You learn a lot about the egos of politicians when a Dumpster explodes in New York City. The day after a pressure-cooker bomb in Chelsea on September 17 sent the city into a frenzy, Mayor Bill de Blasio called a noon press conference to update reporters on the investigation.
Cuomo popped up two hours earlier for his own press conference, flanked by MTA workers in fluorescent vests. The governor is savvy. The national Sunday shows would air him live. Cuomo labeled the act “terrorism” — de Blasio, advised by the police not to speak ahead of facts, had refrained from using the term — so he gained the headlines.
Clearly, Cuomo was sending the message that, as governor, he was in charge during a crisis, but was he also trying to send a message about the mayor? That de Blasio was sleeping in? Still at the gym? The mayor had been frequently knocked for his long commutes from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to his YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Suggestions that he needs to knuckle down have emanated from the governor’s office.
When a reporter asked Cuomo why he wasn’t attending the mayor’s press conference, he waved the question off: “This is how we do things.” Actually, who invited whom to the dueling press conferences — and when — is a subject of disagreement. The mayor’s office says the governor declined an invitation to de Blasio’s noon briefing. The governor’s office says he was never invited and, furthermore, that they invited the mayor to his event, but the mayor declined. The mayor’s office says they don’t recall receiving this invitation.
During an inspection of the bomb site between press briefings, Cuomo and de Blasio appeared cordial, briefly hugging. On closer examination, however, a different picture emerged. When Cuomo said goodbye to Long Island Rep. Pete King, he warmly kissed King on the cheek, his hand clasped around the back of the Republican’s neck. The mayor and governor awkwardly knocked shoulders, their right arms pressed against their bodies in a strained handshake.
New York City mayors and the state’s governors are often at odds, with the mayor trying to exert local prerogatives and the governor holding a higher power over the city’s fate. But the feud between Cuomo and de Blasio has been uniquely personal, bitter and public in the 34 months since de Blasio’s inauguration in 2014, and has been white hot since de Blasio announced, on June 30, 2015, that he was fed up with his old friend Andrew Mark Cuomo. Appearing on television that day, de Blasio accused the governor of insincerity and vindictiveness. Cuomo appeared to take that as a declaration of war. Close observers of both men wonder if Cuomo will not rest until he has buried de Blasio politically.
The rivalry includes episodes that are almost comical — as when de Blasio, a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox, sulked a block behind Cuomo as the governor marched to cheers near the legendary Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez at the Dominican Day parade in 2015 — as well as episodes that are truly comical. Standing just feet away from Donald Trump at this month’s annual Al Smith Dinner, which brings partisan rivals together for an evening of good-natured roasting, Hillary Clinton brought down the house by saying to Cardinal Timothy Dolan: “Your Eminence, you do deserve great credit for bringing together two people who have been at each other’s throats, mortal enemies, bitter foes. I’ve got to ask: How did you get the Governor and Mayor here together tonight?”
The rift between the governor and the mayor can have serious consequences: They are responsible for issues that determine the quality of life in New York City, including schools, affordable housing, transportation, the homeless and more (see “The Feud: Blow by Blow,” below).
What makes the Democratic kingpins’ mutual rancor so confounding — especially to those who know them well — is that the two were once close. They were co-workers, political brothers and, more significantly, friends. Gov. Mario Cuomo, the late liberal lion and Andrew’s father, once affectionately observed that de Blasio reminded him of his own son. “It’s like an opera,” says one Democratic party insider who has known them both a long time.
Some Cuomo supporters contend that the mayor has caused the ruckus: “Bill de Blasio thinks this is Lyndon Johnson versus Bobby Kennedy, but he’s neither,” says a Cuomo aide who used to work with both of them. Others blame Cuomo. The spokesman for state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters in June that the Bronx Democrat was fed up with their feud, that it was hurting the city, and chastised the governor for “playing politics.” “Enough,” he said pointedly.
Tensions between the two got so bad that the mayor and governor even agreed to mediation. But their appointed liaison, public-relations consultant Ken Sunshine, who goes back to the 1990s with de Blasio and is one of Cuomo’s closest friends, could only admit to defeat. “I sure tried,” he told aides. “But I was an abject failure.”
On the surface, their saga would appear to be driven by mere disdain. Peer closer, however, and you’ll find a story that speaks to more primal emotions: ambition, loyalty, betrayal and fear.
In dozens of in-depth interviews with associates of both men — including current and former colleagues, some who have worked for both, and others who were eyewitnesses to their earliest political forays (Cuomo and de Blasio chose not to comment on the record) — it becomes clear that this feud won’t be ending anytime soon. Still, there is one question that has never been sufficiently answered: What exactly triggered this abiding animus?
If you flash back to Washington, D.C., circa 1997, you would find the 39-year-old Cuomo presiding over the massive, curved honeycomb of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Born to a Democratic titan (Mario), married to American royalty (his then-wife was Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Bobby), and the second-youngest cabinet member in U.S. history, Cuomo was a star in the making. He’d orchestrated his father’s first gubernatorial win at age 23, and he now set out to turn around the oft-abused, $27 billion government agency that aims to ensure affordable and non-discriminatory housing. Those hired by him sensed they were also being tapped as future campaign staffers for his inevitable run for office in New York.
Cuomo sought a particularly strong director to oversee HUD’s New York-New Jersey region, where, in one program alone, the agency administered some $60 million annually in block grants and $1 billion to New York City. De Blasio came highly recommended for the job by former Rep. Charlie Rangel, who had hired de Blasio to run his successful 1994 re-election bid, and by Bill Clinton, who had found de Blasio valuable managing the New York State Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996.
Colleagues at the time recall that Cuomo considered it a coup to land the rising 36-year-old politico. Once he was on board, de Blasio’s Italian heritage brought a fluidity to their exchanges that Cuomo seemed to prize. “If you are good, Andrew likes you,” says one former aide. “If you are really good and Italian, he loves you that much more.”
When the governor’s office now characterizes the mayor as an incompetent, inept manager who lacks the intelligence to solve problems, and an ideologue who cares primarily about becoming an A-list progressive luminary, it disregards the nearly 20 years during which none of these qualities seem to have been apparent to Cuomo. Why, during his HUD days, would Cuomo have entrusted his gold-plated political future to someone so lacking? And, if de Blasio was a scene stealer of the sort in which he is now portrayed, why did he play the supportive role so often, and so thoroughly?
The vast majority of de Blasio’s HUD colleagues interviewed recall him as a powerhouse on key policies and programs. “He definitely was a force to be reckoned with,” says Kathryn Wylde, CEO and president of the Partnership for NYC, who at the time headed the agency’s housing and investment-fund affiliates. Former staffers recall Cuomo constantly telling them to seek out de Blasio’s opinions. “Bill does good things, gets stuff done,” one former staffer recalls Cuomo saying, urging a meeting. Those close to de Blasio say he considered Cuomo a talented, anti-bureaucratic innovator, and that he wanted to serve his boss’s righteous fight to save the beleaguered agency.
Notably, de Blasio appeared to meet Cuomo’s very high standards. The governor is a boss who, even by his friends’ assessment, most commonly earns the adjective demanding — and descriptions tend to get more colorful from there. But de Blasio never seemed to draw Cuomo’s fire. They had a loose, respectful relationship. “I never heard a cross word between the two of them,” says Karen Hinton, who worked with the pair at HUD, helped on Cuomo campaigns and later served as press secretary for de Blasio. “And that’s really saying something. I’ve never known the governor to hold back with staff.”
Former colleagues say the bonhomie was not surprising when one considers their strengths. Cuomo can be downright charming, particularly when engaging someone with his favorite tool, the phone. One long-time Democratic leader recalls getting a 20-minute call from Cuomo seeking his organization’s backing when Cuomo was running for office. “He’s smart, he has that sing-songy voice,” says the leader, who has endorsed both men. “He’s a seductor. I hung up and thought, That was like having phone sex.”
De Blasio could also ingratiate himself. Raised in Boston, he had to earn his way into New York and Clintonian inner sanctums. “You don’t get to that level of politics without some real skill,” says the Democratic leader. Both men are said to be highly intelligent. But various people close to the governor describe him as “a bare-knuckled tactician” who is “playing a more complex, multi-dimensional game.”
In 1999, Harold Ickes, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, snatched de Blasio from HUD to oversee Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Cuomo apparently was reluctant to let de Blasio go, and de Blasio didn’t want to burn bridges. Ultimately, sources close to Cuomo say the HUD secretary reasoned that the move could help him down the line: He’d be doing the Clintons a favor by handing off his bright political recruit — and it couldn’t hurt for de Blasio to gain even more experience running a New York campaign.
The shadow of Mario Cuomo looms over both men. Left, Andrew Cuomo longed to top his dad’s best election result as governor; the liberal lion once said de Blasio reminded him of his own son.
De Blasio’s work on Hillary’s winning campaign earned him the Clintons’ friendship, and he became famous enough, at least to political junkies, that in a scene from “The West Wing” in 2000, CALL B. DE BLASIO was scrawled on a chalkboard behind Rob Lowe’s head.
During this time de Blasio became a perfect resource for the ambitious Cuomo: a high-tier campaign strategist who preferred lower-key, grassroots political office for himself. He effusively praised Cuomo for his openness and mastery of details but was less complimentary of the high-powered political scene. “When you’re dealing with the elite, you’re always dealing with egos,” de Blasio told the New York Observer as he campaigned for a seat on the New York City Council in 2001. “Everything is through this weird lens. Now I get to talk to real people with real concerns. They ask questions, and I can actually answer however I want. I’m not worried about straying from the party line.” That last sentence perhaps unwittingly heralded the trouble that lay ahead between him and Cuomo: Increasingly, de Blasio rejected playing by traditional political rules.
While Cuomo at times still aligned with de Blasio’s unfettered idealism, he also started paying closer attention to polls to better represent the will of the people and accurately time initiatives. Over the years, his strategic mind came to govern him and, importantly, he seemed to assume the same of his opponents.
“At base, both men are skilled and intelligent politicians,” Hinton says. “The mayor is not less knowledgeable. He is willing to stick his neck out. He believes that politicians have to be leaders. The concept is: If I fail, at least I will have gone down the path. At least it will make it easier for the next person.”
When George W. Bush’s presidential victory in 2000 cast Cuomo out of HUD, he sought to take on his father’s legacy directly by trying to unseat incumbent Gov. George Pataki. Many people considered the effort a vanity run. He would be challenging a popular African-American stalwart in 66-year-old state Controller Carl McCall in the Democratic primary. Campaign staffers recall that getting public officials to appear with Cuomo was not easy. They might be able to round up Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV or “Sopranos” actor Joey Pantoliano on occasion, but only one person could be reliably counted on to appear wherever he was asked, from parades and neighborhood walk-arounds to retail events and subway stops: Bill de Blasio.
But de Blasio’s loyal enthusiasm was not enough to buoy his former boss. Anticipating a brutal defeat to McCall in the primary, Cuomo asked de Blasio to negotiate for him a face-saving withdrawal. “There were a couple of people, Bill de Blasio in particular, who were extremely involved in trying to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political stock so that he would not be ruined,” says Allen Cappelli, who served as McCall’s campaign manager, and who had known Cuomo since 1977, from working with Mario Cuomo. “Because this was a serious and damaging primary (challenge) to a very prominent African-American statewide public official. Initially, people had a lot warmer feelings towards Bill than the person on whose behalf he was acting. Bill is a loyal guy, so it was not unexpected. He was friends with the guy.”
One week before the September primary, Cuomo stood between Bill Clinton and Charles Rangel and announced his withdrawal from the race. Later that day, however, he undercut his amicable concession by blaming his poor showing on his ad campaign and racial factors. “The negative here is that I was running against the first (major-party) African-American (gubernatorial candidate),” he told the New York Times’ Bob Herbert. The day after the primary, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo filed for divorce. Cuomo’s depressed state was palpable. “He wasn’t going to go off and run the Red Cross,” says a former staffer. “And he’s not (at heart) a private-sector kind of guy. He loves everything about politics, putting the pieces together, and he still believes government is the best way to get things done.”
With his political fortunes decimated and his personal life in ruin, Cuomo took a job as a $1 million a year consultant for Island Capital Group, which was led by Andrew Farkas, formerly Cuomo’s foe at HUD and who would later become his campaign-finance manager. While looking into investment opportunities in China, Mexico and South Africa for Island Capital, Cuomo began setting out to rebuild his political future. “I think when he was humiliated after that race he vowed that nothing like that would ever happen to him again,” said a former aide. “And to prevent that, he had to accrue all power at all time.”
The first hint of trouble that anyone can recall between Cuomo and de Blasio bubbled up near the end of 2005 when Cuomo needed to choose between his friend’s future and his own. By then, de Blasio had been elected to the City Council, representing a section of Brooklyn that stretches between brownstone Cobble Hill and immigrant-dominated Borough Park. Running for speaker of the 51-member City Council, de Blasio found himself in a battle with Christine Quinn and saw that he was sliding toward almost-certain defeat.
He repeatedly sought support from Cuomo. But now Cuomo was running for attorney general of New York State and, perhaps tempered by the lingering sting of his failed gubernatorial bid, did not want to risk alienating a constituency on de Blasio’s small and likely losing cause. People on Cuomo’s campaign recall de Blasio being surprised and hurt by Cuomo’s lack of support. “Many of us thought personal relationships trump expediency, and that is not always true,” says Peter Ragone, who worked with both men at HUD. A few months later, de Blasio publicly shrugged it off, endorsing Cuomo, who was elected attorney general in November 2006.
Over the next few years, however, their ideologies began to drift. When the two first worked together at HUD, Cuomo had been a relatively traditional blue-collar Queens Democrat, but he increasingly aligned himself with the Democratic Leadership Council, the nonprofit group promoting the Bill Clinton brand of social liberalism married to fiscal conservatism. When Cuomo successfully ran for governor in 2010, he embodied that blend. Then in office, he persisted, aggressively pushing through marriage equality while also slashing the state budget. When, nine months into Cuomo’s gubernatorial term, Occupy Wall Street mobilized a fortification in lower Manhattan, Cuomo, according to those close to him, realized he had left his left flank exposed on fiscal issues.
Rather than be swayed by Occupy rhetoric, Cuomo doubled down. He opposed the renewal of the so-called “millionaire’s tax” on residents earning at least $200,000, which was set to lapse. He likened his recalcitrance to the deeply unpopular but principled stance his father had taken against the death penalty. Within a week, Occupy demonstrators marched on the capitol with a sign that read, WELCOME TO ALBANY, HOME OF GOVERNOR 1%. The group claimed a victory in December when Cuomo reconsidered his position, saying that fiscal pressures had forced him to continue the tax for those making $300,000 and up.
Meanwhile, de Blasio, who had become the city’s public advocate in 2010, was cementing his liberal bona fides, trumpeting the need for reform in housing, campaign finance, education and policing. Unlike Cuomo, de Blasio embraced the populist activism that was gaining momentum. Yet despite their veering stances, the two men conferred regularly on substantive issues and remained friends.
In his populism, de Blasio more closely echoed Mario Cuomo. The late governor’s “Tale of Two Cities” speech, delivered at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, included language even more incendiary than anything de Blasio offers now: “Maybe, Mr. President,” he said, referring to Ronald Reagan, “if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire…” He scolded politicians who “make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.”
When de Blasio entered the mayoral race in January 2013, he borrowed the “Tale of Two Cities” rhetoric to discuss deepening economic disparities. Andrew Cuomo declined to endorse a candidate in the crowded primary (most say he favored Christine Quinn). Nonetheless, some of Cuomo’s staunchest supporters aided de Blasio in fundraising and organizing. Despite their efforts, by summer, de Blasio was floundering in fourth place, registering only 11% support in the polls.
“De Blasio wanted to be not just the liberal leader for all of New York but of the whole country.”
Then, frontrunner Anthony Weiner imploded over naked online selfies. Quinn began faltering, damaged by ads put out by NYCLASS, an animal-advocacy group that had raised $1.4 million specifically to defeat her. But with a popular ad of his own featuring his bi-racial son Dante and a distinctive progressive platform, de Blasio began climbing and won the primary. After de Blasio’s election, Cuomo proclaimed, “We use the word friend in politics often and sometimes casually. But the new mayor of New York truly is a friend in the deepest sense of the word.”
Many people close to the two, though, believe that, in the wake of de Blasio’s victory, Cuomo’s competitive streak emerged as the defining factor in their relationship: The press swamped de Blasio with press requests after the election, and former staffers from his campaign say he declined most of them, but the Cuomo camp did not take kindly to de Blasio garnering so much attention. “De Blasio wanted to be not just the liberal leader for all of New York but of the whole country,” says a former Cuomo aide who knows them both. “It was a bizarre decision that put him on an inevitable collision course because he hadn’t even run the city.”
Cuomo supporters argue that de Blasio is an accidental mayor, pointing to the fact that only 24% of eligible voters had cast a ballot, the lowest turnout in almost 50 years, and thus, he has no mandate to assume the larger political stage — he should be happy to fix the city’s potholes and pick up its trash. But people close to both men contend that Cuomo was surprised by the genuine enthusiasm generated by de Blasio’s campaign, a level of excitement Cuomo could never hope to generate. De Blasio steamrolled Republican Joe Lhota in the general election with 73% of the vote, the largest differential in the city’s history, and he dominated the African-American (96%) and Hispanic (90%) votes.
The governor had focused his initiatives upstate — admirable enough, given its unemployment, fiscal woes and conservative political leanings — and in the suburbs, where he enjoyed solid support. He had largely taken the city for granted because the left-leaning Democratic majority delivered electoral victories for him with little prompting. Cuomo assumed a high profile following Hurricane Sandy to assert his leadership among city voters, who comprise a substantial portion of the state electorate. But these constituents were now energized by de Blasio and his more progressive promises to increase taxes on the 1% (which Cuomo opposed), secure paid family leave (which Cuomo was still saying was not likely in 2015), increase the minimum wage (which had risen only 75 cents since 2009), and provide universal pre-K (which Cuomo hadn’t made a specific goal).
On the mayor’s inauguration day, Cuomo watched Bill Clinton, his mentor, swear in de Blasio while Hillary Clinton beamed. Following a program of speakers decrying inequality and proclaiming the need to “emancipate every New Yorker,” de Blasio rose and profusely thanked the Clintons. He credited Bloomberg for his “passion,” “noble legacy” and “great progress.” And turning to his old friend, Cuomo, he said, “Working with you at HUD, I saw how big ideas can overcome big obstacles. And it will be my honor to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with you again.”
People who know the mayor, though, say suspicions flickered as he transitioned into office; perhaps the friendship he had trusted for decades wasn’t as solid as he once believed and, in fact, might prove to be toxic.
The battle heats up
New York City mayors and their gubernatorial counterparts are almost constitutionally mandated not to get along. The byzantine state government forces NYC to beg Albany for permission to make significant changes to its day-to-day operations, from housing to education. But the mayor, centered in the media capital of the world, tends to capture headlines. When de Blasio first visited Albany after his inauguration, the media and legislators gave him the royal treatment. But another storyline was unfolding: Cuomo was considering a presidential run in the event Hillary Clinton opted to sit out the 2016 race. People close to both Cuomo and de Blasio say that the governor viewed the mayor as a potential threat for the title of New York’s Progressive Politician.
The governor’s concerns may have been assuaged when de Blasio stumbled early in his mayoralty, such as in his unpopular fight to limit horse-drawn carriages in Central Park, and slow response to removing snow on the Upper East Side, missteps that even supporters called “unforced errors.” On the whole, though, de Blasio methodically acted on his campaign promises, including reforming stop and frisk, working to reduce traffic deaths by slowing speed limits and instituting an ID program for undocumented workers. Policy has always been de Blasio’s strength. Surprisingly, though, he has demonstrated less command of the art of politics — the self-promotion, the spinning of stories to his advantage — an odd weakness for someone who had spent decades as a high-powered political operative.
One scuffle had foreshadowed the trouble ahead. Two weeks before Election Day, the governor sat down with the Daily News for a wide-ranging discussion, which ran with the title GOV. CUOMO CRITICIZES BILL DE BLASIO TAX PLAN ON THE WEALTHY. De Blasio’s number one campaign promise was to expand pre-kindergarten in the city to cover every eligible student full-time; to pay for it, he would ask Albany to sign off on a .5% tax on city residents who earned more than $500,000 a year. The candidate reasoned that the legislature wouldn’t object to the city taxing itself (90% of NYC voters polled supported the plan). Furthermore, it would mean the program’s funding would not be dependent on Albany’s budgetary whims each year. It also played into his campaign pledge to address income inequality, since the rich would help pay for a program that would benefit working parents and their children.
After the Daily News article ran, people close to de Blasio say he called the governor to complain. If he could get the tax on his own municipality, why should the governor care? The governor thought Albany would never agree to it, but promised to “go dark” on the issue.
Suspicious minds, including those close to the governor, say Cuomo didn’t want de Blasio to be able to boast of a full win on a key promise, but Cuomo’s office denies this. “The Governor wanted to deliver a big victory for the Mayor, knowing the tax increase would never get through the legislature, so he offered him a check to pay for pre-K,” says Cuomo’s chief of staff Melissa DeRosa. “We were all surprised when he balked.”
But de Blasio had reasons for not halting his fight to preserve his top campaign promise immediately upon taking office: He feared that Albany would dismiss the state-funded proposal in the legislative session as a dreamy utopian vision. And more important, the money would come piecemeal, thus not covering the city equitably. As it turned out, de Blasio’s suspicions would prove to be founded.
When Cuomo released his proposed 2014-15 budget only weeks later, he called for $1.5 billion for pre-K over the next five years, but only $100 million would come in the first year, doled out in competition across the state ($200 million would come the following year, and so on). This came nowhere close to the $340 million that de Blasio projected annually for New York City alone. However, with the mayor refusing to back down — and gaining support for his plan in the media — Cuomo subsequently pledged to pay the full amount as soon as the city was ready to spend the money.
De Blasio still didn’t trust he would get what he felt the city needed without putting up a fight. And by blocking the tax, Cuomo — who was up for re-election in November — would inadvertently look like the protector of the 1%. Whether this was an ideological fight or simply the first time de Blasio wanted something that Cuomo didn’t, the mayor found himself needing to come up with a political strategy to deliver on his promise. De Blasio initiated a not-for-profit fund, the Campaign for One New York, to support his agenda. De Blasio’s team and CF1NY courted legislators who wanted to vote for the tax and helped sell the proposal to their constituents. The pressure worked. Sen. Jeff Klein, the Independent Democratic Caucus co-leader, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver backed the proposal, leaving the governor, and then-majority leader Dean Skelos as the lone holdouts.
As de Blasio advocated, he sought advice from Cuomo’s friends on how not to annoy him, but his rhetoric was intense: JOIN THE CAMPAIGN TO TAX THE WEALTHIEST NEW YORKERS, the initiative’s website read, which could only stir up more “Occupy” sentiments and suggest that someone opposing the tax — such as Cuomo — was the target. By February, Cuomo and de Blasio were clashing, with the mayor criticizing the governor’s funding model in the press and demonstrating how the state had been giving $2.7 billion less to the city’s educational system than constitutionally mandated.
Such public hostility was unusual, especially for ostensible Democratic allies. There had been no love lost between Cuomo and de Blasio’s predecessor, Mike Bloomberg — in fact, sources close to the governor say they “hated each other” — but Bloomberg was deft and knew how to deal with Cumo and, for the most part, they kept their squabbles behind closed doors. For Cuomo and de Blasio, however, the war of words was just starting to heat up.
For the birds
For “Lobby Day,” when Albany gives itself over to protests of all kinds, de Blasio planned a pre-K funding rally. Cuomo countered by marching to the capitol steps to join a rally over charter schools that was being held simultaneously (de Blasio had recently clashed with his former foe from the City Council, Eva Moskowitz, on the expansion of her Success Charter Schools network). “You are not alone,” Cuomo proclaimed to the throngs of parents and students who had bused up for the day. “We will save charter schools.”
Cuomo’s counter-attack not only trumped de Blasio in the media war, but also had the effect of making the mayor look like an enemy of all charter schools. “I thought to myself, What a piece of work,” says a former colleague of both men, who had been a promoter of the mayor’s funding model. “We know (the governor) so well. The only surprising thing is he would do it to his friends.”
The mayor couldn’t understand why the governor’s office resented his working to get legislative support for a major program that enjoyed wide support and the city badly needed. Cuomo’s camp complained that de Blasio showed ideological recalcitrance on hiking taxes.
In the end, de Blasio’s actions forced the governor’s hand, not only to create, but also to fully fund, universal pre-K. With an on-time budget — a hallmark of the Cuomo administration — in jeopardy, the governor was unable to fully impose his will on the plan. The Senate and Assembly leaders agreed to grant New York City a $300 million annual payment for five years, a vast improvement over the $100 million Cuomo had initially proposed for the entire state in the first year. However, the governor paid for it the way he wanted — through state funding instead of the mayor’s new tax — for which he claimed a victory. Others saw it differently, though.
“I think Cuomo never forgave de Blasio,” says a source familiar with the negotiations who had worked extensively with both men. “De Blasio was the first person in many years to outmaneuver him and get something done against his will. Which goes back to 2002 — nobody can have power but him.”
Cuomo’s desire for dominance, those close to him say, extends to his desire to best his father’s legacy. The governor, who is said to keep constant track of his standing in the polls, allegedly hoped for a big enough victory in 2014 to top his father’s best election result, in 1986, when he won 64.6% of the vote. A Quinnipiac poll on the heels of the pre-K fight tested a hypothetical gubernatorial race between Cuomo, his Republican opponent Rob Astorino, and an unidentified, more liberal third-party candidate. Cuomo won, but with only 37% of the vote.
That more liberal figure would soon emerge: Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and member of the Occupy movement, who had been encouraged to run by the Working Families Party, made up of unions and progressive groups. De Blasio had good relations with the party, but its membership didn’t unreservedly adore Cuomo, going back to 2010 when they had made an uneasy alliance — endorsing Cuomo to keep their party afloat in exchange for their silence during his first state budget negotiation (in which he slashed social programs).
In 2014, Cuomo begged de Blasio to help him secure the WFP endorsement. De Blasio was not inclined to get involved, but he agreed to do what he could, in exchange for Cuomo’s promise to help win a Democratic majority in the Senate — Cuomo was known to prefer the horse-trading that goes on with a Republican-held Senate (though he now says he will support Democratic candidates in the upcoming election) — and his commitment to support campaign-finance–reform measures and a $15 minimum wage.
The convention became a war ground, with the governor beaming in by video to officially declare his promises in what his Republican opponent later described as a “hostage tape.” During a three-hour debate over the two candidates’ merits, de Blasio worked the room relentlessly.
If de Blasio might have anticipated gratitude for the favor, none was forthcoming. “The governor hated being in Bill’s debt,” says a former WFP official. “So instead of paying the debt, he disdained the whole thing. He turned his back in 24 hours.”
For example, Cuomo financed the creation of the Women’s Equality Party using his own campaign-committee funds, and eventually convinced the largest union to jump from WFP, essentially threatening the dismantling of the party that had just endorsed him. He broke his pledge to help de Blasio campaign on behalf of Democrats to gain control of the Senate, leaving the mayor on his own to drum up support. This sparked the ire of Republican state lawmakers who were in a position to spike de Blasio’s agenda when it came before them in the legislative session. And he convinced de Blasio to tape a robo-call for his NRA-favored lieutenant governor, further undermining de Blasio’s progressive credentials. Despite these setbacks, those close to de Blasio say he still “hoped against hope” that Cuomo would come through on his policy promises.
In the primary against Teachout, Cuomo won a clear victory, but she pulled 34% of the primary vote. Observers immediately calculated what might have transpired had then-popular progressive Bill de Blasio not championed the governor. Allen Cappelli says he had one thought: “How long is it going to be before Cuomo turns on him? The irony is, what did de Blasio do to start the feud? He was helpful. He was pushing him left. (A), the governor doesn’t like to be pushed, and (B), he doesn’t like to feel that he’s being helped in a way that might be perceived as being beholden.”
For de Blasio, it was the first full betrayal. He had staked his reputation on and put his energies into securing Cuomo’s agenda, and Cuomo had seemingly reneged on his vow.
The gloves come off
Needing nothing from de Blasio and anxious to reassert dominance, Cuomo was completely unfettered in the first six months of 2015, people close to him say. When de Blasio acknowledged grievances by black New Yorkers over the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police — and subsequently earned the rancor of rank-and-file cops after two NYPD officers were murdered in December 2014 — Cuomo refused to publicly condemn the inflammatory criticism of the mayor by Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch.
In the mayor’s 2015 State of the City address, he called for an immediate increase of the minimum wage to $13 per hour, which would rise to $15 (indexed for inflation) by 2019 — a more aggressive approach than the governor’s plan, which called for raising the wage to $11.50 in the city and $10.50 elsewhere by the end of 2016. Cuomo labeled de Blasio’s plan a “non-starter in Albany.” And hours after State of the City, in which de Blasio also spoke about the conversion of the Sunnyside Yards in Queens for 11,000 units of affordable housing, the governor dismissed the idea, his spokeswoman telling reporters that the MTA-owned portion of the rail yard was unavailable.
The governor’s office tends to attribute these fights to de Blasio’s poor planning. But those close to the mayor contend that the governor’s objections pop up first in the press, rather than in their private discussions, and that ideas termed non-starters — such as the $15 minimum wage — become great ideas only once Cuomo has taken them for his own. (Ultimately, the governor would accede to a $15 minimum wage for NYC by the end of 2018, with the rest of the state reaching that rate more gradually.)
De Blasio, who has at times demonstrated a thin skin since taking office, also appears to have regarded some of Cuomo’s maneuvers as attacks when they might just be construed as over-assertiveness. For instance, in January 2015, the governor’s office announced the first-ever pre-blizzard shutdown of the subway system while the mayor’s office was on the phone with the MTA, getting briefed with opposite information. The mayor said he understood the need for swift action but would have preferred more dialogue.
Cuomo’s supporters marveled at what they perceived as hubris on de Blasio’s part, including his publicly deliberating his choice for the Democratic presidential nominee. “People underestimate how much delusion it took for Bill de Blasio to not be first in line to endorse Hillary Clinton,” says a former Washington government official who worked with Cuomo, about de Blasio’s belated support for the candidate whose campaign he once managed.
For de Blasio, the final blow came in June, the month when the state’s legislative session ends with literally “three men in a room” — the governor, the state Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader — finalizing deals. De Blasio knew Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan was likely to oppose key items on his wish list while the Speaker, Carl Heastie, was likely to support him. But the governor, now his frenemy, was a wild card.
When they emerged, de Blasio’s agenda was left in tatters. His proposal to expand affordable housing in the city by renewing and revamping an existing tax abatement had been hamstrung by the last-minute attachment of unresolved labor- and wage stipulations. His positions on charter schools and rent regulations had been ignored, and mayoral control of the New York City schools had been slashed from Bloomberg’s six-year extension to one year, meaning he would need to return to Albany, hat in hand, on an annual basis.
Days later, the mayor, still seething, told the Daily News that the Albany legislators “have no agenda or no vision,” that “the whole place is broken,” and “you have two indicted former leaders and a…governor who is not very effective right now. They can’t get anything done.”
The official response from the governor’s office? “What we’re dealing with is a mayor who is universally acknowledged to be bumbling and incompetent.”
One could question Cuomo’s sense of loyalty, especially in light of an issue that would only help the city. The mayor had been loyal to Cuomo for 17 years and his allegiance had not been repaid. “I always got the impression de Blasio looked up to Cuomo,” says someone who worked for them both. “He admired him. It’s like this: You see these people, and they are so brilliant. He had that feeling about the governor. When advisers were telling him to be more aggressive, he said no. Then he felt wronged by him, and lashed out emotionally.”
This perceived disregard for loyalty likely carries a particular sting for de Blasio. His father Warren Wilhelm, who lost a leg in World War II and earned the Purple Heart, endured interrogation by the U.S. Loyalty Board, a post-war panel tasked with rooting out Communists in the government. Bill’s mother had been a union member, and Wilhelm had studied the Soviet economy at Harvard. Although the two were never found guilty, the investigation remained on de Blasio’s father’s record and potentially crippled his career, feeding a debilitating depression.
When Bill was 18, his father killed himself. At 22, Bill, who was born Warren Wilhelm Jr., began expurgating the painful past: He officially hyphenated his last name — de Blasio-Wilhelm — to include the last name of his mother, who had essentially raised him single-handedly. Not until he turned 40, after he had already won a seat on the City Council, did he file papers to officially become Bill de Blasio. The transformation was so unexpected, a college friend didn’t notice that the man soaring in the mayoral primaries was his former buddy Bill Wilhelm, until another fellow student pointed it out.
What is interesting from a Psych 101 perspective is something de Blasio said to the New York Times about his father a few years ago: “The pain he caused people, even if he didn’t mean to, just so many people were badly affected. I think I really was angered by that.” If, as a child, he felt helpless to counter that outcome, de Blasio now seems unwilling to let a second chance to stand up for the injured pass without a fight. And so he did stand up; he had seen this movie too many times before.
The mayor’s staff knew de Blasio was mulling a fuller response to the Albany defeats, but they never expected the form it would ultimately take. On June 30, de Blasio went on television with NY1’s Errol Louis before heading west for vacation, explaining that he didn’t “think the Assembly had a working partner with the governor.” He seemed to reference the unfulfilled promises from the WFP endorsement. He called the shutdown of the affordable-housing tax abatement a “smoke screen.” “Rather than saying, ‘I have some disagreements,’ (the governor) publicly attacked the plan,” he said. “…Suspiciously, every good idea got rejected or manipulated.
“What we’ve often seen,” de Blasio continued, “is, if someone disagrees with (Cuomo) openly, some kind of revenge or vendetta follows. And I think too many people in this state have gotten used to that pattern.… But I think more and more of us are saying we’re just not going to be party to that anymore.”
Then the mayor left for the desert.
“My first reaction? Hallelujah! It’s all true,” says a long-term observer of both men. “But the governor is still governor. It’s impolitic.”
People close to the governor point to the word vendetta as particularly loaded between two Italian-Americans, and wished he hadn’t made it so personal. Ultimately, observers peeked from between their shutters and wondered what would come next. De Blasio had not bothered to secure troops behind him. “People fear Andrew,” says the long-term observer. “People don’t fear de Blasio.”
At first, the governor wanted an apology from the mayor for the NY1 interview. Joseph Percoco, a close adviser to the governor who previously worked for his father (and who was recently indicted on federal corruption charges), kept calling the mayor’s staff, asking the mayor to walk it back. “It’s hard to work with someone who said those things about you,” says a source who knows them both, sympathizing with the governor.
Though as another former colleague of both men explains, an apology would do nothing: “Do you know what an apology would do for Andrew? It would make him think you’re weak and he would want to kill you more.”
A rocky sequel?
The relationship will never fit back into the box that once, long ago, worked so well for both: Cuomo as principal, de Blasio as his loyal, prized lieutenant, whom he could count on when he was most vulnerable. De Blasio runs too big of a city to prioritize pleasing the governor. The “hoping against hope” strategy has been shelved, resulting in less-complex negotiations and a recognition that much can be done without having to beg Albany.
Cuomo, as well, seems to have benefited from the fracas. “(He’s) at his best with a villain to punch at,” as one person close to him put it. “He’s been energized by the fight, (and has) moved left (politically).” According to Siena polls, the governor’s statewide approval ratings steadily climbed since July 2015, when de Blasio lashed out at him, from 49% to 56% in June 2016.
Neither politician can now break out of the narrative they see superimposed on all their interactions. “Andrew is at root very liberal. But Bill and his team see him as selling out — they’ve bonded over that,” says a former staffer who has worked for both men. “It adds fuel to the fire. And once you’re in the role of not liking someone, it’s very hard to get out of it.”
If de Blasio is re-elected in 2017 with no support from Cuomo, some say he will make the governor’s life miserable when he runs for re-election in 2018.
Cuomo insists that he and de Blasio are on good working terms, but his antagonism suggests otherwise. The whisper campaigns suggest the city is in bad shape, and more polarized than ever before, but on the ground, it doesn’t feel that way: Racial tensions seem calmed. There are more jobs in the city than ever before, crime is at a historic low, more children attend pre-K, and the high-school graduation rate is at 70%. While New York City remains the most economically polarized metropolis in the U.S., it has recorded higher median-income rates and slightly lower poverty rates since de Blasio took office, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Commissioner Bill Bratton wrote in his September exit letter to de Blasio, “In the past 35 years, I have never been better resourced or more fully supported by any mayor.”
“We had years of mayors fixated on control and professional management,” says the Partnership for NYC’s Kathryn Wylde. “That’s not what de Blasio is about in terms of his mission and professional priorities. There’s a change in the rhetoric. But I don’t think there are significant statistics that show the city is deteriorating.”
For 2017, Cuomo will have to decide whether or not to endorse the mayor or to support one of the potential challengers. In an October NBC 4/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, de Blasio easily beat potential Democratic primary challengers Scott Stringer, Quinn, Ruben Diaz Jr., and Hakeem Jeffries in a matchup. As a source close to the mayor said, Cuomo will switch the narrative if he doesn’t think de Blasio can be beaten. He doesn’t like backing losers.
If de Blasio ends up being re-elected in 2017 with no support from Cuomo and (due to term limits) can’t run again, some say he will make the governor’s life miserable when he runs in 2018. “Bill goes first. If he makes it, the game changes,” says a source who knows both of them well.
Both men find their administrations under legal scrutiny and, if either is found guilty of wrongdoing, it could change the dynamic for good. At the end of September, two of Cuomo’s closest aides were among the nine individuals indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in investigations of state-funded development projects, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is looking into the matter of bid-rigging in these cases. De Blasio’s administration is facing multiple investigations into fundraising and donor access by federal, state and city agencies. The de Blasio camp has publicly ascribed a political motivation to several of these inquiries, insinuating that they were spurred by the governor.
The more dangerous game, of course, is that they destroy each other. That Cuomo so vividly paints de Blasio — his former “friend in the deepest sense of the word” — as incompetent that the mayor is ousted. The progressive left, bitter over his defeat, then turns out to unseat the governor in the next election. Cuomo would be highly unlikely to lose the general, but the primary is a different story. After all, only 9.3% of eligible voters turned out last time. An energized progressive electorate could do damage. It sounds far-fetched — after all, the governor’s approval ratings hover around 56% — but with the leftward turn of New York City’s growing voter base, a well-funded challenger coming from the progressive wing of the party that won de Blasio 73% of the vote could cause Cuomo some agitas.
“You don’t have to be a political genius to see it would be better for both of them to make up,” says a veteran Democratic party insider who knows both men and understands the stakes. “Work this shit out.”