Andrew Cuomo's battle with the left: Inside a last-minute frenzy to avoid a liberal challenge

Are the nationally ambitious governor's '14 plans about to be destroyed? Here's what's happening behind the scenes

Published May 29, 2014 4:11PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mike Groll)
(AP/Mike Groll)

This is it, folks; years of sparring, speculation and scheming in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's battle with the left is about to come to a head. Sometime in the next 48 hours, the fiscally conservative governor will learn whether the liberal Working Families Party will choose him -- or someone else -- to run on its ballot line in his reelection this fall.

Here's what's at stake. If he gets WFP's backing, Cuomo will neutralize what potentially could have been a loud and damaging critic from the left, and he'll secure a much larger margin of victory by avoiding facing another opponent. (Polls show that the addition of a liberal third-party candidate to the race could put Cuomo's vote total under 40 percent and reduce his margin of victory to the teens). If he doesn't, there will be branding setbacks, national embarrassment and the possibility of finishing his reelection with a majority of voters choosing someone else. For a pol with national ambitions, these are more than mild irritants.

Here's what we know so far. As of Thursday morning, the party remains deeply divided on how to proceed. While several party members considered a challenge to Cuomo all but inevitable as recently as a week ago -- with the party even having settled on its candidate to challenge the governor (while education activist Diane Ravitch's name has gotten a lot of attention, Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout is believed to be a leading option) -- a meeting between Cuomo and key party figures on Tuesday is said to have softened the opposition. In a significant turn of events, a plan to enact public financing of elections in New York, long the explicit price of the party's endorsement, now appears to have lost momentum. Which means it will take a different kind of pitch from the governor to get this done.

As described in today's Times, one scenario being considered is one in which the governor would hold a public event "express[ing] his intent to help the Democrats reclaim the [state] Senate" if Republicans fail to pass a public financing bill. But several insiders say that it will take much more than this to sell the party's rank and file on a governor they see as the biggest enemy to their economic agenda. These sources say that to have a chance to get members to back Cuomo, it may require something along the lines of a big kumbaya-type press conference with all the major players of the state's institutional left -- the governor, Mayor Bill de Blasio (who is playing a real peacemaking role behind the scenes), WFP and major labor unions -- coming together to declare several things.

First, the united groups -- including unions like 1199 and the Hotel Trades Council, which backed a Republican state Senate in recent years -- would declare the need for a Democratic state Senate. For WFP members to be interested, they'd like to see the governor say he will help fund primary challenges to the Independent Democratic Caucus -- a band of breakaway Democrats now caucusing with Republicans -- with millions of dollars if they don't rejoin the party in earnest. Further, they'd want to see him put real money and energy behind an effort to peel off additional seats for Democrats, ensuring a lasting Senate majority that has eluded Democrats -- and real progressive governance in the state -- for decades. Finally, party activists say they want to hear the governor declare his intent to deliver a progressive wish-list including not only public financing of elections, but other items like a minimum wage increase and Dream Act.

While the party's members do not trust the governor's word -- because he's pledged fealty to progressive agenda items in the past, but declined to deliver -- the thinking here is that if unions and the mayor are there to enforce this plan, it would assume greater legitimacy.

For the governor, time is really running out. The WFP state committee will assemble to choose its endorsement at Saturday's party convention. And if public financing of elections is really not going to happen, he has a matter of hours to figure out a viable package B with which to entice members of a party that does not like him.

When it comes to persuading WFP, the key problem for the governor is how to cajole people whose jobs (or lives) he can't directly control. He's masterfully lured de Blasio into his camp (and gotten him to publicly call on the WFP to endorse him), with the mayor having recently learned the hard lesson that he needs Albany's help if he wants money for big initiatives. And he's won over the WFP's member unions, who can use his help when it comes to contracts and pensions, and thus want no part of a protracted fight. But his success in getting the party's line will come down to whether he can convince WFP activists -- who, unlike the mayor or unions, can afford to make ideological statements of principle and risk alienating the man likely to cruise to a second term.

As has been well-documented, the activists are fed up with an economic agenda that's protected corporate and wealthy taxpayers (slashing taxes on estates, banks, property and millionaires), while reducing public services, boosting charter schools, opposing a minimum wage hike in the city, and failing to pass meaningful campaign finance reform. The problem for Cuomo is that these activists, rather than the unions, make up a large part of the state committee -- the entity that votes to decide the party's nominee at its state convention this Saturday.

To that end, Cuomo and his team spent several weeks working maniacally behind the scenes to thread the needle and deliver the public financing bill. But there are all sorts of obstacles facing the governor here. The Republican-led Senate (a majority, ironically, that he enabled and tacitly supported) opposes the measure -- for more than ideological concerns. A system that helps fund potential challengers could endanger the state GOP's fragile Senate majority. So, any plan that would be blessed by Senate leader Dean Skelos would need to address that concern.

As I previously reported, one public financing proposal floated in Albany included a regional cap whereby candidates downstate would get more funds for their campaigns than candidates upstate (the stated reason being that the former market costs more to run in). Insiders explain that the truer purpose of this feature would be to curb the amount of public money going to challengers in rural, upstate New York, which would limit the threat to many Republican incumbents -- many of whom fear primaries due to the passage of the SAFE Act, a gun safety measure passed in the wake of Newtown.

Other points of contention in the public finance negotiation included the rate of the match (reformers wanted as much as 6-to-1 but might have settled for as low as 3-to-1), the year it goes into effect (2016 is ideal, 2020 a much harder sell), and limits on the amount of public funds candidates would be allowed to receive (reformers were seeking $375,000 for Senate candidates and $175,000 for Assembly candidates).

With this package apparently imploding, Cuomo needs to hope that the allure of a kumbaya press conference, along with some promises, is enough to persuade a skeptical state committee.

There's one other avenue, though.

The governor, famous for his political acuity, could seek to punish the party if it does not endorse him. Private threats have ranged from the implicit -- he controls many agenda items of interest to it -- to an explicit scenario in which he persuades unions to leave WFP and starve it of needed resources. Pro-Cuomo party allies have urged its members to take the pragmatic course here, and endorse the governor, so as not to make life more complicated for itself, its unions and the governor.

But activists make up a large portion of the state committee and many are motivated, above all else, by ideological principles. We'll soon find out just how interested they are in pragmatism.

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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