Cuomo and De Blasio’s Political Chess Match Has Begun

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 16:  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, (L) speaks outside New York City Hall after New York City mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson (R) conceded defeat to New York City Democratic mayoral candidate Bill De Blasio (C), on September 16, 2013 in New York City. Thompson and De Blasio both hoped to win the democratic cadidate position for New York City. While De Blasio had a majority lead in the primary vote with approximately 40% of the votes, Thompson had hoped that he could force a run off between the two.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Photo: Andrew Burton/2013 Getty Images

It’s been clear since November that the relationship between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio would be complicated and fraught. But the fun has only really begun in the past two days.

On Sunday night, Capital New York ran a highly detailed story declaring that Cuomo would, in this Wednesday’s state of the state speech, attempt to co-opt one of De Blasio’s signature issues by proposing statewide universal pre-kindergarten — and that Cuomo would pay for the program out of the state budget. That might have forced De Blasio to make an uncomfortable choice: Take the governor’s half-loaf of expanded educational programs or keep insisting on them being funded by a tax increase for the wealthiest city residents and maybe lose in the state legislature.

The story sure looked like a Cuomo trial balloon, and on Monday morning, De Blasio smacked it down. The mayor was cool and cordial at an East Harlem press conference, repeating his belief that the governor remains “a friend and ally.” But De Blasio, surrounded by union leaders who whose help Cuomo will want to run up a big re-election win in November, was emphatic: He believes the tax increase is the only way to guarantee a reliable, dedicated stream of revenue not subject to annual budget horsetrading. “We will pass this tax,” De Blasio said. “I will repeat and repeat and repeat this until it’s done.” Minutes later in Albany, at his own press conference, Cuomo shrugged off the whole notion: No, he wouldn’t be proposing a state universal pre-K program this week, though he continues to agree with the goal. How to make it happen is “a bigger conversation,” for another day. Oh.

The whole episode is surpassingly odd. De Blasio had been expecting Cuomo to try to undercut the pre-K initiative; did someone on his side plant the story to flush out the governor? Cuomo didn’t expect De Blasio to flinch yet; did someone in his camp float the story to remind voters that the governor is plenty progressive, but that he’s intent on cutting taxes?

The truth is likely even murkier. One certainty is that Cuomo didn’t want a pre-K confrontation with De Blasio overshadowing everything else he’ll be proposing in the State of the State. The other is that this skirmish strengthened De Blasio’s hand. Yet in between the mayor’s confident pronouncements Monday was one interesting phrase. “We are sticking to this goal,” he said. “We are not going to bargain against ourselves.” Sure, De Blasio would love to get the entire annual $550 million through a tax increase on the rich — but he has assumed all along that there will be bargaining, that the fate of the pre-K and after-school idea will ultimately come down to a negotiation. De Blasio and Cuomo are both savvy strategists, both skilled at looking several chess moves ahead. The tactical cleverness is just getting started.