A primary challenge seems inevitable. | Jimmy Vielkind/POLITICO
By Jimmy Vielkind,
September 6, 2017
SYRACUSE — It was a delicious August Wednesday, sunny but not too hot, and most officials in the city and its surroundings enjoyed it romping around the grounds of the State Fair with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Not Mayor Stephanie Miner.
She spent the morning in her office in City Hall, looking over papers for a school reconstruction initiative after a meeting about how to handle a mass blackout. The Democratic leader of the state’s fifth largest city will be term-limited out of office by year’s end, so she is trying to wrap up as much business as she can. And she's pondering whether her next step should be taking on Cuomo rather than simply avoiding him.
“I’m talking to a lot of people and taking a lot of phone calls,” Miner, 47, said in an interview with POLITICO. “It’s rewarding in that people think enough of me and my track record that I should think about higher office.”
This weekend, she’ll leave on a week-long tour of Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. Later this month she’ll meet with the New York Progressive Action Network, a statewide organization that arose in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last year.
While Miner has also been talked about as a potential opponent for Republican Rep. John Katko and state Sen. David Valesky, her tenure in office has had a detectable statewide undercurrent for the last five years. Cuomo appointed her co-chair of the State Democratic Committee, and she was front and center in Charlotte, N.C., at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She hired Sherman Jewett, a veteran Albany-based political effort, to advise her through 2016 and increase her visibility outside of Onondaga County.
But even from her party perch, Miner called out Cuomo for his approach to fiscally stressed cities (they should seek savings and consolidation instead of handouts) and direct capital investments to large business subsidy packages as opposed to broader-based infrastructure projects. Miner resigned her party post, and began and almost-reflexive string of policy clashes with Cuomo — in which Onondaga County executive Joanie Mahoney, a Republican, often stands in on the governor's side.
Miner scuttled a planned stadium for Syracuse University backed by Mahoney and Cuomo, and separated herself from Cuomo’s investments in the area — many of which were built by a firm, COR Development, whose executives are now facing charges for bribing some of Cuomo’s closest aides. (They’ve all pleaded not guilty; trials will begin next year.)
So at this point, the Miner argument is familiar in political circles beyond the walls of her first-floor office, adorned with a Barack Obama coffee mug, pictures of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and SU football pioneer Ernie Davis. She’s made the rounds to panels in Washington and New York City on top of piping up in Albany, and had this to say while testifying at a January budget hearing.
“It is customary to use this time to plead for additional state aid,” Miner said at the time. “But there is a problem at the heart of our democracy in New York. Corruption in our state’s economic development programs is the symptom of a more systemic problem, a government that has become increasingly insulated from the will of the people. … A government that promotes ribbon cuttings while neglecting sustained investment in our shared infrastructure of opportunity: our schools, roads and water mains.”
To win statewide, she would have to form a coalition of activists, at least some labor unions and Cuomo-haters of every stripe. Calling for more school funding brings a natural base of support, and raging against the current power-sharing arrangement in the state Senate — where Cuomo has tacitly supported the Independent Democratic Conference — will help titillate party regulars.
Zephyr Teachout showed the breadth of gubernatorial discontent, carrying 23 upstate countiesin her primary challenge against Cuomo in 2014 but falling far short in the five boroughs. Bill Hyers, a political operative who’s worked for Kirsten Gillibrand and Bill de Blasio, said he sees an opening for Miner — whom he has never met.
“The way Zephyr Teachout, who spent a miniscule amount of money, ran at Cuomo was by doing very well upstate and having problems in the city itself,” Hyers told POLITICO. “Half of that was name ID — she had zero ID and nobody saw her as a credible candidate. Stephanie will automatically be a credible candidate, which will get her press attention, donor attention, and the progressive community will be very interested in what she has to say.”
But the problems of a statewide candidacy are obvious: she’s little known in New York City and its suburbs, the locus of population, money and power in the state. Her base of natural campaign donors is smaller than other candidates who might arise from the five boroughs. Major labor unions are likely to back Cuomo, whose campaign war chest already tops $25.7 million. (Miner, as of July, had a little over $200,000.)
And since Teachout bruised him in 2014, Cuomo has moved several steps left. He banned natural gas hydrofracking and pushed for a $15 minimum wage, something he had previously belittled.
As a result, Cuomo enters his re-election year with a 71 percent favorability rating among self-identified progressives, according to a Siena Poll released Tuesday, and a legitimate record to tout. People on the governor’s team also note, archly, that a Siena poll found Syracuse residents preferred Cuomo to Miner as their governor, 47-38.
“This governor doesn't talk about progressive issues, he actually gets them done,” said Bill Mulrow, chairman of the Cuomo 2018 campaign. “Governor Cuomo passed a $15 minimum wage, the strongest paid family leave program and gun control laws in the nation, banned fracking, raised the age of criminal responsibility, and enacted the first-ever free college tuition program for middle class families. Governor Cuomo has the strongest progressive record of any elected official in this country — period — and we look forward to building on that record in the third term.”
Still, a primary challenge seems inevitable. Former State Sen. Terry Gipson announced in July that he was exploring a run, and in August candidates from actress Cynthia Nixon to City Councilman Jumaane Williams were floated as potential Cuomo foes.
Miner is hardly guarded as she talks about how to attack his record.
“We can’t look to gimmicks or short-sighted solutions to our chronic problems,” she said. “Now what you’re hearing across the state is a variation of what I said: you should never hear from your governor, 'pay for your own pipes or pay for your own subways.' That’s not sound public policy, and we’re seeing first-hand what is happening across the state in light of that. In Albany you have major sewage issues. In Niagara Falls you have a major sewage issue. In Hoosick Falls you have ... PFOA. Water main breaks all across the state.”
“I would have to be able to say to primary, Democratic voters: I’m different enough from candidate X,” Miner continued, sketching out the next steps of a run. “The next thing I would have to do is see if there’s a coalition big enough where it would be worthy of me to ask people to give money and donate time and give me their ideas. Clearly there are people who are unhappy with the governor’s leadership style, but I don’t think that, in and of itself, is a reason for me to run for governor.”
So is she different enough? And is the coalition out there? Arthur Schwartz, a leader of the New York Progressive Action Network, said he has been actively looking for a horse in 2018.
“I think she would be a formidable candidate. She has a record as an executive. She has a good reputation upstate, which is an important part of what a candidate against Cuomo needs,” said Schwartz, who was the treasurer on Teachout’s run. “The key to her candidacy would be to develop and attract [a lieutenant governor] candidate from the city who was either black or Hispanic.”
Allen Roskoff, the longtime president of the liberal Jim Owles Democratic Club, said he has yet to meet Miner but, “Nothing negative … I only know good things, but not much at this point.”
And a union leader, who asked not to be named, said there was an opening for Miner in the world of organized labor even though Cuomo would likely win all the endorsements. (Teachout was formally backed by the Public Employees Federation, but new leadership there makes that unlikely; many teachers backed her, but NYSUT stayed officially neutral.)
“We’ll be with Andrew. We’d be afraid not to be, and he is producing for us,” the labor leader said. “I don’t think unions see Andrew Cuomo as a true progressive hero, but rather as someone who is willing to do some progressive things — for whatever reason. So among the membership, there will be an opportunity for a progressive alternative to make a populist case.”
Miner says she is weighing all of this, as well as the impact on her family: She is married to Jack Mannion, a retired insurance executive. They have no children, but Miner recounted the sting of missing birthdays for her nieces and nephews. The congressional seat might be a more manageable target — it would come with help from Cuomo and party leaders in Washington, who see Katko as a ripe target if President Donald Trump’s low ratings trickle down.
“I don’t feel like I have any kind of time pressure,” Miner said. “This is more about the power of ideas and, is there a coalition that’s out there and do I feel like I would have the ability to make an argument that would be part of a discussion that could be constructive for the entire state.”