4:00 pm Feb. 26, 2013
In the summer of 2010, when Andrew Cuomo was running for governor, he needed a trusted emissary who could pass messages to the Working Families Party during a delicate negotiation over whether he would accept the party’s endorsement. He found a messenger in his old friend Bill de Blasio.
“He was the sort of person who just took messages back and forth and was trusted by both parties to be an honest sort of liaison,” said someone involved in the negotiations between the party and the Cuomo campaign.
To the consternation of the New York Post’s editorial page, Cuomo ultimately agreed to run on the party’s line, thereby ensuring it the 50,000 votes it needed to remain on the statewide ballot.
It was hardly the first time Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio had relied upon one another to further their respective ends, and it wouldn’t be the last. The mutual respect and loyalty of the two political operatives was longstanding, and, by all accounts, sincerely felt.
“It’s not the kind of Cuomo-Kathleen Rice relationship, where it’s, ‘You are my protege, I will make you,’” said the person involved in the negotiations, referring to the candidate Cuomo tacitly backed in a crowded 2010 primary for attorney general. “It’s much more of peer relationship.”
It’s a relationship that could, theoretically, help de Blasio in this year's mayoral race.
Cuomo is unlikely to make an explicit endorsement during the primary; there's no percentage in it for him, and he's said as much.
But the governor could help de Blasio in other less public ways, perhaps by convincing the business establishment that the public advocate is not as business-unfriendly as they think he is. The governor, whose relationship with the business establishment is so good that they have essentially underwritten a super PAC to promote his agenda and ward off attacks on him by organized labor, would have some sway.
Certainly, even as de Blasio begins to criticize his chief rival Christine Quinn for being too close to the current mayor, he is also aware of the need to address the unease with which he is clearly regarded by the city's Bloomberg-loving business leaders.
"De Blasio’s talked about to me how he wants to position himself as a Cuomo-like mayor, someone who can deal with all sides,” said one real estate executive involved in politics.
(The executive also said that de Blasio has, in the time since then, moved closer to organized labor, and away from the Cuomo-like center.)
But another politically attuned real estate executive said it “would be hard" for de Blasio to profit in the mayor's race from his relationship with Cuomo. "Unless Andrew really says Bill is his guy,” the executive said.
Bill is Andrew’s guy in a lot of ways, starting with the significant overlap in their political resumes.
In 1996, when Cuomo was an assistant secretary for Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, de Blasio was running the Clinton-Gore New York campaign. In 1997, Clinton elevated Cuomo to H.U.D. secretary, and Cuomo, in turn, appointed de Blasio his agency representative in New Jersey and New York.
De Blasio was by that point deeply enmeshed in the New York political scene, and it surely crossed Cuomo's mind that de Blasio might prove helpful should he decide to run for office in New York, or nationally.
Two years later, de Blasio left to run Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign for senator, but he didn’t really leave Cuomo’s orbit. The New York Times described Cuomo as an “informal adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton in her bid for the Senate.”
Cuomo turned out to be more than that.
Before Rudy Giuliani discovered he had prostate cancer and pulled out of the race for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate seat, the housing secretary withheld $60 million in homeless funds from the mayor, on the grounds that he was unfairly targeting Housing Works and thereby criminalizing the homeless. The move was widely perceived as a political broadside against the Republican mayor and Clinton antagonist.
“Just a few hours ago, my husband pulled up the gauntlet,” gloated Cuomo’s then-wife, Kerry Kennedy, at a Clinton fund-raiser at the Pierre. “Next time, Rudy, pick on someone your own size."
The Daily News editorial board called the move “politics at its rankest. Nothing subtle about it.”
"It seems like Cuomo and de Blasio are still working together," Dan Allen, a spokesman for the New York Republicans, told the New York Times at the time. "This definitely crosses the line into the political realm. It seems that Cuomo is inserting himself into politics, not only in the city but in New York State. I would dare say that it's an abuse of power."
With Senate hearings on the controversy looming, Rep. Charlie Rangel told the A.P, “The New York Senate race has moved to Washington.”
After Giuliani withdrew from the race, he was replaced as the Republican candidate by Long Island congressman Rick Lazio. Soon, it seemed like Lazio had caught the Washington secretary's roving eye, as a report that Lazio had been lobbying H.U.D. on behalf of campaign contributors soon began to dog his campaign.
Clinton won the Senate seat. Now it was Cuomo's turn to parlay a role in the Clinton administration into statewide office in New York. And when that attempt went badly, de Blasio was there for him.
Cuomo decided he was going to be governor in 2002. It was a fine plan, but for the better-established Democrat standing between him and the nomination: Carl McCall, the broadly (if not wildly) popular state comptroller who was running to become the state's first African-American governor.
By the time Cuomo withdrew from the primary, in what the Times dubbed a “spectacular humiliation,” the party was more or less united against him.
He did have one loyal friend, though: To help negotiate the terms of his capitulation with the McCall camp, Cuomo called on a political operative who, in an unusual career change, had recently sought and won election to the City Council. That operative, of course, was Bill de Blasio.
The following year, Andrew and his wife split up, in very public fashion. Cuomo’s circle of friends and allies tightened protectively around him.
“He was regrouping, personally and professionally,” said someone who knows Cuomo and de Blasio. “When he was looking for folks to talk to, or to go out with in a kind of public or professional sense, Bill was one of the folks who Andrew was close with.”
The next year, Cuomo sang de Blasio’s praises to the New York Observer.
"He is magnificent with people—and the whole array of people who you come across in a place as complicated as New York."
In 2009, Mario Cuomo endorsed de Blasio in his successful bid to become public advocate, even though the two men had taken opposing stances on the term-limits debate, and, as the Times noted, “Former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo rarely plays the endorsement game when it comes to Democratic primaries. In fact, he can’t remember the last time he endorsed a candidate for a New York City race.”
As public advocate, de Blasio has been prone to heaping compliments on the governor.
"De Blasio applauds governor's education commission for early education proposals, urges city to follow suit," read one recent press release.
"De Blasio commends Governor Cuomo for expanding affidavit voting," read another.
Would personal loyalty be enough of a reason for Cuomo to put his thumb on the scale for de Blasio this year?
It might not have to be.
Cuomo’s sometimes rocky relationship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg would seem to reflect an acute interest in controlling city politics. Having a trusted loyalist as mayor of New York City might well give him the influence he craves. Also, given the governor's reported interest in the 2016 presidential race, having an ally as mayor of the country’s most important cultural and financial center could help, assuming the tensions inherent to the city-state relationship don’t undermine the Cuomo-de Blasio alliance.
“These New York executive offices are structurally incapable of getting along well, the city drives too much of this big state economy to allow that,” said Michael Tobman, a Democratic political consultant. “But who the governor overtly supports for mayor in 2013 will undoubtedly impact how a 2016 presidential Democratic primary unfolds, so there's a lot to game out through the prism of how vast and varied a country this is.”
So then maybe Cuomo will help out de Blasio behind the scenes, something he has shown a willingness to do when it is in his own political interest.
“He clearly knows how to have his friends help others,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It probably was no accident that when Andrew Cuomo ran for attorney general, long-term Cuomo friend Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes went out and attacked Mark Green.”
The counterargument is that the race for the Democratic mayoral nomination is a minefield of conflicting interests. The governor, who was criticized during the gubernatorial campaign for heading up an all-white, all-male Democratic slate, thanks to his choice of lieutenant governor, knows he had better watch his step and mind his relations with certain constituencies.
He wouldn't want to be seen working against the 2009 nominee, Bill Thompson any more than he'd want to be seen trying to thwart Quinn, who stands to become the city's first female and lesbian mayor.
In any case, the governor has relationships with those candidates, too: He appointed Thompson to co-chair his campaign and to his task force on minority and women-owned businesses, and he developed a relationship with Quinn, who supported his bid to legalize gay marriage in New York City.
“Chris really worked hard for him during the campaign,” said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant. “It’s tough for a sitting governor and a Council speaker to deal on that many issues. But they do have a good relationship.”
"This particular race coming up provides a lot of awkward choices for people who have been allied over the years," said Bob Liff, a political consultant.
And de Blasio, who shares the governor’s penchant for political gamesmanship, will likely understand.
More by this author:
- Albany's unlikely marijuana legalization champion sees interest, but no movement yet
- Bloomberg pans a Cuomo-backed answer to Albany corruption