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Watching Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie battle off emerging details about the closing of the George Washington Bridge is well-needed schadenfreude for progressives who feared that this teacher union basher could be on his way for a presidential run. But more critical attention should be paid to his counterpart on the other side of the Hudson River, Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo is a virtual lock for reelection this year, and won handily in 2010 against a Tea Party fanatic who ran in a blue state. While Hillary Clinton is spoken as the presumptive presidential candidate for 2016, analysts have always seen Cuomo as someone who seeks to outrank his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, whose faded presidential and Supreme Court dreams are now the stuff of political nerd trivia.
In this light Cuomo the Younger has made himself a national figure, drawing the ire of Fox News host Sean Hannity when he suggested that anti-gay conservatives had no place in the state, hitting a social touchstone but a political non-issue since the question of legalizing gay marriage was answered by the state in the summer of 2011. Yet, on the economic end, the political forum that actually matters, he has established himself as a champion for austerity.
E.J. McMahon, one of the most aggressive anti-union voices in the state, is trumpeting Cuomo’s proposal to reform the estate tax, which is levied primarily on higher earners. It has also been reported that Cuomo wants Republicans to maintain control of the state senate in order to make it easier for him to reduce taxes and spending on services. His negotiations with state workers yielded wage freezes. And now his battle with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has exposed that Cuomo is fundamentally opposed to any social program that calls for redistributive measures. Indeed, he once likened his opposition to extended the millionaires’ tax to his father’s opposition to the death penalty.
This isn’t just the result of his, what some would call, centrist ideology, but rather of the support he’s enjoyed from the Committee to Save New York, a pro-business coalition who has sought to curtail union power in the state. Frederick Floss, executive director of the union backed Fiscal Policy Institute, notes that Cuomo’s push for estate tax reform is a way of giving back money to the rich after he caved into popular pressure to extend the millionaire’s tax he once likened to an execution.
More importantly, this is not just an issue for New Yorkers but for the whole notion of what liberalism stands for. Christie and Cuomo, in a way, have worked in tandem to create an acceptable political middle ground that rids the air of distracting and polarizing social issues and keeps politics focused on business needs. Democrats often bemoan the decline of “Rockefeller Republicans,” the type who hates taxes but doesn’t care about abortion or prayer in school. Well, they got one in Christie, and he was seen as someone who could save the Republican Party from descending into Tea Party quackery. Likewise, Cuomo represents the banality of the current Democratic Party: divorced from working class interests and organized labor and in the direct service of those same Rockefeller Republican corporate leaders. These two have in the course of their terms in executive power attempted to reassert northeastern dominance in a country that has handed much of the discourse to the South and the Heartland.
The mockery of Christie, in forums like MSNBC, is entertaining to be sure, but it distracts from the fact that anti-union politics and tax schemes that favor the wealthy are just as much a problem coming from Democrats as they are from Republicans. That doesn’t give working people many political options in a two party system, and the state labor movement, as of yet, hasn’t indicated that it will field an independent opposition candidate. And Cuomo doesn’t appear to have a bridge scandal or something like that to unravel his plans for austerity. His fight with de Blasio over imposing a more redistributive tax structure, however, could enliven actual economic progressivism in a state and nation discourses that badly needs it.
Ari Paul is a contributor to Free Speech Radio News and the Indypendent. His articles have also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, Z Magazine and The American Prospect.