For a few weeks last month, the main outpost of Murdoch-ism in the US—the New York Post—ran the same headline on its opinion page day after day: “Read Andrew’s Lips.” It was the Post’s way of reminding New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of his “no new taxes” pledge, and the potential harm that would befall him if he reneged on it.
The Post is not known for subtlety. Or, for that matter, accuracy. But journalistic ethics aside, the paper is immensely powerful in New York State politics. And it did not want the right’s favorite new governor—even the Club for Growth praised Cuomo—to return to anything even remotely progressive on tax policy.
Cuomo is a contradictory figure. He describes himself as progressive, but spent most of 2011 in a warm embrace with the state’s Republican leaders. His is the progressivism that is good on social issues (marriage equality) and not-so-good on economic fairness. He solicited and received immense financial support from the business community, and when it came time to propose a budget, he insisted on letting the state’s “millionaire’s tax” expire. His argument was that he needed to do so to improve the “business climate” in the state. In so doing he rejected the views of the Assembly Democrats and the Working Families Party (WFP), who had united to win the tax in the first place. The expiration of the tax meant a $5 billion windfall for the top 2 percent of taxpayers in the state that, as the WFP pointed out repeatedly, “they do not need and we cannot afford.”
Fast forward six months to today. The Post is in a rage, calling the Governor a “rate-fink” and—even more odious in their eyes—comparing him to his father, the first Governor (Mario) Cuomo. They’re fuming and frothing at Cuomo’s change of heart over the last week that resulted in a partial re-establishment of the millionaire’s tax. It’s almost as if after eleven months of governing like New Jersey’s Republican Governor Christie, he converted back to the Democratic principles of Connecticut’s Dan Malloy. For his part, Cuomo has cited the state’s worsening fiscal situation as the reason for the change of heart, and no doubt that played a part. But the deeper reason, and the more interesting reason, was Occupy. As the WFP’s Dan Cantor wrote recently, and as many others have likewise noted, the Occupy movement changed the conversation in America “from austerity to inequality.” And this new tax deal in Albany, which will manifestly improve the lives of many working and poor people, is a result of that changed conversation and atmosphere.
For the WFP, it’s a particularly satisfying moment. As the New York Times reported, neither the WFP nor its labor allies (SEIU, CWA, Teachers, Hotel Workers and others) opposed Cuomo’s coddle-the-rich budget plans last winter, even as one suspects they all hated what he was doing. The WFP backed him in 2010, and was under pressure to stand down in the first budget debate. Cuomo’s 2010 victory was of course a landslide, and his early alliance with the Senate Republicans did not leave much maneuvering room for opponents. He is a masterful tactician, by all accounts, and the left was mostly silenced in the first quarter of the year. And so at the end of March, Governor Cuomo delivered his tax cut to the wealthy, and balanced the budget with massive cuts in spending to programs for the young, the poor and the non-powerful.
(Full disclosure: The Nation played a role in helping the WFP meet the 50,000 vote threshold for the first time, back in 1998, by running an editorial encouraging our readers in New York to vote on the Working Families line for Democrat Peter Vallone for Governor. And we remain impressed by the party’s fortitude and creativity.)
But events did not proceed as smoothly as Governor Cuomo expected. The economy remained stagnant and tax receipts did not hit projections. The unemployment picture failed to improve. African-American and Latino and progressive members of the Assembly continued to make noise about re-establishing the high-end tax rates. Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, the Post’s absolute favorite whipping-boy for his resolute commitment to the non-wealthy, never stopped talking in his gravelly monotone about the need to insist on shared sacrifice by the economically fortunate. And then during the summer, the state’s major unions joined with the WFP, Citizen Action, NYCC (the ex-ACORN group), AQE and scores of other organizations large and small to launch a campaign for the millionaire’s tax revival before it even expired (on New Year’s Eve).
No doubt they knew the odds of success were terrible, as they needed to change both the governor’s mind and those of the Senate Republicans. But then they caught the hugest of breaks. A hardy band of young people showed up in Zuccotti Park, and didn’t leave. And then it got interesting.
A march to the homes of billionaires on Park Avenue. Endless actions at banks calling on Wall Street to pay its fair share. Occupy Albany set up camp with a large banner reading “Welcome to Albany, Home of Governor One Percent.” With one aspirational eye on national politics, Governor Cuomo’s political people no doubt hated the nickname. They could not allow it to stick. The governor had to act, and once he’s in motion, things do indeed happen. Only this time, he was forced into motion by the left.
Good for them, and good for the people of New York. The deal passed last night. It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than what the most optimistic among them hoped for, even a week or two ago. To his credit, Governor Cuomo realized that things have changed since his campaign, and he needed to change too. People—in New York and around the country—care more about fixing the economic problems on Main Street than about the austerity desires of international bankers, Rupert Murdoch or the Tea Party.
Chalk one up for the Spirit of Occupy. Other governors and members of Congress ought to start paying attention.