Trumping Trump? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo courts 'middle-class anger'

The Democratic mayor of New York wants to take his progressive message directly to angry middle-class voters

Published January 16, 2017 11:55PM (EST)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) (AP/Hans Pennink)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) (AP/Hans Pennink)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — An ambitious Democratic governor with possible White House aspirations has a formula for staying blue in the time of Trump: Take your progressive message directly to angst-ridden middle-class voters.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision to break from tradition and roll out his state-of-the-state address in a series of speeches across the state this past week infuriated lawmakers he essentially bypassed. But his populist proposals, including free college tuition, expanded child care tax credits and a "buy American" plan, appear to have landed with at least some of his intended target.

"It was a personal touch. When you're in Albany, you don't get the vibe and the feel of the people," said Syracuse steelworker Keith Odume, who attended Cuomo's speech and was particularly impressed with his plan to give American companies preference in state purchases.

But some wonder just how sincere Cuomo really is, questioning whether his middle-class outreach formula that he defiantly posed as an alternative to Donald Trump is nothing more than the groundwork for a presidential run.

And they question where this formula — combining progressive social programs and big spending on airports, train stations and water infrastructure — was during Cuomo's previous six years as governor.

"He hasn't done anything for me," said Adam Kelley, an unemployed carpenter who was walking through downtown Syracuse as Cuomo delivered a speech nearby.

Kelley said he is cautiously optimistic about Trump's presidency but less enthused about the governor. "This town was an industry town. There were jobs. Look at it now. It's empty. He hasn't done enough to fix that."

New York is a deep blue state, where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by more than 20 percentage points. But take away New York City and liberal enclaves like Albany, Westchester County and Ithaca, and New York begins to resemble Ohio, Pennsylvania or Michigan: Rust Belt states that have lost jobs, population and, seemingly, their confidence.

Leading Democrats around the country are struggling to respond following Trump's victory in November. Cuomo has been mentioned on some lists as a possible challenger in 2020. That speculation only intensified when Cuomo asked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to join him in announcing his free-tuition plan, which would cover students attending public institutions whose families make $125,000 or less.

"Politicians in both parties should have received the message loud and clear that the American public is not happy with the status quo," said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo whose most recent book examines America's political polarization. "But another lesson is that Americans want a somewhat more conservative government, less government. I'm not sure Gov. Cuomo's plans reflect that."

During his time in office, Cuomo has worked to balance progressive victories on the minimum wage, paid family leave and same-sex marriage with more conservative efforts to cut taxes, cap government spending and invest billions in corporate subsidies for manufacturing and high-tech industry.

"What makes our economic progress even sweeter, frankly, is that it has been matched by unprecedented social progress," Cuomo said in his speech on Long Island.

"We talk about the anger in the election, and the roar that we heard in the election," Cuomo told another crowd on his tour. "That middle-class anger — that's what we have to address."

Cuomo's critics — from both parties — question the governor's true motives, given that he's famously the son of a former governor, the late Mario Cuomo, who long contemplated but never took the plunge into a presidential run.

Western New York Assemblyman Steve Hawley, a Republican, said Cuomo's road trip was nothing more than a dry run for a presidential campaign. And an excuse to flee lawmakers, many of whom blame Cuomo for killing their first pay rise in 18 years late last year.

Or as Ed Cox, chairman of the state Republican Party put it, "Andrew Cuomo would like to run away from New York state and go where his father didn't go — to Washington."

Others note that while Cuomo did take his message to the hinterlands, there were no stops in any of the 20 mostly rural counties that flipped from Democratic to Republican during the presidential election.

Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi said Cuomo was treating those areas "like New York state's version of 'flyover country.'"

By David Klepper

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