Tensions flare as Cuomo confronts Democratic rift

Pressure has mounted on governor to reunite his party
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks in Manhattan on July 20, 2017.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks in Manhattan on July 20, 2017.

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As he looks to heighten his national profile, criticizing the Republican health care bill and President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has been forced to confront a political schism far closer to home.

For five years, a group of renegade Democrats has enabled Republicans to control the state Senate, even though they are in the minority. Cuomo, a Democrat, has at times benefited from that strange reality: Having a divided Legislature allowed him to position himself as a deal-making centrist.

But with Trump’s election, pressure has mounted on Cuomo to reunite his party.

Reunification was the agenda of a strategy session last month in Cuomo’s Manhattan office, attended by nearly two dozen Democratic state senators. When the discussion turned to how to best win elections, Cuomo suggested to the assembled lawmakers — many of them from New York City — that the leader of eight breakaway Democrats, Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, had a better understanding of the suburbs than they had.

That was all Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate minority leader who represents the suburbs of Westchester County, needed to hear.

“You look at me, Mr. Governor, but you don’t see me. You see my black skin and a woman, but you don’t realize I am a suburban legislator,” Stewart-Cousins said, according to the accounts of five people who were in the room. “Jeff Klein doesn’t represent the suburbs,” she said. “I do.”

Cuomo reacted in stunned silence.

The pointed exchange, which has not previously been reported, captures the raw tensions around the fractured Democratic coalition in Albany that threaten to dog Cuomo as he looks to his 2018 re-election and possibly beyond.

Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor, played down the moment.

“The comment you describe was not of particular note,” said Lever, who was not at the meeting. “Certainly no one took any offense because it was a friendly and positive meeting on all levels.”

That is not how those in attendance reacted, describing it as profound moment in a fractious relationship.

Stewart-Cousins herself said in a statement, “My comments were in the context of suburban representation — there was no racial tension whatsoever; it was a good and productive meeting.”

The issue of New York’s divided government has attracted attention from national leaders, including U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the leader of the House Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, who urged a united Democratic front against Trump.

“There’s this new awareness about what was formerly a rather insider parlor game,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan. “The winds shifted on Nov. 8. The No. 1 concern I hear from my constituents on the street isn’t Donald Trump. It’s what the Senate’s going to do, and how the Democrats can win it back.”

Democrats hold 32 of the 63 seats in the Senate, yet Republicans control the chamber. The mechanics and math of bringing Senate Democrats together are complex: Stewart-Cousins leads a group of 23 Democrats, while Klein leads the breakaway group of eight. The 32nd elected Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, caucuses with the Republicans but has left the door open to rejoining the Democrats.

As Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, put it, “How can you be one of the top Democrats in the country and not have resolved this in your own backyard?”

The governor has built his reputation as a master manager and bipartisan dealmaker, and the Republican-led Senate has prevented him from facing the politically precarious choice of vetoing or signing more liberal legislation that would inevitably emerge from a fully Democratic Legislature.

But as he looks to 2018 and a possible 2020 presidential bid, Cuomo must appeal to a restive Democratic electorate that is increasingly aware and unhappy that Republicans hold power in the state Senate during such polarized times.

“The governor spent a lot of time and energy and successfully brought the two sides together in 2014, but the Democrats failed to win an overall majority,” said Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide. “He is working very hard again to end the personal agendas and infighting that is causing the divide and unify the factions, which is more important than ever when our democratic values are under attack by the Trump administration.”

In recent weeks, the state Democratic Party adopted a resolution to cut off party funds from the eight members of Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference, known as the IDC; New York’s Democratic congressional delegation asked Cuomo behind closed doors for action during his recent visit to Washington; and, on a Manhattan street in July, an activist with a camera confronted Cuomo about his plans for the breakaway Democrats.

“I can perform marriages,” Cuomo said in the video, posted on YouTube, “but I can’t force them.”

That has largely been Cuomo’s laissez-faire posture when it comes to the IDC, although many Democrats accuse him of tacitly supporting the arrangement.

Klein lauded the legislative achievements since the IDC’s inception in 2011, among them a higher minimum wage, paid family leave and legalization of gay marriage.

“I think the entire political establishment has a lot to learn from the Independent Democratic Conference about getting things done,” said Klein, whose district is drawn mostly from the Bronx, where he lives, and includes a sliver of Westchester.

He had only praise for Cuomo: “I consider the governor a fantastic leader.”

Klein and Stewart-Cousins, however, do not enjoy a warm relationship. “I can count on a couple fingers how many times I’ve spoken to Sen. Cousins,” Klein said.

Many Democrats believe Cuomo could broker an agreement between the warring Democratic factions, as he did during his last run for governor — if it served him politically.

“At this point, he is the solution,” said Parker, the Democratic senator.

Behind the scenes, Cuomo has begun getting more involved, including arranging a dinner in Manhattan last week, a gathering that lasted more than two hours and was attended by only Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Klein, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The governor is a ferocious advocate when he chooses to be,” said Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, which pushes Democrats to adopt more liberal positions. “He has $25 million in the bank and he’s the leader of the Democratic Party. There’s no question if he put his foot to the pedal here, he could have a decisive impact.”

The closed-door confrontation with Stewart-Cousins highlighted another sensitive factor: race.

Cuomo has had an up-and-down history with New York’s black political leadership dating to his 2002 primary challenge against H. Carl McCall, who was seeking to become the state’s first black governor. (Cuomo has since appointed McCall as board chairman for the State University of New York.) New York has never had a black woman lead a legislative chamber, and if Democrats could unite, Stewart-Cousins would be the first. (The Assembly currently has an African-American leader, Speaker Carl E. Heastie.)

In the Manhattan meeting last month, Cuomo went around the room to ask Stewart-Cousins’ members if they were each willing to join with Klein’s team to form a united Democratic front.

“The question was, ‘Are Democrats prepared to form a coalition with the IDC to govern the Senate?’ and the answer was a resounding yes from every senator in the room,” Hoylman recalled.

But Cuomo told them that Klein was still resistant. The meeting ended without resolution.

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