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In early April, the Andrew Cuomo–Bill de Blasio feud—which most recently focused on the funding of the subways—reemerged in the news. The long-running cold war, ceaselessly psychoanalyzed by New York political insiders, burst into the open when de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, announced that public schools would remain closed through the school year to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Less than three hours after the April 11 proclamation, Cuomo shot it down, calling it a mere “opinion” and leaving the possibility open that somehow schools would reopen before June. (They probably won’t.)
The latest reporting hinged on the fact that by sending a text message just moments before speaking to reporters, de Blasio didn’t give Cuomo, the governor of New York, enough of a warning before making the announcement. New Yorkers weren’t impressed; can’t these two just get along for a pandemic? “Cut the crap,” tweeted Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president.
For the uninitiated, Cuomo and de Blasio have been at odds since the mayor took office in 2014. Some of the tension derives from the natural friction between the office of the governor and the office of the mayor. While occupants of City Hall have typically enjoyed more prestige—Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg were all famous (and notorious) on a national level—much of the political power resides in the governor’s mansion.
Mayors control a massive municipal budget, but governors have the ability to overrule the mayor on virtually anything. New York City mayors need to seek permission from the governor and state legislature to raise income taxes, strengthen tenant and criminal justice laws, and change the speed limit on city streets, for example.
Mayors and governors tend to butt heads. Republicans John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller despised each other. Democrats Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo were bitter political rivals. But the bad blood between Cuomo and de Blasio has lifted this grand tradition to new heights.
In part, their differences are political. Cuomo is a Clintonian centrist who has practiced Third Way politics for decades, only pivoting left when he’s pressured enough to go there. He’s the same governor who champions raising the minimum wage one year while shooting down de Blasio’s calls for a higher wage a couple of years before. Though de Blasio managed Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, he’s occupied more of the center-left flank, rushing to back Bernie Sanders’s second presidential bid after offering half-hearted support for Clinton in 2016.
Cuomo and de Blasio have a relationship that dates back decades. When Cuomo was Bill Clinton’s Housing and Urban Development secretary in the 1990s, de Blasio was overseeing HUD’s New York operation, reporting directly to Cuomo. In 2002, de Blasio was one of the few supporters of Cuomo’s first—and terribly failed—campaign for governor. In 2009, Cuomo’s father, the legendary former New York governor Mario Cuomo, backed de Blasio’s campaign for public advocate.
All of this makes Cuomo’s hatred of de Blasio, on it face, nonsensical. Cuomo once decided to shut down the city’s subway system before a snow storm without notifying de Blasio, while pretending, for his own political benefit, that he didn’t control the subways at all. Cuomo has deployed state troopers to New York City for no real reason. He forced New York City to pay the rent of privately run, publicly funded charter schools. He has, at times, only granted the city authority over its school system for a single year. He has repeatedly belittled de Blasio’s calls for new taxes on millionaires. And he has implicitly backed Republicans in the State Senate while de Blasio tried to win a majority for Democrats.
When de Blasio tried to presciently cap the explosive growth of Uber in 2015, fearing the ride-share vehicles would overwhelm city streets, Cuomo publicly praised Uber and allied with the company behind the scenes, helping to thwart the mayor’s plan. On and off the record, Cuomo relishes in trashing de Blasio in the press.
The media tends to portray the squabbling as both immature and symmetrical—two egotistical men who can’t play nice in the New York sandbox. And it’s understandable for outsiders to view the feud this way. It’s not as if de Blasio has been a particularly admirable figure of late; like Cuomo, he failed to act soon enough to slow the rate of Covid-19 infections in New York, and as late as March 16, with the virus ravaging his city, de Blasio took in a workout at his local gym.
Cuomo, on his part, has been a tireless antagonist, a chief driver of almost every clash. De Blasio won office in 2013 on a promise to tax the rich to fund his universal pre-kindergarten initiative. The next year, Cuomo refused to levy a tax, promising instead the state would offer funding. De Blasio, in his first year and attempting to honor a pledge that was the centerpiece of a winning campaign, pushed onward for a tax, insisting dedicated revenue was necessary. De Blasio’s efforts so offended Cuomo that the two could never have a functional working relationship again. Even de Blasio’s aggressive support for Cuomo’s 2014 reelection bid against progressive Zephyr Teachout—it was de Blasio who almost single-handedly engineered Cuomo’s Working Families Party endorsement—meant little. Cuomo would not forgive another Democrat for trying to tell him what to do.
The fight over school closures in 2020 belongs to this genre of terrifying idiocy, except this time the stakes are much higher. More than 11,000 New York City residents have died from Covid-19 and the state has more confirmed cases than anywhere else on Earth. There’s no way schools will reopen anytime soon, and we all know it. So why is Cuomo bothering to bigfoot de Blasio?
Is asserting his authority, once again, that crucial? The mayor of New York City, through laws passed in the state legislature, controls the city’s sprawling school system. Cuomo can wield his emergency powers, theoretically, to do anything, but there’s no point to forcing the mayor to reopen the schools too early during a pandemic. It’s another Cuomo posture. And it’s one New York badly does not need right now.