De Blasio’s 20-Year Friendship With Cuomo Faces Political Test

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) —

Bill de Blasio, New York’s next mayor, will assume office Jan. 1 holding a potential political asset that few, if any, of his predecessors have enjoyed: a close friendship with the governor.

De Blasio’s relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which goes back more than 20 years, will make them effective partners, both men say. Others, including their former colleague Cardell Cooper, wonder how well the camaraderie can survive the often conflicting political interests and responsibilities of running the third-biggest U.S. state and the nation’s largest city.

“There’s a lot of decisions that have to be made and hopefully they won’t lose sight of the respect they’ve gained for each other,” said Cooper, who worked with both when Cuomo headed the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and de Blasio was his New York and New Jersey regional director. “Disagreement is fine; it’s about how they come to a result, where they go in the battle.”

In a city where the mayor needs state approval to install a red-light camera and fine drivers, let alone raise income taxes, having a friend in Albany could help de Blasio push his agenda. His signature proposal calls for making wealthy earners pay for universal pre-kindergarten classes and after-school programs, a plan that needs Cuomo’s blessing.

Yet the friendship may be tested as the two Democrats chart a path through the historic tension between the two jobs, their separate political ideologies and each man’s ambition.

“We started as young guys many wrinkles and many gray hairs ago, and we shared the good times and we shared the bad times,” Cuomo, 55, said during his Sept. 16 endorsement of de Blasio. “I’ve had a long experience with Bill; I’ve watched him personally grow. I know what he believes. I know his agenda, and I think it will work very well.”

De Blasio, who won election this month by 49 percentage points, the biggest margin by a non-incumbent in city history, was equally effusive.

Cuomo has had a “profound influence on my life,” de Blasio, 52, said at the same event. “I hope I learned over the years how to be an effective public servant; how to follow through on my ideals. And if I did a lot of that, it is because of what I learned working at the side of Andrew Cuomo.”

Even before de Blasio emerged as Cuomo’s protege at HUD in 1997 and 1998, the two worked together in New York’s Democratic party on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

“You could see a blueprint back in those days; they were hungry and they each wanted to become somebody big in name recognition and job,” said Joe Ithier, who recalls Cuomo and de Blasio then as “hang-out buddies.”

Later, as an economic-development official trying to revive some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx, Ithier worked with de Blasio and Cuomo on HUD-related issues.

“You could see even in the earliest years their interest in working with underserved communities of blacks and Latinos in Harlem and the Bronx,” Ithier said. “This has all been in the planning for a long time.”

The blueprint came to fruition Nov. 5 when de Blasio won a landslide victory that put the first Democrat in 20 years in charge of City Hall. Exit polls showed de Blasio won support of about 95 percent of black voters and 80 percent of Hispanics.

One of the first tests of their relationship will come in January when Cuomo and de Blasio will discuss the mayor’s plan to raise taxes on incomes above $500,000 to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs for teens.

It won’t happen unless de Blasio can persuade state lawmakers and Cuomo to back the proposal. Cuomo has said he wants to expand pre-school for New Yorkers, yet he’s also advocated a tax cut for next year, when he faces re-election.

“There’s no doubt that it’s the right idea and it’s where we want to go,” Cuomo told reporters before marching up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in the Nov. 11 Veterans Day Parade. “There’s also no doubt that money is tight nowadays. So that’s going to be the balance.”

De Blasio’s landslide win should give him leverage with Cuomo and members of the state legislature in pressing his agenda, the mayor-elect has said.

“De Blasio is riding high, and it’s probably not in Cuomo’s best interest to create any tension too soon,” said Columbia University political scientist Robert Shapiro. “Cuomo would like to win New York City by the kind of margin de Blasio won.”

While the inexperienced and untested mayor-elect is just beginning to vet potential deputy mayors and department heads, Cuomo is gearing up for a second-term run next year. Ever since his 2010 election, backers haven’t kept secret their enthusiasm about him as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

De Blasio and Cuomo each describe themselves as “progressive Democrats,” though they differ on policy, Shapiro said.

“Cuomo is trying to move in the direction of an economic- growth strategy by stimulating business, whereas de Blasio would like to see economic growth in New York City by closing the divide between the wealthy and the poor,” Shapiro said. “The tension of ambition and political ideology is an important question.”

A mayor and governor expressing actual long-held affinity for each other will be an oddity for New Yorkers who have witnessed a history of feuds between governors and mayors throughout the state’s history, said Richard Briffault, a professor of state and local government at Columbia Law School.

He recalled how former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay, both Republicans, endorsed each other’s opponent in re-election campaigns, and how Republican Rudy Giuliani backed a losing bid by Cuomo’s father, Mario, for a fourth term as governor against Republican George Pataki in 1994.

“Friendship can probably grease the working relationship, but in the end the different needs, obligations and sources of power are what sets and fulfills the agenda,” Briffault said.

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