The pattern is simple: Identify an issue that has popular support. Stitch together advocates who have strongly backed it for a long time. Use outside money from political campaign committees or unions or well-heeled donors to finance ads and rallies to build support.
It’s a game plan Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has used repeatedly to construct election-style campaigns for legislation he wanted to enact during his six years in office. It’s an approach used on a philosophically wide range of issues, from same-sex marriage to a property-tax cap to charter school expansion to abortion rights. He’s worked with big business to fight the unions, and with the unions to fight business. And it’s an approach that’s largely been successful for the governor.
This year, Cuomo, a Democrat, has gone back to his playbook to promote a $15-per-hour minimum wage and paid family leave. He’s using union support to distribute mailers and sponsor ads, as well as calling enrolled Democrats to participate in conference calls. He’s named the campaign after his late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, and driven around in an RV to promote it.
“The whole thing of creating an organization to promote the governor’s agenda is unique,” said Blair Horner, a longtime state government watchdog for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Horner and others noted that teachers unions and health care workers have used similar strategies for years. Previous governors have tried to use the bully pulpit to rally support for their agenda. But no predecessor has combined the two as “aggressively” as Cuomo has, Horner said. In 2011, for example, Cuomo had the support of the business-backed Committee to Save New York to promote his spending freeze and tax cap, and worked with gay-rights groups to enact same-sex marriage.
Watchdogs have said Cuomo’s minimum-wage campaign has blurred the lines between governing and lobbying in part because he’s using a government website to encourage New Yorkers to join his side of the fight.
“Join the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice to give every New Yorker a chance,” reads the pitch on the governor’s website. The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice is a coalition backed primarily by SEIU/1199, the influential and well-funded health care workers union. George Gresham, union president, is chairman of the coalition. One of the vice chairmen comes from another entity with business before the state — the Retail Council.
The coalition also sponsors a 30-second ad that looks remarkably like an ad for Cuomo — it features only his voice, not minimum-wage employees, and shows union members holding signs saying, “Thank You, Governor Cuomo.”
“Is this a government exercise or a nongovernment exercise? The line is quite blurry,” Horner said.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi has said the campaign is in “full compliance with existing guidelines.”
Like with Cuomo’s previous issues, polls show New Yorkers support a minimum-wage hike and paid family leave.
“He’s never picked an issue that didn’t have a probability of success,” Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who worked on Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign, said of the governor’s tactics. He said the approach doesn’t often result in “blowback” because of “the use of polling” and because Cuomo has been “very smart” about timing when to advance an issue.
New campaign-finance rules have aided too, making it easier to use money for “noncampaign campaigns,” Sheinkopf noted.
“He tends to campaign for a signature issue every year,” said Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant who works primarily with Republicans. On minimum wage and paid leave, he said: “These are really smart issues for him to pursue because he’s still got fence-mending to do on the left. They weren’t so happy with him two years ago, let’s face it.”
In 2014, many liberals in the party backed insurgent Zephyr Teachout in a Democratic primary. Though she lost, she had a much stronger showing than Cuomo backers had expected.
Using campaign-style techniques helps get the public on your side and “makes it harder for the legislature to oppose” you, Dawidziak added.
The Republican-led State Senate has voiced concerns about paid family leave and a $15-per-hour minimum wage. But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) hasn’t ruled out anything. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has backed both proposals for a long time.
Opponents of the wage hike and family leave — small-business groups and business lobbies — say they don’t have the same kind of money to fight back. They also say Cuomo’s rhetoric ignores the problems his proposals will have on companies that employ 10 or fewer people. In contrast to the governor’s high-profile pitch, they’ve brought individual small-business owners to the state Capitol to talk about the potential layoffs they say Cuomo’s agenda could spark.
“Compared to SEIU, we wouldn’t have gas to put in the RV,” said Mike Durant, head of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.