WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — July 15, 2019 — “I am the Left.” So sayeth Andrew Cuomo. Is he?
It’s a bold statement that invites scrutiny, if only because it echoes the king of France, Louis XIV, who has been forever remembered for saying, “I am the State.” That didn’t turn out well for anyone.
As to Cuomo’s left-wing credentials, some things yes, some things no. On social issues, Cuomo focused on reproductive rights, marriage equality, gun safety and more, and he delivered. He took leadership positions and made them law. This counts.
On economic issues, he started out with right-wing positions on minimum wage, tax cuts for the wealthy, spending caps, and more. He’s modified on some of them. Add his relentless support for corporate giveaways and it’s hard to agree that he’s the left.
As to political leadership, he’s been consumed by longstanding battles with progressive activists and institutions. He engineered the Independent Democratic Conference power grab, keeping right-wing Republicans in control of the Senate. He got two challenges to renomination in the Democratic primaries of 2014 and 2018. Both Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon gave him a hard time and collected about a third of the vote, largely from lefties.
So the easy response to “I am the Left” is to dismiss it. But that just raises other questions — and they’re interesting.
There is something profound in progressive opposition to Cuomo that has nothing to do with progressive policy. Think about his pronouncement: “I am the Left.” It isn’t enough to lead the Left. He is the Left. That scares a lot of people.
There’s more. Back in 2011 he proclaimed: “I am the government.” He seized control of public authorities that are supposed to be independent, like the MTA. He has used dubious legal theories to control the budget process. He concocted appointed “commissions” on legislative pay, congestion pricing and more to avoid the need for actual laws. He issues “executive orders” suspending inconvenient laws. He restricted the oversight power of the state comptroller. Each and every one of these things concentrated power is his hands.
The functional result of this is a reworking of state government that emphasizes executive control and command. Checks and balances? Challenges to his power? Not so much. It’s something we’re seeing in governments across the world. We call it “authoritarianism.”
The “Left” also has a strong anti-authoritarian streak. It prides itself on a commitment to democracy and the rule of law and contact with grassroots movements. For progressives, Cuomo’s ultimate and unforgivable sin is his insistent and successful efforts to control everyone and everything. At the heart of the ongoing friction with progressives is their refusal to kowtow.
This explains why he hasn’t been able to change the story line by passing laws and implementing policies. It explains his genuine puzzlement at why the Left doesn’t love him. He’s very smart, he works hard and he pays attention. But he doesn’t seem to get it. And that’s beginning to show up in unexpected defeats of the kind inflicted on him by the newly independent Legislature at session’s end.
No, Governor, you’re not the Left. But there’s still a way forward. The easy way out for him is to stop making incendiary pronouncements about how unique and irreplaceable he is. It doesn’t help him even it were true.
The harder way is to start making peace and embracing alternative centers of power and political influence. It’s time for him to think about the totality of his impact as governor. There are a lot of things that he has changed, a lot of them for the good. But the authoritarian tendencies of past years is a growing impediment to new successes and to his legacy.
Richard Brodsky is a former New York State Assembly member.
This Richard Brodsky Commentary was first published by TimesUnion (https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Richard-Brodsky-Progressives-chafe-at-Cuomo-s-14095108.php) on July 14, 2019.
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