By Samar Khurshid (Gotham Gazette)
Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has in recent weeks repeatedly lashed out at state legislators from his own party and a long-time labor ally, 32BJ SEIU, as he points to the role of independent expenditures in state politics amid questions about his own fundraising habits and commitment to campaign finance reform.
The prominent building services workers union was in Cuomo’s corner when he was running for reelection in 2018 and also supported his attempt to push through the deal that would have brought a new Amazon campus to Queens, among other initiatives. But Cuomo seems to have soured on that relationship because of the union’s push for public financing of state elections and its ties with State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a young progressive who has been a vocal critic of the governor’s fundraising tactics after unseating a long-time ally of the governor, Jeff Klein, the former senator and leader of the Independent Democratic Conference.
Last month, Biaggi was among three state legislators who criticized Cuomo for holding a big-dollar fundraiser as the state budget for the new fiscal year was being negotiated. As reported by the New York Times, several attendees of the fundraiser were seeking favorable state action in the budget and Cuomo even invited his budget director, Robert Mujica, to the Manhattan event. To Biaggi and others, it reeked of impropriety or at least the appearance of it.
Cuomo, in turn, lambasted Biaggi and the others, as well as the Senate Democratic conference at large, for holding its own fundraisers during budget season. In the backdrop were negotiations around campaign finance reform, including creating a new system of public financing, which eventually was not included in the adopted budget though the Legislature and governor created a commission that would issue recommendations to create such a system. 32BJ was one of the leading voices in a large statewide coalition called Fair Elections for New York, which made a major push for public financing, including protests outside the governor’s office.
On April 9, appearing on WAMC’s Roundtable with Alan Chartock, Cuomo made his displeasure clear. “The hypocrisy is, the members who have stood up and criticized the fundraising, they themselves are doing fundraising,” he said, pointedly calling out the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. And taking a veiled shot at Biaggi, he continued, “Many of those members were funded with millions of dollars of dark money, from unions like 32BJ. Where is the public financing spirit, you know?”
He went on to repeatedly name 32BJ, and only 32BJ, as he talked of the corrosive effect of outside spending in elections.
There’s much more context behind Biaggi’s election, a former lawyer in the Cuomo administration who ascended by emerging victorious in a September 2018 primary election against then-Senator Klein, the powerful former leader of the breakaway Democrats who helped keep the Senate under Republican control for years. Klein’s conference reunited with the mainline Democrats in April last year, in a deal brokered by Cuomo, only for six of its eight members to be defeated in the primaries by challengers like Biaggi.
As part of the reunification deal, Cuomo and sitting Democratic senators agreed not to support primaries against fellow Democrats, meaning Cuomo and Klein supported each other’s reelection. Klein, running while under investigation for allegedly having forcibly kissed a former aide (he denies the accusation), used an image of himself and Cuomo on campaign literature, though the governor never offered a formal endorsement.
The IDC under Klein’s leadership played a moderating effect on legislation, which allowed Cuomo to pursue an agenda of compromise between Democrats and Republicans and push through many of his own priorities. Biaggi’s victory over Klein — in which he spent nearly ten times the money her campaign did — was boosted massively by 32BJ, whose endorsement was seen as a crack in the unity facade.
The union donated thousands of dollars to her campaign, sent volunteers to her district, and also supported her with a nearly $80,000 independent expenditure campaign through its Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC. That political action committee, and its spending to help elect Biaggi, appears to have Cuomo perpetually bristling, especially given the union’s role in the Fair Elections campaign.