. That didn't work too well in Washington.”
On the eve of the election with de Blasio’s win all-but certain, Sen. Jeff Klein, leader of the IDC, told the New York Daily News that he supports de Blasio’s plan to increase taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten. De Blasio welcomed his support.
So how will de Blasio change things in Albany? How will his win help Democrats in Albany or change the balance of power with the IDC and Senate Republicans? What do legislators want from the new mayor and what do they hope he will achieve? While de Blasio’s campaign declined to comment for this story, it is possible to sketch out an Albany trajectory for the mayor-elect.
Bloomberg in Albany
While it is still very early, the majority Senate Republicans — and their partners in power-sharing, the IDC — are sure to face the most uncertain future with de Blasio in City Hall. Not only do Republicans risk losing their leverage with the governor through sheer numbers and the ability to push legislation, they will be entering an election year in 2014 without the backing of one of their wealthiest benefactors: Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
What many legislators will be looking for from de Blasio is a personal relationship — they hope to see de Blasio reach out to legislators to convince them of his policies and work to form coalitions to push legislation. They want exactly what they didn’t get from Bloomberg.
“All elected officials like to be treated with respect,” said state Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat who represents the 13th district. “The opportunity to just sit down and talk to the mayor’s office, just bounce off ideas, that is a huge step.”
Peralta says that the Bloomberg administration became “more than closed off han ever” to talking about issues with legislators in his third term.
The end of Bloomberg’s term will mean lots of things for state government — the most quantifiable impact in terms of sheer cash.
“He gave more money to legislators than most mayors will earn in a lifetime,” said Bill Mahoney of The New York Public Interest Research Group. Bloomberg took advantage of loopholes in state election law to funnel large amounts of cash to political committees. Some of it went towards his re-elections , but over $4 million of the $9.7 million went to legislators and political committees of Senate Republicans who served as his emissaries in Albany. Bloomberg’s courting of the GOP came despite the fact that only a few of their members hail from the city.
With Bloomberg leaving the mayor’s office, insiders say the billionaire will be involved in national issues and many doubt he will continue to contribute to Senate Republicans.
Senate Democratic insiders play down the amount of money Bloomberg spent on the Republicans — they acknowledge it helped in certain races but they are putting more stock in having de Blasio in the bully pulpit.
Observers agree that the money won’t matter as much as having a real political operator who can build relationships on both sides of the aisle.
“No matter how much money he spent, the bottom line are the results,” said Baruch professor Douglas Muzzio. “Maybe he was offering too much money because legislators have gone to jail for much less. Except for mayoral control he is really batting zero. Did his money buy him anything?”
One of Bloomberg’s most prominent losses came during his push for congestion pricing. Bloomberg famously met with Senate Democrats. His confrontational and dictatorial attitude alienated the conference. “If he came in with one vote, he left with none,” state Sen. Kevin Parker told The New York Times.
During his push to renew mayoral control of schools, Bloomberg employed a variety of tactics — his Albany lobbying team was in overdrive while he mostly stayed out of the fray. Prominent lobbyist Micah Lasher was hired on to head the Department of Education's efforts in Albany. Bloomberg also employed “grassroots organizations” to advocate for mayoral control but a number of the groups had received money from Bloomberg or contracts from the city.
Things seemed to be going smoothly for Bloomberg until the Senate was rocked by the coup led by Senate Republicans and Democratic state Sen. Pedro Espada. For months, the fate of mayoral control was uncertain. Bloomberg was asked by NY1 about negotiations and famously said: “There’s a point at which, you remember Neville Chamberlain, no matter how many times you said yes, that’s just the starting point for the next round,"
Senate Democrats took offense, saying Bloomberg was comparing them to Nazis. Eventually a deal was reached with Bloomberg only giving over minor concessions, though observers say it was due to his lobbying team — not the mayor’s involvement.
How de Blasio Will Be Different
“The new mayor’s gotta do it differently,” said Muzzio. “They don't have the same resources. They’ve gotta develop a relationship with both houses of the Legislature. They’ve gotta use the pulpit. It’s real easy to beat them to death but to get what you need you really are going to have to create personal relationships and that is not what Bloomberg did.”
Muzzio says de Blasio comes equipped to deal with Albany not only because of his big win but because he has the kind of political relationships that Bloomberg never groomed.
“He's got institutional support, and winning by a landslide — that yells out there to state legislators,” said Muzzio. “Clearly the city is a creature of the state and he has got to go up there and beg for home rule but he has power. Bill is a political operator — much more politically savvy than Bloomberg — and will have much more of a traditional relationship with Albany.”
But political observers also say that de Blasio will have to walk a tightrope in early 2014 as Albany gears up for election season; if he wants to get anything done he will have to balance his public support for Democratic legislators with bipartisan outreach.
“You need support from both sides for bills to make it onto the floor,” said Peralta. “He understands he needs to go through the process, have discussions with Republicans and the IDC — he is going to have to navigate those waters. He will have a mandate but he will still have to go through the process.”
“This isn’t a guy who is going to do drive-by policy,” said Parker, a vocal critic of Bloomberg’s relationship with the Legislature. “De Blasio has been an outward advocate and supporter of the women’s equality agenda, the minimum wage, and he is a Working Families Party candidate and supports their issues so now all of it is going to be in play.”
Peralta is carrying a bill that would provide driver’s licenses for undocumented residents and would be in sync with de Blasio’s support for I.D. cards for the undocumented. “It definitely gives me hope that we are about to get a mayor who shares our values and views as Democrats,” said Peralta. But it isn’t only the driver’s license but other types of bills as well. He hopes to see de Blasio revitalize the push for the state DREAM Act, a bill that would give college aid to undocumented students.
Parker, meanwhile, is carrying a universal pre-kindergarten bill in Albany — the exact policy that has been de Blasio’s marquee education and state-based policy initiative. Parker also has a number of wage bills he expects de Blasio to support in the city. Cuomo appears reluctant to raise taxes to help fund de Blasio’s pre-k plan but he has indicated support for providing pre-k.
Housing advocates have great hopes for de Blasio's efforts in Albany. Jaron Benjamin, executive director of The Metropolitan Council on Housing, said that de Blasio made a number of promises involving Albany and housing issues during his campaign. Those promises include coming to Albany to fight for the renewal of rent control in 2015 and also pushing to repeal the Urstadt law that gives Albany control over rent in the city. Benjamin notes that he is being cautious about de Blasio's promises. "We are going to be looking at what he does in his first few months in office,” said Benjamin. “We will see what he does with the tax rebates that see the city losing money, whether he rolls over on mandatory zoning, does he make developers commit to truly affordable housing?”
The Special Relationship
In the end, a number of legislators hope that the long-standing relationship between Cuomo and de Blasio will mean the men will work together to accomplish what has heretofore been impossible — a non-antagonistic relationship between the city and Albany.
The relationship between the two men goes back to the 1990s when de Blasio worked with Cuomo at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The two also worked together on Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign. De Blasio negotiated Cuomo’s concession to Carl McCall in his botched 2002 gubernatorial bid and the mayoral candidate also reportedly helped Cuomo during his divorce from Kerry Kennedy.
Earlier this year, when Bloomberg called de Blasio’s use of his multiracial family “racist” during the mayoral primary election, Cuomo blasted back. “I remember when his kids were born, that’s how long we go back. They are a beautiful family. Individually each of the members of his family are truly special people and I think he should be very proud of his family, and if I were Bill I would be campaigning with my family the way that I campaign with my family. So that’s the way I feel about the de Blasios.”
Parker said that relationship would continue with de Blasio in the mayor’s office.
“They have had a relationship and worked together for over 30 years,” said Parker. “We know there will be a dialogue. This won’t be a scenario now where the mayor and governor don’t talk to each other. This is a basis for conversation between the two offices that we simply haven’t had before.”
Cuomo staffers acknowledge that they are looking forward to dealing with a new mayor. “It is an outsized office to begin with” they said of mayor’s office. They noted that Bloomberg’s billionaire status had made it even more difficult to deal with him.
Parker says he feels Cuomo has shied away from city issues because of his testy relationship with Bloomberg.
“Bloomberg didn’t have a history working with people,” said Parker. “Meanwhile,
I feel like Andrew has done nothing significant for New York City over the last four years despite his father being a congressman from Queens. It feels like there was an understanding that Bloomberg would take care of the city and Cuomo would do the rest of the state. That is going to change.”
The Cuomo insiders said that their boss “values friendships.” They noted that the governor has longstanding relationships with a number of his political allies but emphasized that Cuomo’s relationship with de Blasio “goes back decades.”
2014: The Next Election Year
Senate Democrats hope that with de Blasio and possibly Cuomo by their side they will be able to capitalize on the success of 2012 when they won four seats despite being deeply in debt and with recruitment efforts hampered because the redistricting process left some seats uncertain.
This year, they hope to defend seats they won as well as win vulnerable Republican seats. One of those seats is Sen. Marty Golden’s district, where his Democratic opponent managed to win over 43 percent of the vote without any financial backing from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “We are in a much stronger situation both financially,” said Gianaris.
There remains plenty of time for the political dynamics to change between this November and next, though for now relations between the governor and the IDC and Republicans remains frosty.
Last week, the head of the state Democratic committee issued a statement attacking Savino, saying she was a “shield for Republicans” and telling her: “I have two words -- register Republican.”
Savino has been critical of Cuomo’s ethics bodies — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Moreland Commission to. Savino supports legislation that would limit the governor’s ability to control future Moreland Act Commissions.
"It is extremely disappointing to see a member of my own party respond to calls for greater transparency in government with such vitriol and hostility,” Savino responded in a lengthy statement which included thinly veiled shots at Cuomo.
Cuomo’s Moreland Commission is also openly feuding with Senate Republicans over subpoenas. It appears Cuomo’s patience with the Republican and IDC coalitions may be fraying and Senate Democrats stand to benefit.
But Cuomo’s tiff with Senate Republicans and the IDC may be short lived. It all depends on whether Cuomo gets what he wants from the Legislature once the Moreland Commission makes its recommendations. Federal prosecutors acknowledge they are still investigating state legislators and arrests on either side could sway the fates of the parties. And then, of course, de Blasio might face a tougher first few months than expected.
Regardless of the makeup of the Legislature, there is little doubt that the relationship between Albany and New York City will change drastically the moment de Blasio is inaugurated. “We are talking about the mayor of the biggest city ... and Andrew Cuomo,” said Peralta. “There is always going to be opportunity for some sort of clash. But I believe Cuomo and de Blasio have the basis for something completely different.”
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