Universal pre-K: What Cuomo-de Blasio tussle means for Democrats' identity

New York's two alpha dog Democrats both want universal pre-K. But the different paths Cuomo and de Blasio would take highlight a divide among Democrats with implications for 2016.

Adrees Latif/Reuters/File
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (r.) greets New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after Mr. de Blasio's inauguration ceremony in New York on January 1, 2014.

New York’s alpha Democrats, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, both want universal pre-Kindergarten for their constituents’ children.

Mayor de Blasio, the new dog on the political block, made the issue a centerpiece of his meteoric rise to lead the nation’s largest city, promising to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for his plan to provide pre-Kindergarten for every New York City child. And, after his landslide win last fall, many began to proclaim de Blasio a national voice for his party’s resurgent liberal wing.

Governor Cuomo, by contrast, a moderate Democrat embarking on his own reelection campaign this year, said Tuesday he would provide universal pre-K throughout the state – and without raising taxes one cent. Making the contrast with de Blasio even starker, Cuomo promised to slash state taxes by $2 billion over the next 3 years – his own centerpiece election-year proposal, offered in his annual budget address in Albany.

On the one hand, such policy differences between a big city mayor and the governor of an entire state, each with differing constituencies and fiscal pressures, are hardly anything new.

But New York’s current in-state squabble and nascent interparty rivalry could impact the national scene as well – setting the stage for a wider debate among Democrats as they head into this year’s midterms and maneuver for 2016.

“A lot of Democrats – in New York and nationally – are looking to see how aggressively de Blasio attempts to implement his campaign promises,” says Prof. Mathew Kerbel, chair of the Political Science Department at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “Raising taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers in order to provide universal pre-K reflects de Blasio's concern with income inequality and would therefore be regarded as an integral feature of his approach to governing – rather than a liability, the way more traditional Democrats like Cuomo might view it.”

“These rival philosophies are at the heart of an emerging debate in the Democratic Party about how directly to address income inequality,” continues Professor Kerbel, “which may play out in the next presidential primary cycle should de Blasio's efforts prove politically effective.”

Indeed, many Democrats have already complained that Cuomo has governed more like a Republican when it comes to fiscal matters. The governor highlighted his budgetary successes Tuesday, showing how his administration helped turn a $10 billion deficit in 2011 to a projected $2 billion surplus in 2016, holding the line on spending in an unprecedented way for the state. This surplus, he is insisting, should be used to cut state and local taxes.

"This budget recognizes and believes that tax relief is an economic growth strategy that is working for our state," Cuomo said. His proposed cuts include corporate income tax reductions and a freeze on property tax increases for municipalities that hold the line on spending.

The governor’s proposed budget also included a fully-funded $1.5 billion plan for universal pre-Kindergarten education, phased in over five years.

“It’s a priority,” Cuomo proclaimed. “We believe in children, we believe in pre-K, we believe in education. Let’s put our money where our mouth is and make it a reality.”

So far, de Blasio has continued to insist that raising taxes is crucial for the long-term prospects of universal pre-K. The first programs to be cut in a state budget, he contends, are often those for children and the poor. A new tax – less than 1 percent on city residents making more than $500,000 a year – would ensure pre-K stayed universal in the city, even when times were lean and the budget wasn’t as flush.

“I have a mandate from the people to pursue this plan,” de Blasio said Tuesday, responding to questions about Cuomo’s plan at a press conference earlier in the day. “What we need is a plan that locks in the resources for five years and is not dependent upon the vagaries of each year’s budget process.”

The new mayor, who campaigned with a populist message illustrated by the slogan “a tale of two cities,” won a historic 73 percent of the vote last November – a record for a non-incumbent mayor.

But the New York governor, in many ways overshadowed by the newly-elected New York City mayor and the brash and tough-talking (and now embattled) New Jersey governor to the south, seems to be angling for his own headlines.

He took on de Blasio’s signature issue, after all, and is now putting the mayor in a tough spot – calling for higher taxes while the state may have a surplus.

“Does de Blasio accept it or does he keep pushing?” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “It’s going to be very hard for him to accept it, because he ran so hard on this issue.”

At the same time, Cuomo has been going out of his way to bolster his own progressive bona fides. He embarked on an unexpected foray into medical marijuana earlier this year, dusting off a forgotten state health law to issue an executive decision to allow the treatment. And last year, his deft behind-the-scenes maneuvers brought same-sex marriage to the state at a time when few thought it was politically feasible.

“Cuomo has made his case by going as far left as he possibly can on many social issues,” says Ms. Zaino, “and almost as far right as he can on many fiscal issues, as if to say, this is where I’m going to stake out my claim with the Democratic Party.”

And last week, in a radio interview, the governor said “extreme conservatives” who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapons, and anti-gay “have no place in the state of New York,” sparking outrage from many Republicans.

Yet Cuomo’s very loud effort to trumpet his social liberalism (and anger conservatives) while at the same time holding up his economic conservatism (and upstaging de Blasio) leads some observers to believe he’s thinking about his own 2016 campaign, should New York’s erstwhile junior senator, Hillary Clinton, decide not to run.

And if Gov. Chris Christie’s troubles continue, Cuomo could end up carrying the moderate torch from the left – even beyond 2016, since he is relatively young.

 “He seems to be tying those two ideological threads together,” Zaino says. “Which is smart, I think. I think he’s recognizing that the Democratic Party, with its progressive wing swinging maybe too far to the left for people in middle America – he can stitch together a coalition that potentially plays to this middle – and can win a general election.”

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