Strange Doings on Planet Albany: Cuomo’s Election-Year Conversion?

Tenants rallied May 3 in the South Bronx in support of Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy for governor. From left, Josefine Colon, New York Communities for Change; Maria Maisonette, NYCC; Pamela Stewart Martinex; Nixon; Renata Pumarol, NYCC; and Francisco López, 919 Prospect Avenue Tenants Association. Photo by Michael McKee.On April 24 Democrats won two special elections for the state Senate, one in the Bronx and the other in a highly contested Westchester County district. That technically gave them a 32-31 majority, but the Republicans retained control of what bills get to the floor thanks to a rogue Democratic senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, who announced that he would stay allied with the GOP.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has governed for the last seven years as a fiscal conservative, is lurching to the left so fast that he seems to have lost his fabled political grip. For several years, he has insisted that he could not “force” a reunification of the state Senate Democrats. But overnight he not only forced the rogue Democrats in the Independent Democratic Conference to end their alliance with the Republicans, but to do something that IDC leader Jeff Klein (Bronx-Westchester) had insisted he would never do, which was to dissolve the IDC.

And after stonewalling on rent protections for seven and a half years, all of a sudden Cuomo has come out in favor of repealing vacancy deregulation and making other pro-tenant changes to the state’s rent laws. (He had not yet announced any specific legislation as Tenant/Inquilino went to press.)

Two words can explain this phenomenon: Cynthia Nixon. Since she declared on March 19 that she was challenging Cuomo in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, the actress and public-education advocate has managed to push him leftward on a host of issues. She has talked about the need to close the loopholes in the rent-protection laws, and has criticized the governor for his ties to big real-estate donors, who have pumped millions of dollars into his campaign coffers.

On May 3, Nixon rolled out her own rent package at 919 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, where the landlord, Seth Miller (no relation to the tenant attorney) has forced tenants to move by trying to demolish apartments while people were still living in them. One tenant who had no bathroom for four months recently died, which Miller described in front of a judge as a “victory” because he could now convert the unit to market rate. Dozens of tenants came out to support Nixon with energetic chants, joined by their neighbors from 851 East 163rd Street around the corner. The latter building is in the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program, meaning it is one of the 250 worst in all five boroughs. Many tenants have preferential rents, which landlord Hiram Colon is threatening to revoke in retaliation for their organizing against him. Both buildings have suffered from lax enforcement by Cuomo’s housing agency.



Andrew Cuomo initially tried to make light of Nixon’s challenge, dismissing her as a B-list celebrity. Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who now spends her days shilling for Cuomo, referred to Nixon as “an unqualified lesbian,” a comment that backfired.

Pretty much the entire Democratic Party establishment has lined up in support of the governor, going to great lengths to attest to his progressive bona fides while ignoring all the important bills that he has killed by engineering the IDC-GOP alliance, from repealing vacancy decontrol to setting up a state single-payer health-care system.

Cynthia Nixon is a famous actress, having won multiple Tonys, Emmys, and even a Grammy. But she has also been an activist, especially around public education. She served for many years as spokesperson for the Alliance for Quality Education, which leads the fight every year for increased school aid—with no help from Cuomo. 

Cuomo knows that the ground has shifted under his feet, and is desperately trying to recast himself as a true-blue Democrat. But his recently announced plans to pass measures such as cash bail reform, repeal of the LLC campaign-contribution loophole, early voting and other voting reforms, and protections for immigrants—plus strengthening the rent laws—depends on getting bills to the Senate floor, and then winning 32 votes for them. The Senate Republicans oppose all these things.

That 32-vote goal was clearly behind his forcing the IDC members to rejoin the mainstream Democrats. But Cuomo can blame himself for Simcha Felder: In 2012, he signed off on the GOP gerrymandering that designed a south Brooklyn district to elect a conservative orthodox Jewish candidate. Felder, elected as a Democrat that November, joined the Republican conference immediately, and since then he has run unopposed on both parties’ lines. Cuomo was reduced to sending him an open letter, warning him that after November’s election he will no longer be relevant if the Republicans lose their majority.


Community organizations lead the way

Nixon’s campaign was given an early boost by an April 9 endorsement by New York Communities for Change. Endorsements by Make The Road New York and Citizen Action quickly followed.

These groups are active members of the Working Families Party, which backed Cuomo in both 2010 and 2014. In 2014, many WFP members wanted to endorse challenger Zephyr Teachout, but the party backed Cuomo after he made a videotaped promise to help elect a Democratic-controlled Senate, a promise he did not keep. Teachout won more than one-third of the vote in the primary, exposing Cuomo’s weakness to a challenge from the left. In the general election, the WFP won the 50,000 votes it needed to keep its automatic ballot line, but came in fifth behind the Green Party.

On April 14, the 300 members of the statewide WFP executive committee met in Albany and voted to endorse Cynthia Nixon for governor, with more than 90 percent in favor. The day before, Cuomo had announced that he would not seek the WFP ballot line. Earlier that week, the New York Times reported, he’d told a group of labor-union members that any union that gives money to the community groups that had supported Nixon “can lose my number.”

This was a typical bullying response from Cuomo that could take millions of dollars out of the state’s community-organizing infrastructure. Many unions have given substantial sums to NYCC, Make the Road, Citizen Action, and other groups to support their campaigns to raise the minimum wage, protect immigrants, organize fast-food and car-wash workers, and help tenants fight slumlords. Many of these groups also receive state funds.

Because many unions depend on favorable action in the state budget, which the governor controls much more than the state legislature, most have fallen into line. The building-services workers union 32BJ SEIU, Communications Workers of America District One, and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union all withdrew from the WFP in order not to anger Cuomo. Other unions, including the health-care workers’ 1199 SEIU and the Hotel Trades Council, had pulled out in 2014 because Cuomo was angry that the party had made him grovel for its endorsement. Without the union money, the WFP will have a much leaner budget with which to pay organizers and field workers to elect progressive candidates.

The WFP also endorsed City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who is running in the Democratic primary against Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Cuomo has been trying to muscle Hochul into a hopeless run for a western New York congressional seat so he can replace her with an African-American woman, in order to counter Williams’ appeal to voters of color, but she has refused. Williams has stated that if elected, he will be the “people’s lieutenant governor,” not an automatic helpmate to Cuomo.


Election-year conversion

Is there any reason for tenants to believe that Andrew Cuomo is serious about pursuing stronger rent and eviction protections?

For more than seven years, he has refused to support meaningful pro-tenant bills. In 2015, the last time rent stabilization came up for renewal, he did not even mention it in his State of the State speech. In 2011 and 2015, he negotiated piddling improvements that left all the loopholes intact. Both times he tried to claim that these were great tenant victories.

Faced with a credible primary opponent who is slamming him for siding with landlords, he now claims that he wants to repeal vacancy decontrol. Why would anyone in the tenant movement believe him? And why would anyone believe that, if he is re-elected, he will fight for tenants next year, when Albany must once again renew the rent and co-op laws?

Nixon has surprised the pundits by running a serious, smart campaign on a shoestring. In March, a poll put Cuomo ahead of her by 66 to 19 percent. A poll released May 2 showed that lead had dropped to 50–28.

What is driving Cuomo crazy is not so much this year’s campaign. He expects to win re-election easily. But he realizes that even if he wins, his dream of running for President in 2020 is being seriously damaged by this year’s attacks from the left.

If he is serious about real rent reform, he has painted himself into an uncomfortable corner. By selling out in 2012, letting the Senate Republicans draw hyper-partisan district lines, he empowered them to veto progressive measures. This was clearly his intention back then, because he did not want a Democratic-controlled Senate. Even if he has changed his mind, he is stuck. 


Michael McKee is treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, and a board member of Met Council on Housing.