"Would have been unconscionable not to": Bill de Blasio tells Salon why he backed Cuomo

Why would a liberal icon push a deal to back a centrist governor? It will transform politics, Bill de Blasio argues

Published June 9, 2014 3:23PM (EDT)

Bill de Blasio              (AP/Hans Pennink)
Bill de Blasio (AP/Hans Pennink)

A year ago polls showed New York Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio running fourth, fighting hard for media coverage in a race that included the compulsively coverable train wreck also known as Anthony Weiner. But just last week, in a plot twist almost as unlikely as his landslide win, de Blasio was in the media spotlight as an unlikely kingmaker, brokering the progressive Working Families Party’s uneasy endorsement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It was unlikely, or seemed so, because the centrist Cuomo, a nominal de Blasio ally, became the progressive mayor’s primary antagonist almost as soon as he took office. He blocked his plans to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to pay for pre-kindergarten programs, and ostentatiously sided with corporate charter schools titan Eva Moskowitz in her battle to get de Blasio to approve all of her new charters. Cuomo dismissed de Blasio’s appeal to allow New York City to raise its minimum wage as “chaotic,” and tried to stop him from using state funds on rent subsidies for homeless families. (On that one, Cuomo relented; he also agreed to add $300 million to expand New York’s pre-kindergarten programs after blocking the tax hike, a victory of sorts for de Blasio, minus the funding stream guaranteed by a local tax hike.)

The governor’s almost gleeful obstruction of de Blasio fed the growing unhappiness within the Working Families Party. But there was more: New York progressives see Cuomo as the face of a Democratic Party that has moved in their direction on social issues – the governor’s hard work on gay marriage and gun control have been exemplary – while tilting toward Wall Street and the rich on economic policy. He’s not only blocked tax hikes for the wealthy, he’s lowered New York’s estate tax and unrolled a host of tax cuts and tax exemptions for businesses and individuals.

For grass-roots activists in the WFP, rebuking Cuomo would signal a new willingness to punish Democrats who blocked a progressive economic agenda. As WFP executive director Dan Cantor recently told David Sirota in Politico, before the Cuomo conflict: “We needed to defeat some corporate Democrats in primaries to be taken seriously,” he says. A Cuomo challenge would have seemed tailor-made: Former Howard Dean organizer and Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout announced she would fight Cuomo for the party’s nomination at its late May convention.

Enter de Blasio. For weeks he worked to broker peace between Cuomo and WFP leaders. Most of WFP’s union membership favored working with the governor, not shafting him (lest they’d be shafted in turn, whether on contract talks or policy issues). But nothing could avert a convention floor showdown. Cuomo didn’t show – he agreed to speak to the group in what could only be compared to a hostage video – but de Blasio showed up at the Desmond Hotel near Albany, energetically working the phones and brokering a deal in which Cuomo agreed to pledge support for items like public financing of elections, marijuana decriminalization and a plan to increase the state’s minimum wage and allow cities to raise theirs 30 percent higher -- along with working to win Democratic control of the state Senate, in exchange for the WFP endorsement.

In the end, Zephyr Teachout (who could still challenge Cuomo in a Democratic primary) won standing ovations with a fiery anti-Cuomo speech, but de Blasio carried the day with a passionate appeal that called a new WFP-Cuomo alliance “a transcendent moment” in progressive politics, a rhetorical flourish for which he was affectionately mocked. But the Wall Street Journal editorial page is not amused.

A few days after the WFP fireworks subsided, I had a chance to sit down with de Blasio, along with Katrina Vanden Heuvel of the Nation and Ebony’s Zerlina Maxwell. It already seemed far away: The day before he’d watched as many (though not all) Brooklyn parents learned their children had gotten places in the city’s expanded pre-kindergarten program, while the morning of our meeting, he’d attended the funeral of 7-year-old P.J. Avitto, who was stabbed in his East New York housing project last week. The conversation has been edited.

When we talked not quite a year ago, universal, full-day pre-kindergarten was your big idea, but it seemed very far away. Now you’ve gotten the money for it, and kids are being enrolled – and you’re only five months in office. That’s fast in politics.

It’s amazing, it’s joyous. It’s an amazing moment. When we put it forth over a year and a half ago, there was a substantial debate over, How much do we want to cross the Rubicon here?

Meaning what? 

Meaning we really want to say we are going to create full-day Pre-K in the city in a short period of time. But are we really going to take on all those attendant challenges? It was a substantial discussion that in the scheme of things ended quite quickly, because my view is, I’m really uncomfortable with undue reliance on pilot projects and small victories and incrementalism. There’s a place for it, particularly when you have an untested idea. But pre-K is not an untested idea. The jury is so back on pre-K, compared to almost any idea in public policy – I’d say the same for after school and certainly paid sick leave.

And so once you recognize that you have the answer, then it’s a question of political will, resource prioritization, audacity and moving government toward the goal. I knew, having the dynamic of mayoral control of education, which is incredibly crucial to this equation – in the absence this would not be possible. The mission is to reach everyone, the goal is universality, to reach everyone. You have to be uncomfortable with incrementalism when you don’t need incrementalism.

You had a very interesting week with the Working Families Party convention. Why was it so important to mediate that conflict with the governor?

I think this achievement from last Saturday night is a very big deal, worth everything that went into it and everything that will go into it. The fact that we now have a huge coalition to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, with indexing, and with municipalities having the ability to go 30 percent higher, is a sea change for this state. This state is so backward on minimum wage policy, for such a blue state. In fact it’s fair to say the WFP formed on this question, the minimum wage question, in 1998.

The wage issue, and the issue of control of the state Senate, are related. The blockage on the wage issue was the Republican control of the state Senate. You remove that problem, you open up a world of possibilities. So you can be happy with the policy items that were delineated but I would argue you should be even more happy about the structural changes that are made possible by this unified agreement to take back the state Senate. And I believe that once it’s taken back it will not revert, because of demographic changes. I think it’s been artificially behind the curve, and once in Democratic hands, it will stay there. Our entire agenda will be greatly enhanced with a Democratic state Senate.

I think for the WFP, I can’t speak for them, but I think they had every right to want to see a lot in the plan, they had every right to demand a lot, and I think they got a lot, to their credit, and I think it will be a transcendent moment. I have no doubt in my mind it will be a transcendent moment in New York state politics. Remember, the state Senate, it’s been 50 years of Republican control, except for two years, in the state that brought you Fiorello LaGuardia and FDR.

But let’s talk about the governor: He really seemed to go out of his way to break your wings in your first weeks in office …

I still have my wings.

You do. But as you said before, it’s crucial that the mayor have control of the schools, but he trimmed that a little when it came to charter schools. He blocked a local tax increase to fund pre-K. He was against your plans for a local minimum wage hike.  So lots of national progressives wondered why you were being so magnanimous in defending this guy who has not exactly been magnanimous to you.

Beyond the long personal history, and there really is one -- I mean, I’ve had my differences with him, but there really is a long and good personal history, for almost 20 years. But beyond that: I think one thing I would urge my fellow progressives to look at is: What did we come here to do? Look at the trajectory on pre-K: It was dramatic, it was contentious, but look at what happened in the end, I would ask. In the end, we got the money we needed. In the end we feel very good about the way it played out.

You raised mayoral control [of schools]. Now, we feel mayoral control of schools has proven to be very effective even in the hands of someone with whom we didn’t always agree [Michael Bloomberg]. He did some things I disagreed with, he alienated parents and the workforce, but on the good days you could see what was possible. The challenge [from Cuomo] was around pretty narrow issues with charter schools: I didn’t love all the outcomes, of course not, but we still think mayoral control is intact. It’s our buildings, it’s our process.

When you do the scorecard at the end of the day, take the drama issues away and look at the outcomes, you really feel fine. Remember [on pre-K] we got a five-year plan, the dollar figure essentially we were looking for; in the real world that was plenty.

So what does that previous sequence tell us about the current events?  It tells us progressives are better off when they’re unified. I certainly understand why some people were against the outcome that was achieved last Saturday night, I clearly see the logic. But what I saw was internecine warfare. I knew who was lining up where, and I knew a hell of a lot of time and energy would go into that struggle, instead of into fighting a common enemy.

I’ve been the doubting Thomas. I’ve spent a lifetime among progressive doubting Thomases and I don’t blame them for their doubts. But sometimes a transcendent moment is staring you in the face and you have to see it for what it is.

Well, you’ve been mocked, a little, for that comment, for calling it a “transcendent moment,” and I get it more now. I see the structural changes you’ve described. But as someone who’s lived a long time in California, my feeling Saturday night was: In what world is it a big deal to get a Democratic governor to support electing a Democratic state Senate?

In this world.

In this world. I get that better now. But what do you say to people who believe that Governor Cuomo, personally, symbolizes where our side is right now: He’s great on so-called social issues, like gay marriage and gun control …

What he did on marriage and guns was so far ahead; look, I’ll critique him too, but on those two issues, in the whole country, find me governors who did what he did.

Sure, I’ll give him that. But it’s on the economic agenda that we’re stuck. His tax policy and his courting of Wall Street, blocking your ideas for how to fund pre-K, via slightly higher taxes on the very wealthy … look, it’s wonderful you got the money for it anyway. It really is. But to fund the next generation of progressive programs, to fund economic opportunity, to build the middle class: We’re going to need higher tax rates. So a lot of people felt it was an opportunity to speak to that wing of the party and say, hey, we can’t continue this way. And that opportunity has now been lost.

And, had there not been a substantial plan for fundamental political change, they’d have been right. First of all, on New York – we lean eastward, as in Old Europe. If you want to understand how the Democratic governor didn’t make a priority of electing a Democratic Senate – and why that’s gone on many years – you almost have to see us as a parliamentary system. Everyone sort of winked and nudged and accepted this reality for several reasons. Labor was complicit in that too. Instead of what it should have been – we’re a very blue state – this is not something Andrew Cuomo created, it went on way before him, and everyone who didn’t do something was on the wrong side of history.

But when we had a chance to change the dynamics for decades to come, to me, it would have been unconscionable not to take that step. What would have been the alternative? The alternative would have been the governor, and a lot of unions, even the most progressive unions, fighting the WFP. A big, bold fight among people who mostly agree. And to what particular outcome I’m not sure. But when I’m trying to protect rent regulation, and mayoral control, and move the Dream Act, and do a host of other things on economic justice that all tragically require Albany’s approval for reasons I have deemed semi-colonial; when you look at that reality, and then here is an agreement on a series of policy items, and here’s an agreement on taking back the state Senate, and here is a coalition that, if it holds, changes the state issue by issue, year by year. It was not just about one election. It was about holding together that coalition.

I don’t blame anyone who’s cynical or questioning. But I want people who believe in what we’re doing here to see why, to me, this was foundational. Now, ask me in six months. If we pull it off, I hope people will say, "Huh, that really was a smart move for everyone." And if we don’t, people will say, "Well, it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be." Now the job is to actually make it real.

See you in six months!

We’ll see you in six months.

By Joan Walsh