In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. In this week's installment we look at the history between the two men charged with fixing the city's crippling subway problem, Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. Read more about the project here.
By now, it's an understood reality of New York politics: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State governor Andrew Cuomo fucking hate each other.
Some say it's their personality types: Cuomo, the Frank Underwoodian backroom dealer from Queens who always seems to talk like you got a problem with him, would never mesh well with de Blasio, the gentle giant from Brooklyn whose nerdy family breaks into spontaneous dance routines. Others say it's ambition: Cuomo clearly has his eyes set on 2020, and anyone who sucks away attention—namely, someone who loves to insert himself into the national conversation—from his status as New York's premier lawmaker is a problem. Even if they're both on team blue.
But then, there's also precedent: City hall and Albany have, historically, never gotten along. In the 1970s, Mayor John Lindsay convened a commission to look into the feasibility of secession in response to Governor Nelson Rockefeller's threat of investigating his government. The next decade, Mayor Ed Koch and Andrew's dad, Governor Mario Cuomo, had it out for each other after a poster appeared in Queens that read "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo" in the 1978 mayoral race between the two. (Andrew, who helped the campaign, denied any involvement.)
This summer, the Shakespearean saga that is the current mayor/governor feud entered a new chapter with the meltdown of New York's subway system, which is regulated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), a state-chartered authority, but partially funded by the city. In other words, a situation ripe for a de Blasio-Cuomo showdown.
But how did the two Democrats get like this, anyway? And what does their history say about the prospect of the subway actually getting fixed sometime soon?
Contrary to popular belief, de Blasio and Cuomo were at one point friends. When Cuomo was the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under President Bill Clinton, he even chose de Blasio to run HUD's New York-New Jersey office, a highly coveted, influential position. De Blasio came highly recommended from Bill Clinton, having run the New York state office for his campaign in the 1996 presidential election, and then considered a political wunderkind of sorts. The two had common bonds: Both were rising stars in the Democratic Party, and Italian.
Over the next decade, however, their politics began to split. Cuomo was a true Clintonite, promoting the New Democrat blend of pro-business policies with a sting of social liberalism when he unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002, and then, successfully, in 2010. Meanwhile, de Blasio continually sided with the party's then-burgeoning Bernie wing, as both city councilman and the city's public advocate. He boosted his profile by marching with the Occupy Wall Street movement (whose supporters had criticized Cuomo for not initially supporting a millionaire's tax) and his "Tale of Two Cities" mayoral campaign (its name, coincidentally, ripped from Mario Cuomo's famous convention speech in 1984).
Once elected in 2013, de Blasio's first public fight with Cuomo arose almost instantly, over the New York mayor's then-signature proposal: a tax on the city's wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten in all five boroughs, which Albany would, constitutionally, have to approve. Cuomo criticized the highly popular plan on the campaign trail, arguing that rich people would flee New York, and later proposed, instead, for the state to, at first, partially fund the program, with $100 million doled out statewide. Projecting a cost of $340 million each year for the city alone, de Blasio, however, argued that this model was unsustainable, and could put classrooms at the whims of politics.
Eventually, as a feud broke out into the press, Cuomo gave in, but rather than back de Blasio's tax, he agreed for the state to contribute an annual payment of $300 million to the program for the next five years. So de Blasio left the battle with a fully-funded campaign promise, yet without a ra-ra tax on the One Percent to get it. Some critics said that the maneuvering was classic Cuomo—he wouldn't allow someone to best him, and still left room to share in the spoils.
The next year, when Cuomo was running for reelection, he asked de Blasio to shore up the support of the Working Families Party (WFP), a progressive third party that holds sway in New York politics. In exchange, Cuomo would help flip the State Senate to Democratic control, which would be more friendly to de Blasio's policies. Although his progressive bona fides were in danger by supporting Cuomo, De Blasio signed on, and WFP endorsed Cuomo. But Cuomo quickly reneged, and the aid promised to de Blasio never transpired. After that, tensions between the two shifted into high gear.
When de Blasio, who spoke personally about his interracial children's experiences with racism, was said to have "blood on his hands" by the police union head for the murder of two NYPD officers, Cuomo stayed silent. Then, when a blizzard hit New York, Cuomo shut down the city's subways without telling de Blasio. The homelessness crisis quickly escalated into a war of words—and funding—while Cuomo's anti-corruption commission soon turned its eyes toward de Blasio's fundraising engine, the Campaign for One New York.
At this point, the relationship has devolved to that of tiny babies.
In the media, de Blasio began publicly airing his grievances with the governor, saying that he is "not very effective right now" in achieving anything; in response, a Cuomo aide called de Blasio "bumbling and incompetent." De Blasio then implied that Cuomo was a revenge-obsessive politico who would work with Republicans just to defeat him.
At this point, the relationship has devolved to that of tiny babies. On nearly every issue—everything from the death of a deer in Harlem to baked ziti—the two camps seem to be looking for a fight. They play nice on occasion, like on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, or, more recently, coming out together against Trump's policies. But really, nothing has changed.
In June, Governor Cuomo declared a "state of emergency" for the city's subways, which were increasingly become a hellscape of delays and overcrowding. Initially, de Blasio was quiet—until Cuomo and the MTA blamed the city for not chipping in more to get the subways up and running again. De Blasio then issued a list of priorities for the MTA, with the caveat that the city wasn't going to pay a dime, and it was up to Cuomo to fix it. "He's responsible. It's clear. Just take ownership and fix the problem," de Blasio told reporters on a crowded F train last month.
Then, de Blasio shifted course earlier this week, proposing—yet again—a tax on the city's rich, this time to pay for New Yorkers' subway woes by subsidizing fares for lower-income riders. Political observers said that while the plan is a long shot in Albany, it plays well for de Blasio's re-election campaign in November, and puts Cuomo in an awkward position as his poll numbers sink. Cuomo responded immediately, saying that while the plan could be considered when Albany returns from recess next year, it wasn't the immediate fix that the subways needed.
Whether or not the proposal will make headway—or if the mayor will cough up extra dollars for the immediate game plan laid out recently by the MTA—is anyone's guess. The plan may prove to be popular among progressives, and Cuomo wants to be seen as a savior of New York going into 2020. But also, it offers a clear victory to de Blasio, not him, which Cuomo apparently can't stand. Maybe, like with universal pre-K, he'll end up funding the capital fixes in full, and claim it as his own. But also, that was four years ago—and things have changed.
In the meantime, New Yorkers find themselves on trains every day that are either canceled, delayed, or overcrowded, with no end in sight. Modernizing the aged infrastructure of the busiest transit hub in the country could cost billions to fix, and any solution, years to implement. But more important: Who's going to pay for it all? That's a question our perpetually warring mayor and governor can't seem to answer.