In the heat of the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn on Monday, Columbia law professor Tim Wu stumbled into New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). It was awkward.
“He gave me this funny look and he kind of looked into the distance. It was a strange moment,” Wu recalled in an interview with Business Insider the next day. “I felt as if I was an illegitimate child or something who had suddenly shown up out of nowhere.”
However, this uncomfortable pair might just find themselves sharing a ticket when Cuomo is up for re-election in November.
An eccentric technology activist best known for coining the phrase “net neutrality,” Wu has parachuted into New York politics this year and is currently threatening Cuomo with embarrassment. Wu is running for lieutenant governor in New York’s Democratic primary alongside gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout and their campaign has focused on criticising Cuomo and other state politicians for corruption in Albany.
Thanks to quirks in New York’s election law, in spite of his status as a high-profile Cuomo critic, Wu could end up as the governor’s number two.
In New York, the governor and their running mate, the lieutenant governor, are elected independently in the primary. However, they run on the same ticket in the general election.
Polls show Cuomo, who was first elected in 2010, is likely well on his way to a second term with strong approval ratings and a large lead over his GOP opponent. Although Cuomo has high name recognition, on a primary ballot with two candidates for lieutenant governor, huge swaths of the governor’s supporters might not have any idea which one is Cuomo’s choice — Wu or the Cuomo-backed Kathy Hochul, a former congresswoman. This creates an opening for a Cuomo rival to become a Cuomo deputy, though Wu predicts Teachout will win.
Along with the split ballot, Wu’s chances could be bolstered by liberal discontent with Cuomo. Despite the governor’s apparent popularity, he has earned the ire of many activists on the left who accuse him of advocating conservative economic policies and not doing enough to help Democrats gain control of the state legislature.
“New York has become a progressive, two-to-one Democratic state, but the entrenchment of Albany’s bipartisan system … has stifled change,” one Democratic political operative in Albany complained. “Who’s been standing in the way? Our Democratic governor. In what universe could this not make the rank and file Democratic activists, staffers, and even electeds absolutely crazy?”
Hochul, who represented a heavily Republican district in Western New York, is seen as even more conservative than Cuomo. During her time in Congress, she once voted to hold President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, in contempt and developed a moderate brand based on her opposition to drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. Hochul holds staunchly liberal positions on other issues like Medicare.
Because of these factors, some advocate getting their revenge on Cuomo through Wu’s election. The left-leaning site Daily Kos joined other news outlets — including the New York Times, New York Observer, and The Nation — in supporting Wu for precisely that reason: He would be a “thorn” in Cuomo’s side.
“New York’s noxious governor, Andrew Cuomo, may be riding a wave of money and his father’s last name to an easy re-election, but there’s a way you can ruin his life: Help defeat his choice for lieutenant governor,” Daily Kos declared last Thursday. “He will be a thorn in the corporatist Cuomo’s side.” (Neither the Times nor Daily Kos made an endorsement in the governor’s race. The Observer called for a Cuomo/Wu vote.)
There is some precedence for a New York gubernatorial candidate running alongside a primary rival in the general election.
In 2010, GOP gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino was also saddled with his primary foe’s No. 2, however that Republican ticket was defeated by Cuomo in the general election. As Capital New York noted, Cuomo’s own father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, saw his running mate lose in 1982. After he won the general election with his rival on the ticket, the new lieutenant governor resigned from the largely ceremonial position, reportedly citing boredom.
But Wu is vowing to soldier on even if Teachout loses her race against Cuomo. And if Wu ends up elected with the governor, he’s not planning to quiet his Cuomo criticism. Wu told Business Insider it’s “fair” to assume that, if Cuomo continues to govern as he has the previous four years, he will find a lieutenant governor speaking out against him.
“My policy would … to be an advocate for the public first and foremost. I wouldn’t go out of my way to be oppositional. My duty isn’t to make his life miserable,” Wu said. “It’s possible in Washington we have too many checks in balances. In Albany, it’s sort of the opposite problem.”
However, in spite of the tantalising prospect of watching two rivals share a ticket, there are plenty of reasons to think Hochul will ultimately prevail. Powerful New York labour unions with proven vote-getting operations have recently announced their plan to go all-in for her. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a populist firebrand, headlined a rally for Cuomo’s running mate on Wednesday afternoon.
“There is no question that Kathy Hochul is the Lieutenant Governor that New York City needs,” de Blasio said in a statement. “In one of the most Republican districts in New York, Kathy held true to our core Democratic values.”
Cuomo’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider, but one of the governor’s supporters said he was baffled by the amount of attention Wu was receiving. The supporter pointed to Hochul’s stronger fund-raising and labour support as signs of her candidacy’s strength.
“Without a doubt, she’s not going to get as many votes as Cuomo,” he said. “But I think that it is a little bit overblown. … I feel like in any other situation, you would never be having a conversation about a candidate that was this unserious — even for a city council race.”
In addition to pleasing liberal activists, a Wu win would also some colour to Albany politics as he’s a far cry from the typical political candidate.
According to a 2006 New York Observer profile, Wu was a “recurring fixture at Burning Man, the neo-hippie arts festival set annually in the Nevada desert, where he sometimes dons a cowboy costume.”
Wu says he no longer attends the hippie-fest, but his unfiltered style makes him distinctly unconventional. Up until Tuesday afternoon, Wu’s campaign website featured sections dedicated to his favourite fruits (he enjoys durians and tomatoes) and a photo of Wu in a blue bear costume that he said was used as a teaching prop for copyright law. It also included a page outlining how he prefers his water.
“I think water without ice tastes better,” Wu explained to Business Insider.
For his part, Cuomo was reportedly asked about Wu at the West Indian Day parade where they ran into each other. Cuomo refused to acknowledge the chance he might get paired with Hochul’s upstart challenger.
“It’s not gonna happen,” Cuomo replied. “Kathy Hochul is going to win.”
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