ALBANY - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are vying on one of the nation's most important stages for political supremacy, the direction of the Democratic Party and influence over city and state issues.
The jousting is about more than the expansion of prekindergarten -- a fight in which the state holds the upper hand and, some note, a policy disagreement that is not as nasty as it might appear. It represents a philosophical struggle between two wings of the party, and has overtones for the 2014 gubernatorial race and, possibly, the 2016 presidential race.
It took less than a month for the new mayor and the governor, who is up for re-election, to lock horns. De Blasio wants to hike taxes on incomes above $500,000 to expand prekindergarten in the city -- thereby tackling economic inequality, one of his key "tale of two cities" campaign themes.
Cuomo extended the so-called millionaires tax in 2011 and has used those funds to boost school spending. This year, he's made an array of tax cuts and credits the focus of his 2014 agenda. Instead of backing de Blasio's idea to raise taxes only on New York City residents, Cuomo has offered $1.5 billion in state funds to expand pre-K statewide.
The governor made it clear to members of the Black and Hispanic Legislative Caucus at a recent closed-door meeting that he didn't want to approve a city tax increase, legislators said. He added that although the Democrat-dominated Assembly backs de Blasio, approval wasn't assured in the politically split State Senate. Cuomo offered a five-year commitment to pre-K, beginning with $100 million in this year's state budget, which must be voted on by April 1.
Foes or friends?
Some political insiders say the Cuomo-de Blasio dispute is more bark than bite. They note the Democrats are longtime friends and talk almost daily -- their stances on pre-K and taxes have to do with each man's constituency. Cuomo wants to steer a centrist course and de Blasio is the current progressive rock star among the party's left wing.
"This is more gentle jockeying," said a Democrat who knows both men. "It will never get ugly between the two."
On prekindergarten, Cuomo holds the cards: the city needs state permission to raise its taxes. It's not the only issue with potential city/state conflict. Cuomo and de Blasio could clash on state aid to the city, expansion of charter schools and the future of troubled medical facilities such as Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. But sources said those issues likely won't have the same volume as pre-K.
Cuomo and de Blasio have publicly played down the notion of conflict. The mayor said his office has spoken "constantly" with Cuomo's throughout the process.
"Everyone knows I have a long and close friendship with him," de Blasio said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C., last week.
Cuomo and de Blasio are longtime allies -- de Blasio worked for Cuomo when the latter was federal housing secretary in the Clinton administration. The now-mayor supported Cuomo's unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial run and is said to have served as a go-between for Cuomo and the labor-based Working Families Party when it endorsed Cuomo in 2010.
Now they're vying over policy and positioning.
De Blasio is seen as a hero to the liberal wing of the party, analysts say. His mantra of "income inequality" propelled him from dark horse contender to surprise winner. Now is the time for him to cash in on his victory.
"The best time to try to get what you need is when you're riding the high off the rhetoric of the campaign," said Robert Bellafiore, who served as Republican Gov. George Pataki's first press secretary. "Chances are, this is de Blasio's best moment. On the other hand, the governor's numbers are high and have been consistently high."
Cuomo, during three years in office, has built a pragmatic record as a social liberal but a fiscal moderate-to-conservative. That's allowed him to generate a big lead in early polls for re-election.
The governor could be positioning himself for a presidential run if former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton decides not to enter the contest. Cuomo is said to have collected $600,000 from Hollywood moguls at a California fundraiser last week. But some believe his fiscal stances might hurt Cuomo with progressive Democrats who will determine the 2016 presidential primaries.
Some legislators see the pre-K issue entirely differently: They've already won. Prekindergarten will expand.
"What gets lost in all this 'I'm the man,' 'No, he's the man' stuff is that the two principals agree to expand pre-K," said longtime Assemb. Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens). "It's good political theater but it is irrelevant to the real issue. One way or another this is going to be solved. I don't think either gentleman would reject a pre-K plan just because he didn't get his way."
Aubry, like some other Democrats, said he prefers a "dedicated" tax to fund pre-K because, despite Cuomo's five-year promise, budget circumstances can change year to year. He believes there is a chance that legislators could approve Cuomo's idea of $100 million in this year's budget and then later approve de Blasio's tax request.
'A schism within the party'
But de Blasio's initiative faces opposition in the Senate, where 29 Republicans and five breakaway Democrats have formed a coalition to control the chamber instead of the 27 mainline Democrats.
"The governor has pointed out very clearly that there is a path to have universal pre-K, and I have said all along you don't raise taxes just to raise them," said Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "It also shows that there is a schism within the Democrat Party, between the Democrat progressive left and the Democrat progressive right -- de Blasio and Cuomo."
Skelos' counterpart, Senate co-leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), favors de Blasio's plan.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, said the battle is already over. Neither man will budge, but because the state holds the power, de Blasio's tax on the wealthy won't happen, he predicted.
"The progressives won and lost," Sheinkopf said. "The deep left wanted to tax the rich to punish them. They lost. For the governor, it's a win-win. For the mayor, it's a win-loss. The governor represents a centrist in this case."
With Emily Ngo
and Michael Gormley