Abraham Lincoln kicked off his U.S. Senate bid in 1858 with a speech that would become famous mostly for the use of one biblical phrase: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
That campaign didn’t work out for Lincoln, but maybe things will turn out better for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Both used the line in their big speeches this week.
As you would expect for the oft-feuding New Yorkers, the line had a very different meaning in Albany than it did in NYC.
De Blasio uttered it during his frigid inauguration speech on Monday to highlight the dangers of economic inequality: “It is now clear that a society where only the 1 percent can get ahead is truly a house divided against itself and it is a reality that cannot be sustained.”
And Lincoln’s legacy animated the end of Cuomo’s State of the State address on Wednesday, when he decried the divisions being advanced by the “federal government”: red state against blue state, documented against undocumented, Christian against Muslim. He called these internal divisions “a cancer to our body politic,” and such unruly bodies politic as the New York State Legislature are what Cuomo prides himself on running.
De Blasio and Cuomo, (un)divided
Both men are definitely totally not (yet) running for president, but they’re certainly muscling to get their version of Democratic governance into the spotlight.
For de Blasio, that impulse shows when he takes bold, unilateral stands on social and economic issues, from creating universal pre-k or affordable housing requirements, or attempting to fund the MTA via a longshot tax on city millionaires.
The Cuomo pitch is based on the achievement of Democratic goals through political maneuvering and compromise: a practical progressivism.
Those differences were particularly apparent Wednesday when Cuomo talked about transit, calling for long-term MTA funding “that is fair to all, and also addresses growing traffic and population problems.” Cuomo’s preferred solution to come up with the money, a version of congestion pricing that might charge drivers in part of Manhattan, is delayed as the details and compromises are debated behind the scenes. De Blasio’s tax is cleaner, more elegant and unchanging — but also unlikely to win support and little help with traffic.
Maybe that’s the kind of initiative Cuomo was alluding to when he condemned “theoretical progressive politics.” For his part, in a response to the speech, de Blasio pointed to pre-k and free afterschool programs as the kinds of concrete and significant achievements that progressives should be looking for: “These are the kinds of things that actually change lives.”
A tale of two speeches
The two New York alpha dogs circled each other warily on Wednesday, with the mayor coming up to hear the governor speak and then being rewarded with an early mention from Cuomo’s gigantic Empire State podium. Then it was just left to de Blasio to digest some of the effects that Cuomo’s 90 minutes of proposals might have for the five boroughs.
Those include proposed criminal justice reforms like ending most uses of cash bail and closing problem jails, while sidestepping the state prison system closer to his control. To illustrate his point he directed the crowd to applaud Akeem Browder, the brother of the late Kalief Browder who committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for the alleged theft of a backpack. Rikers is de Blasio’s responsibility and last year he decided it should be closed, but after he will leave office.
Cuomo also spent a lengthy section on homelessness in places like NYC, threatening to pull state funding from local governments that don’t have effective outreach. Afterwards, de Blasio reiterated previous calls for more robust state progress on the creation of housing that experts agree is necessary.
The two executives have competing transit proposals for Red Hook, which Cuomo gestured at ever so briefly on Wednesday. There was one city-specific proposal, though, that could end up finding more agreement: Cuomo announced the imminent creation of a park in Brooklyn on the shores of Jamaica Bay. At 400 acres, it would purportedly be the largest state park in the city.
“I sat down with the Governor at length on Friday and we talked about a number of items that were in the speech. That was one of them,” de Blasio noted. Later, he said “I’m very committed to seeing us all work together.”