New York City’s corporate-friendly mayor, Eric Adams, is plummeting in the polls amid unpopular budget cuts and a constant stream of scandals. But the Left will have to unite behind a candidate — because neoliberal Andrew Cuomo is waiting in the wings.

Mayor Eric Adams speaks during at Flushing Meadows Park on August 12, 2023 in New York. (Lev Radin / VIEWpress via Getty Images)

Mayor Eric Adams’s mishandling of the New York City budget and the avalanche of scandal and impropriety has torpedoed his polling numbers. Quinnipiac’s December 5 poll showed Adams enjoying a mere 28 percent approval rating, the lowest for any New York City mayor since the agency began asking the question in 1996. Fifty-eight percent of New Yorkers surveyed disapproved of Adams’s performance, with only 22 percent surveyed expressing support for his handling of homelessness and the budget.

Despite all his swagger and claims to a divine appointment to mayorship, Adams is a historically weak mayor and on track to serve only one term. Other Democratic politicians are already circling above. The potential list of primary challengers includes progressive younger state senators (who challenged the Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference senators in 2018), city councilmembers and borough presidents, and, most notoriously, New York’s former disgraced governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo’s Rise and Fall (and Rise)

Like Adams, Cuomo was once the rising star of the Democratic Party, even a potential presidential candidate in 2020. He enjoyed a meteoric rise to national sensation in liberal circles during the earliest stages of the COVID pandemic. But he remained a fairly divisive politician in New York state, infamous for his strong-arm tactics with political rivals and even allies.

Almost as soon as his star rose, Cuomo fell from public grace as accusations of sexual harassment accumulated and calls for his resignation by powerful former allies mounted. While he swore that he would not yield to calls to step down, the governor finally announced his resignation in August 2021, after a damning report from New York state attorney general, Letitia James, concluding that Cuomo had harassed eleven women working under him and used his staff to illegally retaliate against one of the women.

But Cuomo, the son of a popular former governor, former Clinton administration cabinet secretary, and ex-husband of a Kennedy, was not going to disappear from public life without a fight. At the time of his resignation, Cuomo boasted a $16 million campaign war chest (that number is supposedly now $7 million), and he has not stopped searching for his next move, continuing to stay in the public eye.

He started a podcast in late 2022, maintained his strong social media presence, and delivers regular speeches at black churches, where he remains popular. In March 2023, he created a “Progressives for Israel” group and has recently opined publicly about the rise of antisemitism since the October 7 Hamas attacks and Israel’s subsequent war on Gaza. There have even been whispers about a 2024 presidential campaign, as Cuomo maintains a loyal base of support, particularly among baby boomer women and those who dislike “cancel culture.”

Following public talk about a possible Cuomo mayoral comeback, recent polling has found credence for the idea. One survey shows Cuomo with a higher favorability rating than the mayor (46 percent to 36 percent approval rate). That same poll also asked who voters would support if Adams was removed and a new general election was held, and Cuomo got the plurality of support, with 22 percent. Another poll, commissioned by Save the Senate, a Republican organization funded by Curtis Sliwa, Eric Adams’s Republican opponent in 2021, found that 44 percent of Democratic voters surveyed would support Cuomo over Adams at 24 percent.

Commentators point to Cuomo’s difficult path of victory, noting obvious concerns like his lack of residency (Cuomo has lived in suburban New York City for many years) and that his natural allies, conservative unions, and black churches are already closely tied to Mayor Adams. However, there is less talk about Cuomo’s treatment of New York City during his three years as governor. He presided over a state in which the majority of the state’s revenue (about 60 percent) comes from New York City, where almost half the state’s population resides, but slightly less than 20 percent of the city’s adults and children live in poverty.

New York state gives enormous budgetary power to the governor. And Cuomo wielded it to attack funding and essential services to the city while resisting revenue increases that would help poor and working-class New Yorkers.

Cuomo’s Record

Cuomo, an exemplar of Bill Clinton–style “Third Way” politics, made consistently clear in his three terms in office that corporate interests, tax cuts, and his wealthy suburban base were his key political priorities. From his first days in office in 2011, Cuomo began slashing New York City’s subway budgets (the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, is a state-level authority that governs and funds the subway), blaming the weak economy but never restoring funding when things rebounded. After delivering an opening salvo of $450 million in cuts in 2011, he consistently raided the MTA budget by around $20 to 30 million a year. In 2014, Cuomo pushed billions in tax cuts and further austerity in the subway system, despite its systemic underfunding.

Cuomo’s attempt to undercut public services was especially evident in his contentious relationship with the City University of New York (CUNY), an essential public institution for working-class New York. In 2016, Cuomo tried to pull a staggering $500 million in state funding from the CUNY system, claiming that New York City should fund the system since it served the city (CUNY is a state-run authority, and the school cannot raise its own revenues without state authorization). CUNY faculty and professional staff were without a contract for six years, despite the record levels of student enrollment, as Cuomo’s CUNY trustees played hardball with the union. Throughout his years as governor, Cuomo insisted on tuition increases and continued budget cuts.

In K-12 public schools, too, Cuomo made clear that privatization, maintaining inequality between rich and poor districts, promoting charter schools, and fighting teachers’ unions were his goals. New York state school funding has long been among the most unequal in the country, yet Cuomo refused to fulfill the state’s obligation in a landmark court ruling called “foundation aid,”  further intensifying underfunding in New York City. Funding improved over his tenure, but only because of the cumulative efforts of unions, activists, and the election of progressive state senate candidates in 2018. Meanwhile, Cuomo fought then mayor Bill de Blasio on lifting the charter cap in New York City and overhauling the teacher evaluation system.

During the pandemic, Cuomo slashed and burned essential services even as his national reputation rose. Despite the influx of federal aid, Cuomo cut over $700 million in New York City school funding in April 2020 and further pared down foundation aid. Cuomo again cut 20 percent of state funding for New York local schools in August 2020, which hammered New York City public schools with a $5 billion loss in state aid. Perhaps most damning were his pandemic-era cuts to hospitals and Medicaid, the result of years of multiple Medicaid reductions during his tenure.

A Pro-Worker Alternative

Cuomo is no friend to working-class New Yorkers. As the state’s top elected official, he used the complicated, overlapping governance structures of state and city authority to mask his abdication of responsibility for city services.

But media cycles and public memories can be short, and given Adams’s weaknesses, Cuomo’s ability to “lead during crisis” could become a major talking point in the next eighteen months. At the same time, New Yorkers are facing a pressing cost-of-living crisis, asylum seekers continue to need basic services, and a recent study from the Fiscal Policy Institute found that lower- and middle-income New Yorkers, not the wealthy, are leaving New York City.

The Left in New York City needs to coalesce behind a viable alternative to the same tired Democratic machine politics that favors corporate interests, tax cuts, and austerity and makes life a financial struggle for the nonrich. Both Cuomo’s and Adams’s scandal-ridden tenures shows the necessity of a pro-worker campaign in America’s largest city.

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