Bill de Blasio has been to Albany as mayor once already, to attend Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech on January 8. Tomorrow morning, though, De Blasio goes to the capital for his first real speaking role, to testify before the legislature’s budget committees. It’s an annual ritual for New York mayors, but this year the stakes are particularly high. De Blasio will talk about all sorts of areas where the city wants help from the state–building new and maintaining old affordable housing; propping up the public hospital system. Yet the main event will be the battle over pre-kindergarten. What De Blasio says — and how he says it — is important to his cause, because it follows a week in which Cuomo dominated the discussion and appeared to grab the political advantage.
Last Tuesday, Cuomo gave his 2014 state budget presentation and laid out his own plan to expand pre-k and after-school programs across the state. The governor says any district that wants them can have them, and that the tab will be paid through the state budget — crucially, not through any tax increase. Cuomo’s full-dress speech made the policy case, but the political offensive surged during the following days: The governor and his top lieutenants conducted a series of meetings and interviews that raised doubts about De Blasio’s logistical competence to add thousands of pre-k seats by September and that questioned the depth of the mayor’s electoral “mandate.” But their primary effort was to shift the conversation to De Blasio’s motives for demanding a tax increase even though the state was willing to underwrite the program. “If it’s not pre-k,” the governor said of the mayor’s quest for taxes, “it’ll be something else.” The skillfully deployed assault made it look as if De Blasio wasn’t willing to take yes for an answer, and it was good enough to persuade the city’s editorial pages that the mayor should fold. The De Blasio camp was surprised when the Times took Cuomo’s side on dropping the tax increase, urging the mayor to “accept the offer and declare political victory” just two days after the paper had emphatically endorsed the educational goals of mayor’s pre-k push. “Schizophrenic,” one De Blasio advisor calls the editorials.
“Cuomo thinks he can paint De Blasio into a corner with this tax stuff,” a mayoral ally says. “Which is kind of strange, because De Blasio is happy to be in that corner — his base wants him to tax the rich.” Another major reason the mayor isn’t ready to punt so quickly is that he’s rightly skeptical about whether Cuomo would deliver enough money, and deliver it reliably for the next five years. Those details are crucial, but they’re wonky and hard to sell, which is why De Blasio’s team is methodically assembling support inside the state Assembly and Senate. It’s also why De Blasio’s remarks Monday morning are key. In the wake of Cuomo’s preemptive play, the mayor’s aides claim that in one sense they have already won the game, by elevating the discussion of pre-K to the point where its expansion is now assumed. So tomorrow, De Blasio will talk about how much he and the governor agree — though he will not go soft. “The mayor will be conciliatory, not confrontational,” an advisor says. “But expect his argument for pre-k, and the need to pay for it with a small tax increase on the wealthy, to be full-throated.” If De Blasio can strike that tricky balance, it won’t simply help him reclaim the pre-K momentum. It will help set the tone for his relationship with Cuomo for the next four years. And it will provide a fresh twist in a peculiar friendship: The last time De Blasio was in town, for Cuomo’s State of the State speech, the governor didn’t even mention the mayor’s name.