Democrats are still celebrating big Election Day victories, and not just in the White House. The party took back many state legislative seats seized by Tea Partiers in 2010, and added to majorities in already blue states. In California and Illinois, Democrats achieved legislative super-majorities, removing some of the last obstacles to enacting a progressive agenda in two of our largest states.
Progressives should also get to celebrate in New York State, another of the biggest and the bluest. After all, Democrats appeared to have won a narrow State Senate majority of either 32-31 or 33-30, pending recounts. Instead, individuals and factions within the Democratic ranks are threatening to caucus with Republicans in exchange for committee appointments and legislative pork, effectively keeping the GOP in charge despite the clear choice made by voters on Election Day.
Republicans in the State Senate have long been the main obstacle to progressive legislation, consistently stymieing the efforts of the State Assembly—to safeguard reproductive health, micro-stamp guns, to crack down on fracking, to hike the minimum wage. They’ve even been hostile to newer progressive elements of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s agenda, like his call for public financing of elections.
Which brings us to the current conundrum. One would have thought that a Democratic governor would have worked hard to reverse the Tea Party’s 2010 gains in his state. You’d think he’d be working even harder to ensure that no renegade legislators “flip” to the GOP. You would hope that a governor with his eyes on the White House would prefer to cooperate with the diverse progressive legislators of the Democratic/Working Families Party majority rather than the all-white, nearly all-male moderate-to-conservative GOP minority.
And lest we forget where the leverage lies in the relationship, consider how Republicans—faced with a popular governor and an increasingly Democratic electorate—have gone out of their way to make a show of working with Cuomo.
Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah wrote last week that Cuomo “effectively defeated his own party’s efforts to take power in the State Senate.” That’s not an unreasonable view. After vowing to veto any partisan redistricting plan, Cuomo decided not to veto a partisan redistricting plan favorable to senate Republicans. After endorsing Republican state senators for re-election because they backed gay marriage, he declined to endorse the Democrat running against a right-winger who’d ousted one of those Republicans in the primary. Now, with one Democratic state senator announcing he’ll caucus with the GOP, and four more threatening to do the same, Senate control may hang in the balance.
Hence the calls for Cuomo to lead. The governor has voiced support for much of the Assembly Democrats’ agenda. And he’s been vocal about his desire to bring some sanity to campaign finance. So it’s easy to understand why some savvy observers are now questioning the presumed 2016 presidential candidate’s steps. That includes MSNBC’s and The Nation’s Chris Hayes, who on a recent show said, “One can’t help but suspect Andrew Cuomo actually does not want a Democratic majority in the State Senate,” because working with a GOP senate would help “burnish his bipartisan compromiser bona fides,” whereas a Democratic Senate would send him legislation like marijuana decriminalization that could become an electoral albatross.
I don’t know what’s in Governor Cuomo’s heart. But I do know this: The people of New York elected Democratic senators for a reason. Obstruction has ruled in Albany for far too long. Whatever the legislature’s make-up, small-d democracy calls for Cuomo to present, and fight for, a set of robust campaign finance reforms including public financing of elections. But right now, the best way to advance that much needed change is to fight for big-D Democratic control in the New York legislature.
I hope Governor Cuomo joins that fight.
While we wait to see Governor Cuomo’s next move, progressive politics are taking root at the local level. Check out Lucy McKeon’s profile of Mel Wymore, who could be the first transgender member of New York City Council.