The Cuomo-de Blasio drama to come

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The mayor-elect and the governor. (AP Images)
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It was supposed to be standard unity event: Six days after the mayoral primary, Bill Thompson was formally conceding the nomination to Bill de Blasio at City Hall. New York’s top Democrat, Andrew Cuomo, was on hand to bestow his blessing.

And then something unusual happened.

Cuomo aide Joe Percoco and de Blasio campaign chief Bill Hyers got into a heated argument, in public, within earshot of the press.

It was a dispute—or “staff level miscommunication,” according to a de Blasio’s spokesperson—about speaking order. But it was also, say sources familiar with the event, the result of a feeling among de Blasio's aides that their boss had been upstaged by the governor.

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Not only had Cuomo spoken last and spoken longer than either de Blasio or Thompson, but Cuomo’s aides treated the event as if it were their own.

“From the moment that they rolled into City Hall that morning, the governor and his people, were sort of carrying themselves with an air that this was their show,” said a Democratic staffer who participated in the rally. ”You had this third party coming in like they owned the place, when we were quite literally next to the next person who would run the place.”

Percoco didn’t respond to a request for comment, and when reached by cell phone, Hyers said the argument was “news to me.”

De Blasio’s spokeswoman Lis Smith offered the following reaction to a request for comment on the spat: “Mayor-elect de Blasio and his team have long-standing ties—both personal and professional—to Governor Cuomo and his team, dating back to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992. Because of this close relationship, there has always been a free and easy flow of communication and we expect this to continue after January 1.”

People close to both men privately acknowledge that there’s bound to be more conflict coming between them after de Blasio becomes mayor.

In part, that’s going to be a function of natural institutional tension between the mayor’s and governor’s offices. De Blasio can talk about being an activist mayor all he likes, but the city is, legally, a creature of the state, needing Albany’s approval not just for tax hikes and subway funding but for things as small as the installation of red-light cameras.

Compensating for that will be the fact that as mayor of New York City—the media capital of America, if not the world —de Blasio becomes a full-blown national figure. He’ll have access to an extraordinarily effective bully pulpit and the ability, suddenly, to wage public arguments on level terms with anyone. Even the governor.

The two men also happen to have conflicting political prerogatives. De Blasio campaigned on the promise of economic fairness, to be achieved, most conspicuously, by taxing rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-Kindergarten education.

Cuomo, on the other hand, is running for re-election next year, and is universally believed to have longer-term national ambitions. He wants to win by a large margin, not just in liberal New York City, but all over the state. Related: He wants to cut taxes, not raise them, and has indicated that he has no intention of approving the hike de Blasio is looking for.

And while the two men do, as de Blasio’s spokeswoman pointed out, have a longstanding personal and professional relationship, that relationship is about to undergo a drastic change. Until now, Cuomo was the important and famous Democrat, and de Blasio was his loyal friend.

When Cuomo ran the department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton, de Blasio ran the Clinton-Gore campaign in New York. Then Cuomo made de Blasio his HUD representative in New York and New Jersey. When de Blasio was running Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, Cuomo was informally advising it. When Cuomo suffered a humiliating defeat in his first run for governor and then got divorced from his wife, de Blasio was there for him. When Cuomo was contemplating running on the Working Families Party line for governor the second time around, de Blasio acted as his liaison.

Both men have publicly stressed their longstanding ties as they prepare to occupy the two most powerful offices in New York.

“I am just so excited to have Bill in that position because the personal relationship is very important,” Cuomo said in a recent radio interview. “It’s a very stressful position. It can be a very difficult power position in New York; it can be very tense and nasty. And just having a fundamental affection and respect for the other person that is transcending of the day to day. ... Every day there is always turmoil, the great issue of the day, the great scandal of the day. What’s more important is the fundamental respect and belief in the traditions and you couldn’t have a better relationship that I have with this man.”

And their many common associations are already coming in very handy, according to sources closes to Cuomo and de Blasio. Cuomo sometimes calls upon his director of state operations Howard Glaser, who used to work alongside de Blasio, to reach out to the mayor-elect on his behalf. The two officials also relay messages and requests to each other through less official channels, via common associates like public relations man Ken Sunshine and longtime Cuomo fund-raiser Michael Del Giudice.

Still, as the unity-rally incident indicates, there will be more drama between the camps in the years to come.

“Where a staffer, either mid-level or top, goes on to be in very high elective office and has to work with a former boss—you could write a screenplay about it,” said someone close to both de Blasio and Cuomo. “There's going to be a lot of love and there are going to be many battles.”

The governor’s press office would not comment for this story.