Opinion: A Progressive's Report Card on Governor Cuomo

Say you're a teacher. In your class is a student with great talent, but he doesn't seem to live up to his potential. He does decent work all semester, then when final papers are due, he turns in a beautiful piece of A+ work.

Do you grade him high to acknowledge his final effort? Or do you give him lower marks for the semester?

That's the scenario New York progressives face with our Governor Andrew Cuomo. He closed out this session with a gem: the passage of marriage equality, a feat that will resonate across the country and through history. Yet, while he deserves every bit of praise showered upon him at New York's Pride Parade on Sunday, this closing act on the legislative session only raises his grade to a solid B.

To become valedictorian, he's going to need to work to live up to his potential — and all of us, New York's progressives, need to step up as well.

For much of his first six months, Cuomo's statewide popularity has not been reflected among liberal New Yorkers. He was, at one point, more popular with the state's Tea Party voters than with the state as a whole, and he received praise from New Jersey's Chris Christie as a kindred spirit.

While Cuomo's team reveled in this cross-partisan respect, it made those on the left cringe. His successes were based on buying into right-wing frames: that we had a budget crisis rather than a revenue crisis; that we needed to embrace a culture of cutting; that working families, not our richest citizens, needed to carry more of the burden of "shared sacrifice."

In that spirit, the governor stood in the way of an extension of the millionaire's tax, an already-existing surcharge on the state's super-wealthy. One could say that he was simply being realistic: without Republican votes in the State Senate, the millionaire's tax was going nowhere. In reality, the governor and his allies in the Committee to Save New York just wanted to give a gift to New York's richest.

Similarly, the final deal on rent regulations didn't deliver the success that working class New Yorkers expected from their Democratic governor. Regulations were extended, as has happened under Republican administrations as well, without the expansion sought by advocates.

It seemed the governor was working harder on behalf of a tax cap for upstate property owners than on behalf of city residents who needed his help.

Again, one could claim that the Senate Republicans tied his hands.

But in the case of marriage equality, we see that there is another way.

Marriage equality failed two years ago thanks to Senate Democrats. It would have been easy this year to assume it could not have passed, that Republicans would never vote for it. Sure, history is on this issue's side — and polling had improved significantly in the past two years. Yet, it was by no means a done deal.

So what happened: Cuomo and advocates state-wide, with an eclectic and effective coalition, went to work. With the help of non-Democrats such as Ken Mehlman and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the lobbying effort took on extra weight. With smart collaboration among advocacy groups, the public was engaged and directed. And without the governor's help, Republicans were convinced to be on the right side of history on this issue for the first time.

You could argue that it is easier to peel off a few Republicans on an increasingly popular social issue than it would be on an economic one. And Cuomo's team does seem to have that as their strategy: buck the left on economic matters, but win them back with a red-meat social achievement.

But what the success of marriage equality really proves is that the state Senate isn't an insurmountable obstacle. If the governor wants it enough, he can apply his incredible talents, savvy and tenacity to finding the votes to get his way.

So on these economic challenges — like the millionaire's tax, which will return for consideration in the fall — the question is how to make him want it enough. That's where the activists come in.

While I received countless calls to action from a dozen organizations on equality, I received only periodic updates from one or two groups about the millionaire's tax.

While a series of high-profile endorsers kept earning media for marriage, only a handful of celebrities — including Mark Ruffalo who appeared in videos on both issues — tackled the tax code.

And while Republican state Senators should be sympathetic to cuts to their local schools, parks, health services and libraries, there weren't prominent non-Democratic allies in the fight.

All of that is the work the advocates must do — hopefully alongside the efforts of a willing partner in the governor's mansion.
Otherwise, these efforts become the means to pressure our Democratic Governor to act like a progressive.

Cuomo has a good sense of the dramatics: he closed out session with a historic move, and was in the spotlight to celebrate immediately after. Unfortunately, not every achievement will end in a parade. However, if we deliver to him the economic narrative that will compel him to act, push him to perform the type of cross-party success we saw this week, and sustains state-wide energy, the Governor will see a surging movement, and find his perch atop the wave.

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."