For The Sunday Gazette
When I began writing columns for The Gazette in 2011, I was not too fond of Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a simple reason: He was way too conservative.
It started with his first few budget proposals.
Faced with a fiscal deficit in his first year in office, Gov. Cuomo could have taken a balanced approach.
Instead, he chose to enact damaging cuts to Democratic priorities like education and housing – just as he instituted a property tax cap that shackled school districts’ ability to make up the revenue shortfall.
Cuomo also initially opposed extending Gov. David Paterson’s 9 percent tax rate on income over $500,000.
Though he ultimately renewed it, he declined to make it permanent, lowered the rate and exempted those making between $500,000 to $1 million.
He’s opposed raising taxes on the wealthy ever since – even to fund progressive programs like Pre-K education.
Cuomo has certainly presided over some liberal milestones – e.g., the $15 minimum wage, medical marijuana and free public college.
But the key word is “presided.”
In almost all of these cases, Cuomo either kept his cards close to the vest or fought the progressive position for as long as possible.
When passage finally seemed inevitable (or sufficiently crowd-pleasing), he jumped on the bandwagon – usually watering down the final bill.
Worst of all, Gov. Cuomo tacitly supported the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of elected Democrats who helped the GOP control the Senate for about half of Cuomo’s governorship.
In doing so, Cuomo managed to avoid having to respond to the truly progressive bills that would have otherwise crossed his desk.
Cuomo once said he was “in lockstep” with Bernie Sanders.
He wasn’t. But now, he may be marching to a different tune.
And almost eight years after my first grumpy columns critiquing Cuomo’s conservatism, my resolution for the new year is to give our governor a second chance.
When Cuomo threw some pretty substantial bones to the left during his primary fight against Cynthia Nixon, I was concerned about him pivoting back to the center after the election was over.
Thankfully, Cuomo doesn’t seem to have returned to his old ways.
I’m hesitant to admit it, but over the last few months, his politics appear to have shifted leftward.
His agenda for the upcoming legislative session is essentially a progressive bonanza — speedy legalization of marijuana, middle-class tax cuts, prison and bail reform, and other items that have languished on the liberal wish list for years.
Has Cuomo the man changed?
As I said in an April 2018 column, I don’t know, and I don’t really care.
It doesn’t matter what politicians feel – I care whether they hear the public and what they do in response.
In that column, I also wrote about how politicians like Cuomo could be convinced to pay attention: “You agitate, you fight, you stay grumpy, you threaten to vote for someone else, and you make politicians pay a political price for ignoring you.
Staying silent does nothing.”
As of this moment, it looks like Cuomo has heard the call and joined the team.
No doubt, his upcoming agenda could be more progressive.
For example, it could include the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer healthcare system similar to those in many other developed countries.
But in a counterintuitive sense, the incompleteness of Cuomo’s 2019 progressive agenda is exactly the reason he needs the left’s backing at this critical juncture.
Consider this: Cuomo’s reaction to unified Democratic legislative control could have been to claim the center ground and declare himself a skeptic of the progressive bills that are sure to come out of the newly Democratic Senate.
Yet Cuomo isn’t doing that.
Instead, he’s advocating positions that sound like they came out of a Cynthia Nixon policy brief.
Progressives Are Hard to Please
As a lifelong skeptic of Gov. Cuomo, it’s pretty strange to finally say this in print.
But should he deliver on these promises, I’m ready to get on Team Cuomo – possibly even as a presidential candidate if that’s where the 2020 primaries take us.
Other progressives should consider it, too. Unfortunately, I know we are a very hard group to satisfy.
We have a knack for finding the speck in the ointment – even if the ointment represents a huge step in the right direction that we could have never previously imagined.
That’s not to defend incrementalism. Instead, it’s to say we should acknowledge when our political pressure is successful.
In 2019, progressives are no longer being ignored – it’s our shining hour.
And should Cuomo deliver in these first 100 days of his “new” administration, remaining grumpy will do little to further our cause.
Rather, it’ll signal to Cuomo that he has little to gain from working with us – and he’ll go right to that position as centrist skeptic.
Does that mean progressives should tuck themselves in and relax, trusting Cuomo has everything in hand? Absolutely not.
But nor should we be so quick to reject his liberal reboot.
Progressives should pay close attention to what the governor does in his third term – praising him when he earns it, and giving constructive criticism when he falls short of his promises.
Steve Keller is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.