Jeff Bezos, Andrew Cuomo, and Bill de Blasio walk into a bar.
That’s it. That’s the whole joke.
Why, after all, would Jeff Bezos, the globe-trotting capitalist, Bill de Blasio, the self-styled arbiter of lefty politics, and Andrew Cuomo, the master of Albany whose idea of an A-list celebrity is Billy Joel, ever be darkening the door of a bar or any other building in the five boroughs together?
Yet the three have been conjoined the last several months as they tried to sell New York on the need to bring an Amazon headquarters to an otherwise charmless stretch of Long Island City, Queens. The truth is, the rollout was botched from the beginning. Rather than announce the deal — which would include 25,000 well-paying jobs but also $3 billion in public investments (most glaringly, a private helipad) — by touting a bevy of benefits for the community (new parks, worker-training programs, and so on), the city, the state, and the company just plopped the deal in front of New Yorkers like an unwrapped birthday present.
The whole thing was presented as a fait accompli not only to the public, but even to other political leaders in the city and state, who were told just hours before the announcement that New York had won Amazon’s nationwide search for an HQ2 (or at least one of them).
That announcement served as a harbinger of what was to come. Bezos wasn’t there, sending instead an underling, Amazon’s vice-president for real estate John Schoettler. Cuomo and de Blasio were, and they seemed almost … friendly, as if they hadn’t spent the last four years engaged in an entirely unproductive sandbox feud.
At that press conference, it was mostly de Blasio trying to sell the deal, a sign, perhaps, that Cuomo knew which way the wind was blowing. And it was de Blasio who was tasked with selling it afterwards, only he didn’t much, and neither did Cuomo, believing that the merits of the case were overwhelming.
The desire to maintain the status quo, especially in a city like New York, where the steamroller of progress can be overwhelming, is a powerful counterforce. An Amazon campus in Long Island City meant more tech bros would be coming, it meant more crowded subways, schools, and roads. And if the city and state are as broke as they are always telling us, where did this $3 billion suddenly come from? Never mind that most of that money would have gone to any company promising those kinds of jobs in the outer boroughs, and that the subsidy, mostly in the form of tax abatements, would have likely been dwarfed by the tax revenue that was to come. And never mind that in a global capital like New York, 25,000 jobs would be a rounding error.
And in that vacuum of information, local pols pounced. Amazon came to be associated with all sorts of ills that had nothing to do with this deal, from being in bed with ICE to being monopolistic and anti-worker and anti-environment. They were vulture capitalists, sucking the public well dry.
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, experts on urban policy have been warning that New York needs to diversify from its reliance on the finance, insurance, and real-estate industries for its continued prosperity. And expanding the tech sector has been a priority of both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations. Google has already announced a modest-sized expansion in the city, Facebook and Apple both have a decent-sized presence, and Cornell is building a engineering campus on Roosevelt Island. Snagging Amazon would have meant that for the next big tech company — whatever today’s middle-schoolers are toying around with — having a presence in the city would be nonnegotiable.
But the world changed since the deal was announced. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a political supernova, and even though the campus was just outside of her district, many of her supporters fueled the opposition. And the same week, a new Democratic majority took over the State Senate, one large enough that they don’t mind risking the seats of a few moderate members on Long Island, and they certainly don’t mind risking the governor’s wrath.
Not that it is ever easy to get things done in Albany. Just ask Mike Bloomberg, who saw some of his signature projects, like the West Side Stadium and congestion pricing, go to die in a body where the suburbs have far greater power than the city.
This deal was never going to be easy. Nothing in New York is. Even the most seemingly benign projects become mired in lawsuits, negotiations, charges of NIMBY-ism and latter-day imperialism, even as they tend to work out in the end.
What was most surprising about this one was the way it ended. Amazon was still talking to government officials on Wednesday. When pressed on reports that they were going to pull out, they denied it. We can only wonder what would have happened if they had demanded an up-or-down vote in either the City Council or state legislature on the project. Although a passionate minority opposed the project, polls consistently showed that most New Yorkers were in favor.
Instead, Amazon up and left. The state is in a different political world. In a statement yesterday afternoon, Bill de Blasio was conciliatory, and seemed to side with the opponents. Andrew Cuomo wasn’t, blaming a few rogue lawmakers trying to play political games.
If Thursday was messy, it seems certain it will only get worse from here.