After studiously avoiding the event for six years, Andrew Cuomo finally made an appearance in Washington during the presidential showcase formally known as the National Governors Association winter meeting.
The New York governor’s visit was fleeting — he hobnobbed at a Friday evening reception with his Democratic colleagues before returning home the same day — but it’s a step onto the national stage guaranteed to fuel speculation about his 2020 intentions.
“We need to win back the middle-class while pushing progressive values,” Cuomo said at a private dinner that included fellow governors Dannel Malloy, Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper and Terry McAuliffe, according to a person who attended, before reviewing the “Middle Class Recovery Act” he’s currently pushing in Albany.
Cuomo, of course, insists that he’s not thinking about a presidential run in four years, even as he takes more steps to join the national conversation — in the days before the Washington trip, he urged congressional Democrats to “stand up” and “fight” to protect Obamacare. But New York operatives, state lawmakers and long-time associates see the 59-year-old governor as carefully laying down markers for his future, whatever it may hold, after Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat.
The cornerstone of that argument, and the way Cuomo sees himself as different and potentially more viable than more obvious 2020 prospects like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown or even home-state Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has always been that Cuomo gets done what other politicians — usually legislators — simply talk about.
Same-sex marriage was enacted into law in New York in 2011 in large part due to Cuomo’s legislative maneuvering. Cuomo effectively banned hydrofracking in New York in 2014, rammed through a strict gun control bill within a month of the Sandy Hook massacre, and last year pushed for a system of paid family leave and a $15-per-hour statewide minimum wage.
“He’s done great things in our state. I love the fact that he’s focused on paid leave and marriage equality, so he’s a terrific governor,” Gillibrand said recently during an interview on NY1, calling Cuomo a “great candidate” for 2020 as she promised to serve a full term if re-elected to the Senate next year.
The problem is that Cuomo, in his core, is a centrist who counts Bill Clinton — whom he served as HUD secretary — as a mentor. And he’s still viewed warily by even his own state’s institutional progressives, the progress they’ve made under his watch be damned.
They see Cuomo’s tenure through a lens of left-flank placation, with every marquee accomplishment shaded by sins committed inside the Albany bubble — like Cuomo’s reluctance to wholeheartedly wrest the state Senate from Republican hands — as well as fiscal conservatism and a coziness with wealthy interests.
The result is that among the most energized wing of the Democratic Party, there’s wariness rather than passion for the governor. Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America, veteran of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign and chair of its successor group, Our Revolution, said he was engaged in a 2013 push to enact public campaign finance in New York and felt Cuomo didn’t do enough to help.
“On a national level, we’re fighting for a populist party that’s focused on economic and social justice. It’s hard to be governor of New York and also be on that kind of program because of the effect of Wall Street there,” Cohen said. “Things like that are going to matter if the progressive populism that we need is spoken about in a way that connects to working men and women … Particularly for younger voters — we need their energy, we need their commitment — they need to feel like if they’re going to put energy in that it’s going to count at the end of the day, and it’s not just going to be about TV ads.”
There are other known landmines in the governor’s path, too. He’s up for re-election next year, and the tensions Cohen described could lay bare the left-flank dissatisfaction with his tenure — though Cuomo could help rebut Cohen’s concerns by running up the score. An ongoing federal corruption case that ensnared several members of the governor’s inner circle — including his longtime adviser and surrogate brother Joe Percoco — is headed for trial later this year.
Cuomo first articulated his post-Hillary strategy, of all places, on a Broadway theater stage. The governor for years has celebrated his December birthday with a fund-raising event, and the fundraiser this time was a performance of “A Bronx Tale,” now a musical co-directed by Robert De Niro.
“I don’t believe Trump won. I believe we lost that election,” Cuomo said after the show. “I think what it said to the Democratic Party is there’s a middle class that we have not been attentive to, a middle class that’s suffered for a long time.”
Several weeks later, Cuomo unveiled a legislative and budgetary agenda speaking to exactly this constituency. He’s continuing an ambitious — and uncontroversial — building program, revamping airports and train stations. He proposed “Buy American” provisions — to the delight of unions — and a 750-mile network of trails.
The marquee point in what Cuomo calls the “Middle Class Recovery Act” is an expansion of college tuition subsidies that the governor says will make it “free” for students from families making less than $125,000 a year. A supporter of Hillary Clinton, Cuomo announced his plan beside Bernie Sanders, who praised it as a national model.
“What Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education, and it’s going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country,” Sanders declared.
This proposal itself walks an interesting line. Since students from poorer families already get these kinds of subsidies in New York, Cuomo’s plan holds the biggest boost for middle-income families in the suburbs, according to an analysis by the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank based in Albany. These are the same voters who came out for Trump and propelled Republicans into the New York State Senate and several seats in Congress, but Cuomo is selling it with Bernie’s blessing.
Cuomo also isn’t explicitly attacking Donald Trump, in contrast to other Democratic officials. The governor didn’t name the president during a Wednesday health care rally and on Thursday declined to blame Trump for an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. In six State of the State speeches last month, Cuomo never mentioned Trump by name.
Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant who advised the governor’s 2014 re-election, explained this calibration.
“Who else is talking to the middle? Everyone else is at the extremes,” he said. “If you look at where Trump won, whites in the Midwest put Trump in the White House. Cuomo may be the guy who can change that. Why? The very things Trump alluded to, Cuomo has actually done. He can make an argument that will be accepted by people who are more like him than not.”
Indeed, while deep-blue New York City dominates state politics, many other parts of the state are just as red and rural as what you’d find outside the big cities in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Cuomo has focused attention in Upstate New York and the Big Apple’s suburbs as a natural part of his job; indeed, the state is sufficiently large and diverse that preparing for and running for re-election has enough overlap with national preparations, even when they aren’t explicit.
Cuomo currently has $22 million in his re-election account, culled from a donor base that includes deep-pocketed figures in real estate and finance that politicians without a regular excuse to be in Manhattan work so hard to court. Cuomo’s past benefactors include Tim Gill, a software entrepreneur and influential gay donor who was impressed with his push on same-sex marriage, as well as Ken Langone, who chaired “Republicans for Cuomo” and hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, who was attracted by Cuomo’s support for charter schools. The governor also courted Hollywood executives during a 2014 fund-raising trip to Los Angeles; Cuomo has given generous subsidies for film and television production.
The governor counts SEIU as a major ally, a relationship that dates more than a decade to Cuomo’s 2006 election as attorney general, a sort of political resurrection after a disastrous, abortive 2002 gubernatorial bid. The union and its major New York affiliates — locals 1199 and 32BJ — were deeply involved in last year’s minimum wage push in the state.
But even as he counts chits and builds a national profile, Cuomo has been cautious. He refused to weigh in on who should chair the Democratic National Committee, breaking with other state officials who made endorsements, and with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who traveled to Atlanta to help Rep. Keith Ellison.
Aides worked assiduously during Cuomo’s first term to tamp down any national talk, limiting his profile at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, avoiding chances to do national media interviews and Sunday talk shows or even leave the state.
If there’s anyone who understands the value of a low profile, it’s Cuomo. His father, Mario Cuomo, was dubbed “Hamlet on the Hudson” for flirting with presidential bids in 1988 and 1992, famously leaving planes that would have taken him from Albany to New Hampshire idling on the tarmac. Cuomo fils has said that flirtation made it harder for his father to govern because he was a Republican target.
Steve Greenberg, spokesman for New York’s Siena Poll and a veteran Democratic operative, said that it’s incredibly early in the presidential process, and that there’s as much virtue in being a tortoise as a hare.
“If he wants to be a credible candidate, he’s got to be able to make the case: look what I’ve done as governor of New York. … I have the ability to do that for America,” Greenberg said. “But we are so far out, no one’s going to remember what you did in 2017 when you’re running for president in 2020.”
Officially, Cuomo says he’s focused on winning a third term in 2018 and modestly explains his role in national politics. “I see a role for myself as governor of the state of New York.”
As he took the stage at the health care rally Wednesday, someone in the audience screamed “Cuomo for president!” The governor smirked, tilted his head left, and looked down at the podium.
“Don’t be startin’ trouble now,” he said.