Why Mayors and Governors in New York Rarely Get Along and Why it's a Problem

 Leave the bonds. Take the Cannoli. (north country public radio)

Leave the bonds. Take the Cannoli. (north country public radio)

Several news outlets in the city are reporting on the latest beef between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo and how it could harm upcoming housing projects in the city.  This particular beef is over federal tax-free bonds made available to states to encourage construction of affordable housing, but it represents just one rift of many between the two Democrats.  Troubling as this feud is for residents of NYC, it is part of an old, long-standing Great Game between the two most visible elected offices in the state and represents a much bigger problem with politics in New York.

First, the details of the bond feud matter a great deal in the ongoing affordability crisis in NYC. For decades, federal bonds (worth about $900m in 2014 and $700m in 2015) have been dolled out from New York State to New York City with little state interjection. These funds are tax-exempt on the federal, state, and city level which makes them attractive to developers and generally follows certain guidelines ensuring the creation of affordable housing units. The city has used these bonds in about 40% of recent affordable housing projects according to the NY Times article.

However, starting last year the state has begun to withhold money, which already delayed a city plan to develop 1,200 units. This trend has continued as state officials have been quietly informing city officials and developers over the last month that the city will no longer receive the same levels of money.  The funds that the city will get will now be micro-managed by the state through the Empire State Development Corporation and Public Authorities Control Board.  City officials and developers appear to be confused about why this change has occurred and are uncertain about how it will affect developments that have been approved or are close to construction. 

The Governor has downplayed the changes stating that they are intended to "supplement" rather than "supplant" the city's plan but so far has not made any of his own $20b housing plan's details public (he is expected to do so in April.) Given that Mayor de Blasio has made affordable housing a signature policy focus, these changes in funding options clearly put his housing plan at risk and the timing of the announcement has certainly raised eye-brows across the city and state.

The big question is if the money will still eventually be allotted to the same projects with the same goals that the Mayor has laid out.  If that is the end result, it will be hard not to view the move as a petty power grab by the Governor.  If, on the other hand, the Governor's housing plan is radically different than the Mayor's then it would be easier to claim that it represents a new policy focus, but could still have severe consequences for current projects. Either way, it is very public rebuff of the Mayor's agenda and throws many affordable housing projects up in the air.

Though some of the feud between the Mayor and the Governor might be chalked up to personality clashes or political differences, the reality is that this dynamic has been common in New York state politics for decades and speaks to a larger issue of political disfunction. The main culprits for this dynamic are New York State's unique history and geography.

 New York State counties by geography and relative population size (maps4office)

New York State counties by geography and relative population size (maps4office)

The modern state border of New York evolved through a series of (still contested) treaties with the Iroquois Confederacy before and after The French and Indian War and the British after the Revolutionary War but also through equally contested agreements with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This has created a widely varied geographical entity with little practical cohesion.  In 1797, Albany was chosen as the permanent capital city because it was central enough for state legislators to travel to and it didn't overly bias the state's business towards the dominance of New York, which by 1835 became the largest city in the country. This tension defines the state to this day.

As a result of its geography, New York State is better viewed as two distinct sub-states which are referred to as "upstate" and "downstate".  The definitions are debated, but generally Upstate New York is considered everything north and east of Westchester County and made up of smaller cities and rural communities while downstate consists of the metropolitan region of New York including Westchester and Long Island.  Out of 19.7 million state residents, 63% live downstate with 40% living in NYC. 

Politically, upstate has generally been more conservative than the downstate metropolitan region but the population difference has made New York an uncontested blue state, voting Democratic in every presidential election since 1988.  However, at the state level, given the structure of the State Senate, Republicans have held power almost exclusively since WWII, balancing out the large population difference between upstate and downstate.

This creates a unique political dynamic that some have even argued should be formally separated. That's not going to happen, but it shows just how different the two sub-states are in reality.  It also explains the different constituencies that a mayor and governor have to play to.  Even though Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are both Democrats, and both broadly agree on many issues, they have to navigate vastly different political territory and interests. 

This is absolutely true of any governor/mayor relationship, but the size of New York City and its importance both nationally and internationally create different perceptions of the two offices. With the potential exception of Illinois/Chicago, no other state has a situation where the mayor of its major city is better known than its governor. That can create some bruised egos.

Further complicating the relationship is the fact that, though the mayor of New York City is generally higher profile, in reality the governor has significantly more power over the city.  Whether its tax policy, economic development funds, the MTA, the Port Authority, or housing laws the Governor controls much of New York City from Albany.  This creates a lot of tension between the offices, especially when they are held by the same party - whether it was Mayor Lindsay-Governor Rockefeller in the early 1970s, Mayor Koch-Governor (Mario) Cuomo in the 1980s, or Mayor Bloomberg-Governor Pataki in the 2000s.  If you're the mayor and the governor is the same party, you almost have to expect more opposition given the structure of power in Albany.

The upstate/downstate divide isn't just about political personalities clashing for headlines.  It has a major impact on policy decisions because it warps voter representation and turnout.

I've already mentioned how the population tilt makes it a safe blue state nationally for Democrats while the balance of power in the State Senate has been dominated by Republicans since WWII because of redistricting.  This balance is a false and dangerous one perpetuated by both parties.  Senate districts have overrepresented upstate while Assembly districts have overrepresented downstate making sure the status quo remains intact. This has resulted in stunning corruption across the state and has frozen the political discourse.

 Senate Districts (latfor)

Senate Districts (latfor)

It has also caused historically low turnout.  In Governor Cuomo's re-election in 2014 (33%) and Mayor de Blasio's election in 2013 (28%) the state and city experienced their lowest turnout on record. Some of the low turnout in those elections can be explained by the lack of a real contest.  For Mayor de Blasio, winning the primary assured a sweeping victory in the general election. Governor Cuomo had a closer race, but was excepted to sail to victory and did.  

A more troubling explanation could be voter disillusionment.  It's not hard to become cynical when Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (two of the "Big 3" in state politics for a long time) were both found guilty of corruption while scores of other state officials have also been charged and convicted.  Voters don't have much faith in state politics and have turned away in New York State and beyond, which is surely fine with varied interests that benefit from the status quo. When voters aren't paying attention, a lot of deals can be made that they wouldn't like regardless of their political persuasion. 

It is natural and even healthy for tension to exist among elected officials.  Though much of the mayor-governor clashes in New York have been ego driven, some are based on policy and vision, which is how any healthy democracy should operate. The fact that the current dynamic between the Mayor and the Governor potentially distracts the media and voters from the larger issues of fair representation, transparency, and accountability at the state level is dangerous, however.  We can already see how the feud impacts affordable housing policy.  

 The ongoing calls to reform Albany must be repeated by the media to reach voters currently sitting out the process.  Only when more voters reenter the political discussion will we see the types of ethics reforms and policy changes that the state, whether up or down, needs.