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Why Cuomo's More Jersey Than Connecticut

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Governor Cuomo has a decision to make: does he want to be more like a guy from Connecticut or a guy from New Jersey?

The governor, a native New Yorker, might shudder at that choice. But as he, like so many other governors, faces this year’s budget battle, he has two colleagues to compare to: the Nutmeg State’s newly elected Democrat Dan Malloy and the Garden State’s slightly more seasoned Republican Chris Christie. As Cuomo’s campaign against public sector employees and his defense of the state’s wealthiest residents demonstrate, he has much more in common with his Republican neighbor across the Hudson.

Christie and Cuomo aren’t the best of friends. While New York and New Jersey often collaborate, political observers have been predicting conflict between the two outspoken governors. From real fights over the future of Hudson crossings to more playful punches over New York’s contribution to the cast of “Jersey Shore,” Christie has made clear he’s not going to be bullied by the Empire State. 

However, as this rising Republican star rolled down the turnpike for a trip to Washington, he shared kind words for his counterpart in Albany. Highlighting four governors who he considered kindred spirits, Christie included only one Democrat: Andrew Cuomo.

If Cuomo were worried about his Democratic base, he may not want to receive such praise. After all, Christie’s compliments relate to Cuomo’s tough talk against organized labor. As Cuomo calls for workers to sacrifice, in line with the agenda of " The Committee to Save New York,” he doesn’t ask for that same spirit of compromise from the state’s wealthiest taxpayers. It seems “shared sacrifice” should be shared by working families and underemployed families…and that’s where the sharing ends.

The fact that Cuomo is grouped in with Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a governor threatening to call out the National Guard against workers, should be a warning to progressive New Yorkers that our governor is in poor company.

However, the organizations that would be battling such Christie-ish tactics are hamstrung. Wanting to avoid an all-out war of the airwaves with the governor they helped elect — and not interested in going toe-to-toe and dollar-for-dollar against the business community — state labor unions are avoiding an advertising campaign to hold the line.  Instead, a new strategy pursued by the Strong Economy For All Coalition will involve less confrontational tactics, a public awareness canvas and an emphasis on increasing revenue rather than simply fighting cuts.

The main revenue generator, of course, would be the extension of the personal income tax that was first passed in 2009 and applies only to New York’s wealthiest families. Estimates say that this marginal increase on those who could most afford to pay would close half the deficit in the next year. 

The more ambitious version put forward by the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus would do even better. Their proposal is for a tax surcharge equal to the amount that the wealthiest New Yorkers save with the extension of the Bush Tax Cuts. Instead of devastating and unfair cuts to the rich, we could afford to pay for teachers and nurses, stop layoffs of police and keep firehouses open.

People are scared of deficits. But they are more afraid of losing essential services. For those reasons, Connecticut’s governor is going a different route, discussing revenue as well as cuts, and pledging not to “shred” social services. As he explained in the Hartford Courant: "Nobody wants more taxes. I don't want more taxes. There's no easy decision....That's why I've been very clear for a long time that this was about shared sacrifice.'' Unlike the Christie-Cuomo crusade, it’s refreshing to hear a governor say there are some places we just can’t cut.

This fight isn’t over in New York. The Bush Tax Cuts were unpopular, and still are. When the public is asked about cuts conceptually, they approve; but the polling is poor for particular cuts to critical services. The extension of an existing tax on the wealthiest in New York State is a fight progressives in Albany should embrace, and progressives around the state should join. It’s going to take a lot of work to save New York from “The Committee to Save New York.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t just about issues — it’s also about optics. Conservatives across the country are recruiting Christie to run for president. Malloy, on the other hand, is making very few friends. If Cuomo eyes an eventual move to DC, he might see the route through New Jersey.

 Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."