In 1997, Andrew Cuomo was moving up the ranks in Washington as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but he was still focused on New York, where he longed to follow in his father Mario’s footsteps and run for governor.
Cuomo wanted someone who could be his “eyes and ears” on the ground in New York, as one former aide put it, an envoy who could keep him apprised of the political landscape back home not just for the benefit of his work for the Clinton administration but for his own political future.
He turned to an old acquaintance from Clinton’s 1992 campaign in New York: Bill de Blasio, a former aide to Mayor David Dinkins who was considered a rising star among Cuomo’s network of political friends back home. He tapped de Blasio to be regional director of HUD, overseeing New York and New Jersey, but de Blasio quickly became more than just a work colleague.
“Bill became someone that Andrew really relied on,” recalled Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and top adviser to Cuomo at HUD. “The fact he had Bill on the ground in New York really reflects the level of trust and respect and friendship that existed between them, because that was a terribly important job in terms of what it meant to Andrew’s future.”
Not only did de Blasio become one of Cuomo’s most trusted advisers at HUD, he quickly gained a reputation as a “Cuomo-whisperer” — someone who could deftly interpret his boss’s needs and motivations and explain that psyche to others.
And over the last 17 years, that’s continued to be a prized skill for de Blasio. He has continued to serve as an emissary and counselor to Cuomo as they both have risen up the chain in New York politics — Cuomo to become governor and de Blasio, who was sworn in last week as New York City’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.
That connection with Cuomo gives de Blasio a potential political asset that few of his mayoral predecessors have had with the governor’s office — including ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who enjoyed a civil but not quite friendly relationship with Cuomo.
But in spite of the opportunities of that history, there has long been an institutional tension between the mayor’s office and governor’s office. As mayor, de Blasio is largely dependent on Cuomo to sign off on his agenda, as the city requires state approval on everything from tax hikes to the setting of traffic fines.
Adding to the complexity of that relationship are the ideological fissures that have risen between Cuomo and de Blasio over the years. As governor, Cuomo has sought to cement his political identity as a moderate Democrat, while de Blasio has developed into a more populist liberal who has pledged to deliver on the left-leaning policies that helped him win control of City Hall by a historic margin last November.
The biggest test of their relationship is likely to be over the centerpiece of de Blasio’s bid for mayor: a tax hike on the wealthy to pay for prekindergarten classes and after-school programs. The proposal — which is No. 1 on the list of de Blasio’s legislative priorities in his first year in office — is part of the new mayor’s pledge to redefine New York’s social fabric, creating a city more welcoming for both the rich and poor.
But Cuomo, who is up for re-election in 2014 and is said to be eying a 2016 presidential bid, has been decidedly cool on de Blasio’s tax push — which would raise taxes on New York City residents earning more than $500,000 a year. Instead, he’s argued that lawmakers should be cutting taxes — a message he emphasized in his annual State of the State address Wednesday, which laid out his legislative priorities for the year.
In the speech, Cuomo called for the state to approve “universal full-day pre-K statewide.” But he stopped short of detailing how to fund it — even as de Blasio sat in the audience.
But that was not the case last Monday — when the conflict over the issue was perhaps best illustrated by dueling press conferences de Blasio and Cuomo held at almost the exact same time. In a classroom in New York City, de Blasio was joined by labor union leaders who pledged to back his push for a tax increase to fund universal prekindergarten.
Meanwhile, 150 miles away, Cuomo was presiding over a press conference outlining his push for lower taxes. Over the weekend, unnamed sources close to the governor leaked to the press that Cuomo would propose using existing state funds — not new taxes — to bankroll early education programs statewide. But asked about those reports, Cuomo remained noncommittal on exactly what he would support.
“There’s a two-step process in government and in life,” Cuomo said. “First, decide what you want to do, and step two is decide how you are going to do it.”
But back in New York City, de Blasio said he wouldn’t be satisfied with state money to fund the program, noting that the legislature could cut funding and put the programs at risk. He said he would continue to pursue his tax hike — and, as he has in recent months, touted his long relationship with Cuomo as key to that effort.
The dynamics of the de Blasio/Cuomo relationship have become a source of political intrigue as their two agendas and their personal ambitions seem to be on a collision course.
“Everybody in politics is close until they have a conflict, and then they are not,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist in New York.
Publicly, de Blasio and Cuomo have been friendly, offering effusive praise for each other’s political skills. De Blasio almost always refers to Cuomo as a “friend” and a “mentor” while at Cuomo has spoken about de Blasio in the way a big brother would talk about a younger sibling — or, as some have noted, the way a boss talks about an employee.
“I’ve had a long experience with Bill,” Cuomo said during a Democratic unity rally in September at City Hall. “I’ve watched him personally grow. I know what he believes. I know his agenda, and I think it will work very well.”
But at the same event, as Capital New York reported, two senior strategists for Cuomo and de Blasio got into a screaming match within earshot of reporters because Cuomo had spoken last — and longer — at the event than de Blasio. De Blasio aides believed their boss had been upstaged by Cuomo—who treated the rally as if it was his event, even though it had been organized to tout de Blasio.
But those close to the two politicians insist the tension over the event was overplayed—though there are mixed accounts on how personally close they’ve remained.
“They are friends with a small ‘f,’” says a mutual friend who declined to be named discussing the relationship between de Blasio and Cuomo. “They have a lot in common, but it is a relationship driven by politics rather than a real connection.”
Indeed, Cuomo has turned to de Blasio at trying times in his political career. In 2002, when faced with an embarrassing loss in the Democratic primary during his first bid for governor, Cuomo turned to de Blasio to help negotiate his exit from the race with rival Carl McCall.
And over the years, Cuomo has continued to rely on de Blasio for political advice, according to mutual friends, in part because he views de Blasio as someone who shares his ideals.
“They are both very old-fashioned in that they really believe in government and are optimistic about government and what it can do,” says Ken Sunshine, a longtime New York publicist and former City Hall aide to Dinkins, who has been credited with introducing Cuomo and de Blasio and remains close to both men.
Lehane, who was an outside adviser to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, insists both men have a genuine connection that will help, even if they disagree on policy.
“If neither one of them were in politics, they’d still be friends,” Lehane said. “That said, they are in politics.”