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Cuomo’s shift left seen as smart politics or too little, too late

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo attends the National Action

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo attends the National Action Network 2018 National Convention. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his first seven years in office, never restored parolees’ voting rights. Never called for banning plastic bags. Never united feuding factions of state Senate Democrats.

He’s done all of that and more in just the last month — which happens to coincide with the actress Cynthia Nixon entering the governor’s race for the Democratic nomination.

It’s the continuation of a leftward shift from a governor who came into office as a centrist pushing spending freezes and tax caps and who, more recently, banned hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, boosted the minimum wage and expanded a version of “free” college tuition.

Cuomo’s campaign says he’s always been a progressive, but analysts said his recent moves aren’t going unnoticed.

Some call it smart politics and a “scorched earth” campaign to take away progressive issues from Nixon. Critics say it’s too little, too late for winning back progressives. Regardless of viewpoint, many agree that it’s clear the budding race is having an effect already.

“It is obviously effort to steal her thunder,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton University professor and historian who analyzes national politics. “It could work. When incumbents pick off issues from the left but still command control over party apparatus, it has the capacity to dampen opponents.”

The developments “speak” to the seriousness of “the challenger” while reflecting a “smart strategy” by the incumbent, said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democrat strategist who worked on Cuomo’s 2014 re-election.

“The opponents are trying to somehow prove the argument that if it wasn’t for Nixon, none of this would happen,” Sheinkopf said. “Cuomo argues: What are you talking about? I’m already making the changes.’ The idea that he is not progressive enough is ridiculous.”

The Cuomo campaign maintains that the two-term governor hasn’t tacked left since Nixon entered the race.

“The governor’s long record of progressive accomplishment is irrefutable,” Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer said. “Any claims otherwise should be seen for what they are: baseless election-year rhetoric.”

But sample the headlines already generated by the contest. “Cynthia Nixon — er, Governor Cuomo — gives parolees the right to vote” said Fast Company, a business magazine. “Cynthia Nixon has already won,” declared New York magazine after Senate Democrats reunified.

In the last month, Cuomo has made a number of high-profile moves.

He forced fractious Senate Democrats to unify — following years of criticism that he tacitly supported a split that kept Republicans in charge and bottled up progressive initiatives.

He floated the possibility of terminating a long-established state law that removes New York City apartments from rent-control laws. Once a marijuana opponent, the governor said he supported Sen. Chuck Schumer’s federal bill to legalize it.

On April 4, Nixon said black women were the “backbone” of the Democrat party and that “we need to let them lead.” Last Sunday, Cuomo announced initiatives to address high maternity-mortality rates among African-American women.

On Monday, Nixon led a march of 1,000 environmentalists to the State Capitol. As they were arriving, Cuomo announced a proposal to ban plastic shopping bags.

Cuomo aides said the governor had put together a group to study the plastic-bag issue months ago, before Nixon entered the race. But progressives noted that in 2017 Cuomo killed a proposal led by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to impose a 5-cent fee on plastic bags purchased in the city.

Similarly, they point out that Cuomo previously said he was powerless to end the Senate Democrat rift, before shifting into action. A reunification plan he unveiled last fall wasn’t supposed to take place until late April at best and hinged on the outcome of two special elections to fill Senate vacancies. But the governor speeded up the timetable to early April.

Cuomo certainly had some progressive policy wins during his first term in office — most notably, the legalization of same-sex marriage and a tougher gun-control law.

But in his second term, he moved more to the left, winning approval of paid family leave, ending finger printing for food stamps and implemented a $15 per hour minimum wage downstate. He even campaigned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for “free” college tuition (though the plan finally approved by the Legislature didn’t make public college totally free but expanded the family income brackets that could qualify for full tuition assistance).

Fashouer has contended “the governor’s record of progressive accomplishment is unmatched.”

Critics on the left don’t buy it. “To me, this speaks to the efficacy of primaries,” said Ryan Madden of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. “He understands there is a strong progressive resurgence (ongoing) and there are some gaps in his record that Cynthia is highlighting.”

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