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Amazon's decision to cancel holds widespread political ramifications

It was a setback for Cuomo and a win for the left, observers say, but also could make some Democrats vulnerable in the 2020 elections.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shake hands during a news conference at the governor's office in Manhattan on Nov. 13, 2018, after Amazon announced that it would build a headquarters in Long Island City in Queens. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

ALBANY — The broad impact of Amazon’s decision to cancel plans for a Queens headquarters on New York politics would be hard to overstate.

It was perhaps Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s biggest setback in nine years in office and the biggest win yet for the political left and grass roots organizers who have budded in New York since the Occupy Wall Street movement, observers say.

It showed the left asserting itself in effective ways that it hadn’t been able to before, they say. It showed the governor doesn’t have his thumb on the State Legislature as he did in his first two terms in office. It showed Amazon miscalculated that its promise of 25,000 jobs would mute any criticism of its anti-union stance and the $3 billion tax-incentive package it was offered.

Looking ahead, the outcome might end a brief honeymoon between the governor and Senate Democrats, and, some say, between pragmatic and progressive Democrats. And it might make some suburban Democrats — especially on Long Island — vulnerable in the 2020 election to Republican challengers who paint them as anti-job and anti-business.

The finger-pointing will go on for a while. The longer-term question is whether it marks a turning point in state politics and a new approach to the state’s tax and economic development policies.

Analysts said Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made the mistake of thinking “everyone would fall in line” after they had negotiated the incentive package that landed Amazon back in November. The governor, mayor and Amazon misjudged the reaction.

“I would argue the governor blew it,” Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist, said Friday on The Capitol Pressroom, a public radio program.  Cuomo, he said, "assumed [because] he saw it as a good thing and, therefore, good for the state and, therefore, good for the constituency.”

He said Cuomo and de Blasio — two officials who come from the pragmatic and progressive sides of the party, respectively — figured “if we agree, everybody will fall in line.”

But the local resistance sprouted quickly and denounced the idea of $3 billion in giveaways to one of the world’s largest companies. They decried what they called a lack of transparency about the deal and a lack of assessment on housing and transit, and bypass of the usual land-use review process. And when Amazon indicated it would oppose a unionized workforce, criticism mushroomed.

“Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio were caught flat-footed,” Iona College political scientist Jeanne Zaino said on the radio program. “And I’m not sure they nor Amazon did the due diligence on the ground to get this done.”

An additional factor, Zaino said, is that the public’s views on tech companies and regulation have changed sharply in the last two years. The implication: Americans are viewing tech more skeptically now and a company promising jobs probably would previously have faced less scrutiny.

Cuomo has been successful achieving most of his agenda during his first two terms in office and has completed or launched scores of infrastructure projects. Some have fallen through, such as a proposed major casino at Aqueduct Race Track, but nothing on the scale of the 25,000 jobs Amazon was promising.

A Cuomo official contended the outcome wasn’t so much a political loss for the governor as a “loss for New York State,” and said the administration did everything it could to land Amazon. The administration and leading unions met with the company frequently in the last week to reach peace on the labor issue. It publicly and privately pressed Senate Democrats to relent and back the deal, and criticized the company for not doing more to tout the benefits of the project. But Amazon suddenly canceled its Queens plan altogether.

Cuomo lashed out Thursday at Senate Democrats, particularly the nomination of Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) to an oversight panel that would have say over part of the Amazon incentive package. Gianaris, who represents Long Island City, was one of the most vocal critics of the deal.

Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said Senate Democrats “tanked the Amazon plan by placing a stalwart Amazon opponent on the government approval board to pander to the local socialists.”

She went even further, blasting Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), dean of the Long Island Senate Democrats. Lever said he should have fought for the Amazon deal and instead “cowered when he should have shown courage.”

The anger follows a six-week stretch in which Democrats worked together in Albany to enact a slew of major laws.

A day after the announcement, the governor’s office sought to pin all the blame on Senate Democrats. “Everyone who supported the project knows who killed it,” the Cuomo official said, referring to Senate Democrats. “They overplayed their hand and Amazon walked away.”

Some Democrats saw the finger-pointing as the governor’s attempt to splinter the conference. They cited his tacit support for a renegade group of senators called the Independent Democratic Conference, which operated from 2011-17 and aligned with Republicans to keep the GOP in Senate power. With Democrats controlling the Assembly, the legislative split gave Cuomo great leverage over what laws were enacted and how money was spent.

In contrast, the Senate has been unified under Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) since Democrats won control of the chamber in November and has worked with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) to set the agenda and enact major pieces of legislation in the first few weeks of 2019. Doing so has diminished some of the governor’s hold over lawmakers. The independence of the legislature was on display in the Amazon saga.

“The new Albany dynamic is that things go through Carl and Andrea,” said one Democratic consultant who requested anonymity.

Republicans stopped just short of saying they would use this episode against suburban Democrats in next year’s elections, though that is all but assured. Last fall, Democrats won a majority of Long Island’s nine State Senate seats for the first time.

“They stood in the way of 25,000 jobs coming to New York,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). “It shows that New York City interests will prevail in that conference, despite the fact that Long Island senators said it wouldn’t happen.”

The new progressives in New York politics saw it quite differently. For them, it was the day grass roots groups successfully fought to block giveaways to one of the world’s biggest companies.

“Today we have seen the power of grass roots community organizing,” Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Jackson Heights) said. “This deal was going to set a dangerous precedent that circumvented the public review process to welcome one of the biggest corporations of our time that pays zero taxes already. What we, the people, did in Queens was finally draw the line in the sand.”

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