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NY Gov. Cuomo Chooses Unions Over Grassroots Progressives

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Pat Bradley/WAMC

The progressive political party the Working Families Party split up over the weekend, with some of the last remaining major unions leaving the group. WFP announced they back Cynthia Nixon for Governor, while incumbent Andrew Cuomo withdrew from consideration, saying he’s sticking with the major unions, for now.The choice seems a safe bet for Cuomo.

Cuomo’s apparently made the strategic political decision that he can get further in his reelection bid with established unions than the progressive activists in his party.

Unions have thousands of members that often volunteer to staff phone banks, go door to door with campaign literature and help encourage voters to go to the polls.

The governor has been very supportive of unions in recent months.

Earlier in April, at a rally featuring among others, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, Cuomo signed a bill to protect unions from an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could make it easier for workers to opt out of paying union dues. Cuomo says under the new law unions can’t be forced to provide full benefits of membership to those who don’t pay for them. And he framed the issue as an attack on working people by President Trump and the Republican Congress.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. We are in the middle of a big, big fight nationwide and it is just starting,” Cuomo said. “We’re going to be the state that shows how to mobilize and how to win. And that is what this is, a metaphor for today.”

In return, union leaders at the event showered Cuomo with praise. AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento even took a veiled shot at Cuomo’s Democratic opponent, and now likely Working Families Party nominee, Cynthia Nixon.

“Leadership is not sending out a press release or sending out trial balloons and ‘Oh let’s see what people think’,” Cilento said. “No. Leadership is doing what you say you’re going to do. And governor, we thank you for that leadership.”

Cuomo explained his reasoning on Long Island Tuesday, talking to reporters, where he denied accusations that he made threats against the unions in order to get them to leave the progressive Working Families Party.

“I’m a middle class guy, that’s who I am. That’s where I come from. Those are my values,” Cuomo said. “And organized labor represents the working men and women of New York.”

Bruce Gyory, a political consultant who is not advising anyone in the governor’s race, says the pure progressives are not the majority of the Democratic Party base, which is made up of a mix of around two thirds traditional liberals and moderate Democrats, with a few conservative Democrats thrown in. Those Democrats may be closer in their philosophy to union members.

Gyory says in 2014, Cuomo underestimated his primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout. He refused to shake her hand, permitting an aide to physically block her at a public event. And he did nothing to encourage voter turnout, which would have helped him. As a result, the little known Teachout won one-third of the primary vote. Gyory says he doubts the governor will make those mistakes again. And he says, right now, it’s Cuomo’s race to lose.

“If you look at the polling data he’s overwhelmingly popular amongst Democrats and liberal Democrats and female Democrats in particular,” Gyory said. “If he just avoids looking like a bully, if he eats his sugar cookies and is a good mood throughout the whole campaign, he should do fine.”

Siena poll released Tuesday shows Cuomo with strong support among Democratic and black and Hispanic Democrats. But it also shows challenger Nixon gaining 16 points in the first three weeks of her candidacy. And the governor’s favorability rating among voters, matches a record low of 44 percent.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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