Albany Notebook: Tensions simmer in New York's ruling party

Joe Mahoney 

ALBANY — The Yankees and Mets are in a new season, the robins bob along the statehouse lawn, and the ice is off the Hudson River. But if you have stock in peace and happiness at New York's Capitol, it's time to sell.

Much of the griping comes from within the Democratic Party, and, more often than not, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is right in the thick of the fault lines.

One rift deepened when Cuomo, the state party's de facto leader, objected to dissent over his fundraising practices from a cadre of female lawmakers from New York City.

Several days earlier, the governor had raised eyebrows when he accused Senate Democrats of "government corruption" by installing a critic of the state's effort to lure a new Amazon headquarters to New York City to a local government review panel with oversight over the project. While a Cuomo aide tried to put the toothpaste back in the tube, the zinger did not go unnoticed by its targets. Whatever honeymoon existed when 2019 dawned was officially over for the man who called himself "Amazon Cuomo" and legislative Democrats.

The jousting ramped up when three Democratic women lawmakers urged Cuomo to start walking the walk on campaign finance reform, pointing to a New York Times story that revealed the governor held a $25,000-per-couple fundraiser during the state budget season — with his budget director, Robert Mujica, in attendance.

The women — all of whom ran for office as progressive reformers out to reduce the influence of special interests at the statehouse — found themselves quickly attacked by Cuomo image makers. But the Cuomo team's only achievement was to turn this episode into what we ink-stained wretches call a two-day story. The headline in the Times followup was: "In Profane Rant, Cuomo Aide Calls 3 Female Lawmakers 'Idiots.'"

The story highlighted the fact that a Cuomo aide, in speaking to reporters, prefaced the word "idiots" with an expletive we can't print in family newspapers. The Cuomo defenders had tried to paint the women as hypocrites for also hosting their own fundraising events. But that point, while important to them, became more of a footnote in the coverage.

Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, said the sharp elbows being tossed in Albany may reflect how the ham-fisted confrontational tactics employed by President Donald Trump in dealing with opponents has seeped into New York politics. "I think everyone's nerves are just rubbed really raw in the last two or three years," Reeher said. "If you spend your time messaging in this way, it's bound to rub off in ways you are not really aware of."

So far it appears that a Kumbaya moment is not on the calendar for New York Democrats.

Cuomo's critics — Sens. Alessandra Biaggi, D-the Bronx, Jessica Ramos, D-Queens and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, D-Manhattan — have shown no sign of zipping their lips or toning down their tweets just because they irritated the governor. On a public radio program, Cuomo shrugged off the criticisms by labeling the lawmakers "emotional" and arguing they were spouting off without facts.

That prompted New York Democratic political consultant Alexis Grenell to suggest Cuomo himself was out of line. "Characterizing women for doing their JOB as 'emotional' is classically sexist discourse designed to devalue their intellect and integrity," she tweeted.

While what they have to say may be inconvenient for the powerful mainstream Democrats, progressives motivated by last year's Women's Marches and the #MeToo movement are insisting their voices be heard in the party's agenda.

The latest in-fighting is but one of several stress points for New York Democrats. Cuomo's push to allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver's licenses is a proposal that many Democrats in the Long Island suburbs and regions of upstate have not embraced, said Larry Levy, director of the National Institute for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. There is also considerable suburban opposition to proposals to legalize adult use of marijuana, he added

Some of these fractures, Levy added, were evident in the 2016 presidential primary when the party's top two candidates, former Sen. Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, clashed in New York.

"The differences between the Democratic moderates and the progressives in New York are not all that great, but they are wide enough that you are going to see difference when it comes down to the parsing of policy," Levy said.

As lawmakers begin to tackle bills unrelated to the budget — whether they relate to updates of campaign finance laws, gun control or letting undocumented immigrants get licenses — more fissures will be exposed as Democrats find that they do not always agree.

And more are now recognizing they are not at the statehouse to take orders from party bosses. They are there to represent their constituents.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.