Cuomo’s Volatile Alliance With the Working Families Party

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Photo: Spencer Platt/2014 Getty Images

It's tough to choose a low point of Saturday night's Working Families Convention for Governor Andrew Cuomo. Was it when a WFP leader took the podium to blast him as a liar? Or perhaps it was Cuomo being forced to reshoot a video to be played at the convention. Or maybe it was going along with almost all of the WFP's issues — then having the final video greeted by boos and screams of "Bullshit!" by conventioneers.

No matter. By Sunday afternoon, Cuomo was treating Saturday night's nuttiness like a bad dream, something he'd slept off like too many Jägermeister shots. "At these political conventions you either win or you lose," he coolly told reporters after marching along Fifth Avenue in the Celebrate Israel parade. "I won."

That he did. Cuomo's re-election campaign got the WFP's endorsement. But the governor, and almost everyone else involved, shed quite a bit of political blood in the process. Even the "winners" in this melodrama are going to have a treacherous few months, at least, in front of them.

Start with Cuomo. One of the most fascinating elements of this episode is how a governor with $33 million in the bank, robust public approval ratings, a solid first-term record, and an obscure Republican opponent allowed himself to look as if he'd become hostage to a party most New Yorkers still have never heard of. Part of the answer is the leftward drift of the state's electorate, in contrast to Cuomo's determinedly centrist policy choices, particularly on economic issues. Yet the governor, an astute political analyst, had recognized this a long time ago, and he understood that Bill de Blasio's victory last fall guaranteed him a problem with the WFP.

That's why the answer is as much personal as tactical. Cuomo wants to beat his father's 1986 victory margin, when Mario Cuomo was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote. Picking up liberal votes on the WFP ballot line — or preventing someone else from siphoning votes — makes it easier. On the other hand, Cuomo has been dismayed that progressives still don't think he's done enough, even after legalizing gay marriage and tightening gun laws. So Cuomo needed and disdained the WFP at the same time, which led to this weekend's confrontation, and left him looking weaker.

The WFP, meanwhile, maximized its leverage, getting the governor to pledge to a long list of its demands, most importantly that Cuomo will campaign to establish a Democratic majority in the state Senate this fall. But the party nearly fractured in the process, and the hostility generated over the past few weeks won't go away soon. Labor leaders who wanted to back Cuomo, like Peter Ward of the hotel workers unions, got into screaming matches with WFP boss Dan Cantor. The heads of lefty advocacy groups, and many of the WFP's rank-and-file, are bitter, believing the party sold out its principles.

Those dissidents got more ammunition today, when Cuomo started adding caveats to the support for local control over the minimum wage that he'd declared twelve hours earlier. No wonder that on Sunday the WFP's state director, Bill Lipton, took the deeply weird step of rallying the party's membership to hold its own gubernatorial nominees "accountable."

Then there's de Blasio. The mayor's camp believes he's won in every direction: Racking up credit with Cuomo by helping the governor through this mess; bolstering his stature as a power player within the WFP; and deepening his ties to the labor unions. Plus, when state Senate control shifts into Democratic hands next year it will mean smooth sailing for city-friendly legislation in Albany.

Certainly the mayor's hand looks stronger. But so many forces have now been set in motion that a little humility is in order when predicting the larger outcomes. The governor appears grateful to the mayor now — but he could end up resenting needing the help. Next year's Legislature could be just as fractious. And the Cuomo-WFP match is going to remain highly volatile. "If the governor doesn't deliver," a Democratic insider says, "one risk for the mayor is that he ends up being seen as just as much of a cynical operative as Cuomo." De Blasio was a trusted middleman during Saturday's chaos. But there's a fine line between being a broker and getting caught in the crossfire.