Analysis: New York Power Debates Likely To Continue

By John Celock

Being mayor of New York City is a an office with a bizarre double life. On one hand you are the chief executive of one of the world’s largest cities and can easily command attention on a national and international stage. On the other hand, you are also subject to the whims of state legislators from far flung parts of the state.

New York Mayor Bill deBlasio was reminded of this last week as the state Legislature granted him only a one year extension of mayoral control of the city’s pubic schools, with increased transparency of spending in individual schools. The move comes a year after lawmakers – primarily in the GOP-controlled Senate – only agreed to a one-year extension of mayoral control. The move also comes after deBlasio had led a statewide campaign to flip the Senate from Republican to Democratic-control and his ongoing feud with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

New York City has long been under the control of Albany, like every other local government in the state, needing to gain Albany’s permission on a wide array of tax issues, along with issues relating to development, budgets, the environment, etc. New York City has also been a special case since the city’s near bankruptcy in the 1970s, when Albany began to exercise more oversight and control over the city.

The mayoral control issue continues to highlight the divide between the city and state over control. Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools in 2002 from the old Board of Education, but only for several years. When it came up for renewal, the Legislature waited past the deadline, temporarily installing a new Board of Education structure for several weeks. That renewal expired last year starting deBlasio’s annual odyssey with state lawmakers. This year’s debate focused on a series of education issues, including charter schools and debates over the length of an extension. The one year extension forces deBlasio to return to Albany next year during his reelection campaign to ask for another extension.

The bad blood between deBlasio and Republicans and Cuomo has been going on for years and is just another chapter in a long running feud between New York mayor and governors and lawmakers. The debate over city schools’ control is almost an afterthought to the whole debate and the big picture.

New York City’s size and overall impact on New York State and the world leads to a situation that put it in a unique situation among cities in this country. The system sets up a feud between the mayor and the governor and the governor trying to show that he has the upper hand in the end. Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay had legendary feuds in the 60s and 70s, a relationship complicated even more by the White House dreams of both. In the 80s, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch had an uneasy relationship, dating to a series of competitive races the two had for mayor in 1977 and governor in 1982. In the 90s, George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani barely got along following Giuliani’s 1994 endorsement of Cuomo over Pataki.

Bloomberg and Pataki seemingly brought some peace to the relationship for their five years of shared power, but that does not mean the state let Bloomberg do what he wanted. While Bloomberg got control of the schools, lawmakers killed his hopes of a West Side stadium and thus, the Olympics. Bloomberg did have a peaceful relationship with Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, but Spitzer was in office 14 months largely spent feuding with state lawmakers and Paterson’s nearly three years were dominated by a budget crisis and a state Senate coup.

Bloomberg and Cuomo had a fairly peaceful relationship for three years, but Cuomo had a larger upper hand knowing that Bloomberg was term limited after three years and Bloomberg was more preoccupied with a national gun control campaign than debates with Albany. Bloomberg also had no worries over mayor control during that manner, with the largest education debate centering on publishing executive Cathie Black’s 95-day tenure as schools chancellor. Black, who was seemingly appointed based on having attended dinner parties with Bloomberg, was criticized for her lack of education policy background and public comments she made while in office. At the same time, Bloomberg was able to obtain a waiver from state education officials to allow Black to head the schools during that time.

DeBlasio’s long running feud with lawmakers and Cuomo is likely not to end anytime soon and will continue the never ending debate between City Hall and Albany. Part of it is the players, but rest assured. In 10 years, when others are likely in the governorship and mayor’s office (state legislative leaders tend to last longer), the tension between the two will continue. It is the way the system works in New York and barring any kind of change of state law, it will always continue.