All the writing’s on the wall. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, has hired national political consultants, regularly fundraises out of state, makes well-publicized trade missions abroad abroad, and spent millions of taxpayer dollars advertising the state’s greatness for his own political aggrandizement. It doesn’t take a panel of pundits to tell us that he’s running for president.
While the dream of Cuomo 2020 takes shape, the national media is taking notice of the problems the Cuomo 2018 campaign will face. Though clearly the frontrunner in his re-election bid, the next 15 months will prove to be the make-or-break moment for the “prince of darkness.”
As it turns out, a lot of New Yorkers aren’t exactly fans of their governor. A poll out last month reveals he is facing some of the lowest approval ratings of his time in office and well below his numbers in the fall of 2013, a year before his last re-election. Furthermore, in a state which voted decisively against Trump, a majority of New Yorkers think Cuomo would not make a good president. Even when the survey was limited to Democrats, only 50 percent thought the governor should make a run.
It’s not exactly a vote of confidence for the hometown hero. New York is solidly blue. Through its streets roam droves of young Bernie Sandersworshipers and plenty of folks wearing now-vintage “I’m with her” apparel. There’s lots of love for their hometown senator, and of course, there are more than a share of people who cannot spit out words of praise for Barack Obama fast enough. But are there average New Yorkers who really — I mean really — like Cuomo? The answer is no. At least not in the sense of how those others are viewed. It’s hard to buy a coffee in Manhattan without bumping into a Bernie bro, but other than Chris, you won’t meet a “Cuomo bro.”
The most recent reason for his new unpopularity comes from the new frustrations city residents face riding public transit, with its never-ending breakdowns, project delays and general mismanagement. The governor has even coined a term for its latest string of issues, the aptly named “summer of hell.” Branding a problem and taking responsibility for it are two completely different things, and the governor’s attempt to pass blame reveals an inelegant look for him going into 2018: Cuomo the hypocrite. His public attempt to make the case that he is somehow not in charge of the MTA has been met with baffled stares, bewilderment and “Bronx cheers” by the city’s journalists and commuters alike.
Cuomo controls the MTA board, oversees its purse, hires its leaders and makes sure everyone knows who pulls the strings. The press release for its latest five-year capital plan cites $29 billion in projects, all “thanks to the leadership of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.” The man now trying to claim he’s not responsible for the MTA’s woes is quite literally the same man who ordered a jazz band and champagne toast to herald his role in completing the Second Avenue subway. If there was any doubt as to who was in charge on one of its better days, its in-house video makes it clear.
Solving the MTA’s problems (or at least not being blamed for them) is critical to the governor’s re-election, a race he hopes will propel him on the national scene. The formula for Democrats winning statewide office in New York requires securing a significant percentage of the vote in New York City. In his last election, Cuomo lost the upstate region, but won 77 percent of the city, enough to give him a 13 percent margin.
Right now, the polls show just a 60 percent job approval rate in the city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly seven-to-one. He absolutely needs the very people now angry about how the MTA is underperforming to be happy about the job he’s doing. That will be tough, and it isn’t the only challenge he’ll likely face in 2018. To win big, he needs the support of New York’s progressive base. Unfortunately, Democratic opponents are lining up to run from his left flank. Potential names include a former state senator, an outspoken city councilman, a mayor and former chair of the state’s Democratic party, and Cynthia Nixon, an actress from “Sex & the City.”
Cuomo is not simply loved by the type of progressives who seem to be driving the Democrat’s national identity towards the left. In 2014, he faced a tough primary from a then-unknown liberal candidate, Zephyr Teachout. He won, but the New Yorker called his victory an “embarrassment.” Critical to his 2014 campaign was the support of the state’s far-left Working Families Party. That year, the party almost failed to give him their endorsement, until his eleventh hour pledge to oppose the state senate’s Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of breakaway Democratic legislators giving the numerically smaller Republican conference an effective majority.
He is now facing renewed pressure on the same subject, as it’s becoming clear that he won’t live up to his previous commitment. With the fight for the New York state Senate becoming a priority for the Democratic National Committee and national progressive groups, rest assured that Democratic kingmakers around the country are taking notice, and progressives around the state won’t forget.
This drama will play out in early 2018 just as another of the governor’s vulnerabilities resurfaces and publicly unfolds. On Jan. 8 and May 15, the trials of longtime Cuomo associates Joe Percoco and Alain Kaloyeros, respectively, begin. The former, Cuomo’s right hand man and someone who once he referred to as “his father’s third son,” faces the type of bribery and corruption charges that the governor once condemned and pledged to eradicate. The latter, a state university executive, was indicted for corruption charges relating to Cuomo’s signature, yet failing, economic development scheme.
During the first trial, the public will be treated to daily drips of information on the alleged dishonesty within the Governor’s highest echelons, and be constantly reminded of his own efforts to hinder, impede and eventually disband his own commission to investigate public corruption. During the second, the media will hear how the Governor’s allies used taxpayer-funded economic revitalization programs as their personal piggybanks. We can be sure that Cuomo’s opponents will be quick to point out that Cuomo donors profited while his highly touted “Buffalo Billion” and “StartUp NY” programs brought little benefit to the state’s economically depressed areas.
These cases can turnout to be for Cuomo what Bridgegate was for Chris Christie, although the New Jersey governor had the benefit of not being on the ballot as his aides were on trial. Taken as a whole, 2018 will prove to be a difficult and decisive year for Cuomo. Will the confluence of outstanding issues foreshadow the end of his presidential dreams? Or, will a governor known for his political sense and tactics overcome it all and pull out a resounding win? We are left to wait.
Joseph Borelli (@JoeBorelliNYC) is a New York City council member, professor, former state legislator and Republican commentator. He is the Lindsay Fellow at the Institute for State and Local Governance at City University of New York. He has been published in the New York Daily Newsand appears on CNN, BBC and Fox News. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute for State and Local Governance at City University of New York.