On January 25, four days after demonstrators flooded the streets of Washington, D.C., to protest the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, Jose Peralta, a Democratic state senator from Queens, New York, defected from his party. He became the eighth Democratic member of what is known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a breakaway faction that caucuses with Republicans in the New York Senate, effectively giving the GOP a majority in a chamber that voters have all but decided should be in Democratic control. Days later, Peralta faced a town hall full of angry constituents and protesters who chanted, “Traitor! Traitor!”
They are mad as hell, and with good reason. At a time when New York should be leading the progressive charge against a Republican-controlled federal government, it is members of the Democratic Party who are holding the state back. And to the everlasting frustration of the party, the state’s Democratic governor, the aloof and enigmatic Andrew Cuomo, appears more than happy to live with this arrangement—all while telegraphing his presidential ambitions.
In Cuomo’s seven years in office, he has pitched himself as a Clinton-style liberal who can cut through the Gordian knot of partisan dysfunction to deliver meaningful results for middle-class families. He delivers budgets on time. He notches progressive victories. He is like a modern-day LBJ, a wizard in the legislative dark arts of arm-twisting and favor-bestowing. His critics say he prefers this hive of cloakroom activity to actually helping Democrats get elected, which Cuomo’s office has consistently denied. But Cuomo himself sees upsides in the bizarre legislative pact that has fractured his own party. “We’ve had a unified Democratic government in Albany,” Cuomo told reporters just last week. “It’s not a hypothetical. We’ve had it. It wasn’t extraordinarily successful. So I work with the Assembly and Senate that I’ve been given and I do the best I can.”
That may have been true in the past, but we are living in exceptional times. The situation in Albany would be weird in any political environment, but it’s highly problematic in the Trump era, when proposed federal immigration and health care policies have made millions of New York’s residents vulnerable. A Democratic majority in the Senate could protect these people, which is what a unified Democratic government in California is doing. “New York is following where so many other states, namely California, are leading,” Brad Hoylman, a state senator from Manhattan, told the New Republic. “It’s a shame. And it’s because we have an illegitimate control of the state Senate.”
Single-payer health care, progressive housing policies, changes to campaign finance and redistricting laws that have suppressed the vote—these are all issues a Democratic state government could tackle. (The New York Assembly is already controlled by the Democrats.) And when progressive legislation does make it through—like Cuomo’s much-ballyhooed but underwhelming free college proposal—it is often watered down. “What I’ve seen over and over again are half-victories, or sometimes quarter-victories, that are called full victories, on issues up and down and across the board,” state Senator Gustavo Rivera, who represents the Bronx, told the New Republic. “This namby-pamby, half-a-loaf type of craziness does not compute. It does not help our people, it does not help our state, it leaves us open to attacks.”
There are many reasons for this state of affairs. Foremost among them are New York’s arcane campaign finance laws and a redistricting compromise that empowered Republicans—a compromise that was endorsed by Cuomo. But another reason is Cuomo himself, who is content to govern at a leisurely pace because it both affirms his political identity and serves his own interests, very much including a possible presidential run in 2020.
The IDC has been provoking howls of protest from progressives for years. Originally formed in 2011, the IDC facilitates a power-sharing agreement between Senate Republicans and a group of Senate Democrats led by Jeff Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. Because of these breakaway Democrats, the Republicans control the Senate despite the fact that they were a technical minority both after the 2012 and the 2016 elections (Republicans won the majority in 2014). If Democrats pick up an open seat in Manhattan on May 23 in a special election, which they are expected to do, there will be 32 Democrats in the state Senate, compared with 31 Republicans. (Democrat Bill Perkins, who vacated his state Senate seat to join the New York City Council, won re-election in 2016 with over 95 percent of the vote.)
The Republican Party in New York is in disarray—registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one—so its main function in the Senate leadership is to block legislation, unless that legislation benefits special interests, particularly the state’s powerful real estate lobby. Republicans are empowered to keep any progressive legislation from going to a vote, which they do repeatedly. IDC members, meanwhile, are rewarded with both influence and thousands of extra dollars in compensation, as The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
“People go and they see someone on the Democratic line and they vote for that person thinking that it means something,” state Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens told the New Republic. “Then lo and behold a couple months later when the Senate convenes, a number of people who are elected as Democrats enter an agreement that empowers Republicans who voters specifically said should be in the minority.” Rivera says that the will of the voters is “unequivocally” being subverted. Hoylman adds, “I think a lot of New Yorkers would be surprised to find out that we even have a Republican-controlled state Senate with a coalition government facilitated by Democrats.”
Cuomo’s office and the IDC point out that they have pushed through major progressive accomplishments. The SAFE Act was tough gun control legislation that passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. New York legalized gay marriage in 2011, a historic achievement. Other big-ticket items include a raise in the minimum wage, paid family leave, and, most recently, free public college.
But if you look under the hood of some of Cuomo’s banner accomplishments, they are not as impressive as the headlines imply. Take, for example, Cuomo’s free college bill. Because of the way it’s structured, the plan has been labeled as free college for the middle class. Cuomo’s plan covers tuition, but not other expenses like room and board. According to the Times, for a four-year degree, this saves students around $26,000 out of $83,000 total—meaning they would still have to pay the lion’s share. The program will only help an estimated 32,000 students this year, and those students are required to reside in New York state for years after.
Then there’s the minimum wage. In 2016, Cuomo claimed a progressive victory in raising New York’s wage to $15 per hour. “New York is showing the way forward on economic justice,” he said in an official statement at the time. But while the raise goes into effect faster in New York City, it is only set to be raised to $12.50 by 2020 for the rest of the state, and to $15 at a yet-to-be-determined time. The wage is not indexed to inflation, meaning that the Democrats may have to fight this battle all over again once it does eventually reach $15. And tipped workers, those working in the state’s huge restaurant industry, only get a raise of $10 per hour.
Furthermore, by hobbling their own party, Cuomo and the IDC have stalled a number of issues on which a blue state like New York should be at the vanguard. “Whether we’re talking about voting reforms, the DREAM Act, single-payer, or the women’s Reproductive Health Act,” Rivera says, “these are all fundamental Democratic issues that we would be able to achieve if we had a Democratic majority.” Without a unified Democratic Senate, Gianaris says, “there’s a host of substantive, progressive accomplishments that we’ve lost out on the opportunity to achieve.”
Take single-payer health care. At a moment when Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan are threatening to strip health care from millions of Americans, California is stepping up by moving a universal health care bill—one that would cover undocumented immigrants—through its legislature. “Single-payer is one thing that the entire Democratic conference supports that is held up because the Republicans refuse to have a vote on it,” Gianaris says.
Meanwhile, New York’s policies on reproductive rights are startlingly regressive. The state’s abortion laws haven’t changed since 1970—which means they predate Roe v. Wade. “We have a really bad law on our books,” state Senator Liz Krueger, from Manhattan, told the New Republic. “It’s two sentences in our penal code saying that you can’t prosecute doctors—nothing about what your legal rights are.” These outdated abortion laws often mean that people have to travel outside of the state for abortion access, even for emergency health procedures. “Here in New York state,” Krueger says, “we’ve spent 43 years saying, ‘We have Roe v. Wade, so everything’s OK.’”
But with Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, and liberal justices on the verge of retirement, ensuring that there are legal protections for abortions in New York state is essential. And yet on reproductive rights, New York lags behind what other states are doing, never mind what progressive activists are pushing for. Cuomo has since pledged to support a constitutional amendment on the issue, but constitutional amendments are hard to pass—you have to get it through two legislative sessions and a public vote. And the state legislature would still have to pass a law, which they haven’t yet. Although he publicly supports stronger abortion protections, Cuomo has really only offered tepid compromises.
Another example Hoylman points to is his TRUMP (Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public) Act, which would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns if they want to get on the ballot in New York state. “New York was the first to do that,” Hoylman says. “Since then 28 other states including California have followed suit. But we haven’t been able to pass it here because of the Republicans’ fake majority.”
The exact role that Cuomo plays in perpetuating Republican control over the state Senate is one of the great mysteries of New York politics. The extra cash and perks that flow to the IDC all officially come from Republican channels in the faux-majority, and the Republicans in turn are involved in the deal-making that goes on with the governor’s office. Politico has reported that Cuomo was “deeply involved” in the formation of the IDC, citing anonymous sources. A top Albany Democrat told the New Republic, on condition of anonymity, “It’s a well-known secret that Cuomo played a role in the IDC. It’s served his purposes perfectly.” Cuomo’s office denies propping up the IDC, even if Democratic officials across the state lament Cuomo’s less than boisterous efforts to get Democrats elected.
Cuomo’s office told the New Republic over email that Cuomo has worked to get Democrats elected: “The governor campaigned to get a Democratic Senate but those efforts were unsuccessful.” They also pointed to the governor’s recent assertion: “I am a Democrat, so I support Democrats.” Last election cycle, Cuomo only endorsed Democratic candidates who were committed to his progressive priorities: closing campaign finance loopholes, passing comprehensive voting rights reform, and supporting New York’s version of the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented college students to receive financial aid. In January, Cuomo said, “I work politically to support the Democrats during the campaign season. As you know, campaign season is over, I’m governing. I’m trying to get things done, and I’ll leave their politics to themselves.”
When asked about what the legislature has done to protect New Yorkers from the policies of Donald Trump, both Cuomo’s office and a spokesperson for the IDC pointed to the $10 million set aside in the budget for an immigrant defense fund to ensure that undocumented immigrants have access to legal representation. (New York state’s total budget for the 2018 fiscal year is $98.1 billion.)
But if Cuomo’s position on the IDC remains ambiguous, his ambitions beyond Albany are easier to decipher. After Trump’s inauguration, he quickly established himself as a high-profile leader in the resistance. “As a New Yorker, I am a Muslim,” the governor said at JFK airport in January, during protests against Trump’s Muslim ban. “As a New Yorker, I am Jewish. As a New Yorker, I am black; I am gay; I am disabled. I am a woman seeking to control her health and choices because as a New Yorker, we are one community, the New York community comprised of all of the above.” He invited Bernie Sanders to join him after signing the free college bill into law. And he’s begun to do the kinds of things presidential aspirants do, like making an appearance at the National Governors Association meeting in late February and hiring two people to raise money in Florida. (Cuomo’s office says he is not considering a presidential run.)
While the Democrats have several up-and-comers on their bench (Senators Chris Murphy, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker) and some veteran progressive stalwarts (Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), no one at this early stage looms quite as large as Cuomo, a governor of a huge blue state with a record of accomplishment. (His main competitor in this respect, California’s Jerry Brown, is 79 years old and first ran for his party’s presidential nomination in 1976.) If he were to run, Cuomo’s pitch to Democratic primary voters would almost certainly be this: He’s a progressive who gets things done. Sound familiar?
The arrangement in Albany, whether by design or happenstance, ensures that what gets done is determined by Cuomo. There is no faction to his left, pushing him out over his skis. On the flip side, with Republicans in charge of the state Senate, he can’t be accused of being a check on Democrats from the right. This is all well and good for Cuomo, who, if he runs for president, will have to perform that classic two-step: winning over a liberal base first, a general electorate second. But where does that leave his party?