Inside One of America’s Ugliest Political Feuds: Cuomo vs. de Blasio

In their own way, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, and Mayor Bill de Blasio are both vying to define the Democratic Party’s future in New York and beyond.

It was, almost without question, the low point of Andrew M. Cuomo’s political career.

The year was 2002 and Mr. Cuomo was badly trailing in the Democratic primary for governor and desperately seeking a graceful exit. He needed a loyal lieutenant, someone to help him salvage his future and negotiate the delicate terms of political surrender.

Mr. Cuomo turned to a trusted former colleague: Bill de Blasio.

And so, in a weekend of secret shuttle diplomacy, Mr. de Blasio, then a junior New York City councilman, did just that. Along with a cast that included President Bill Clinton, Mr. de Blasio was an indispensable emissary as Mr. Cuomo quit the race and endorsed his opponent, H. Carl McCall. It was the start of a fence-mending mission that would eventually land Mr. Cuomo the governorship eight years later.

The idea of Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo ever collaborating on anything seems almost unfathomable nearly 16 years later. The two Democrats are now engaged in a feud so nasty, petty and prolonged that even in the cutthroat politics of New York, few can remember ever seeing anything quite like it.

The two men have sparred over substance, silliness and everything in between: public housing and private workout routines, homelessness and topless women in Times Square, taxing millionaires and euthanizing a deer, a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and state troop deployments, schools, snowstorms and the subways — even naps.

“I’m not a napper, really,” Mr. Cuomo volunteered last year after reports of the mayor’s alleged penchant for napping. “I never have been.”

Both men and their closest aides have dropped any pretense of cordiality, sniping at each other on Twitter and in interviews; Mr. de Blasio, in particular, has adopted an Oprah-like confessional tone in his lamentations.

“I never get that call that says, ‘How can we help you get the job done? What would make your life, as the city, work better?’” Mr. de Blasio said in a recent television interview that people close to him said captured his frustration. “A lot of politics, a lot of posturing, a lot of interference, a lot of red tape, that’s what I get.”

The contours of the feud, and its effects, have been puzzled over for years: Why would two men, whose stated goals often run on similar tracks, allow their onetime friendship — “in the deepest sense of the word” as Mr. Cuomo once put it — to deteriorate into pure detestation?

This portrait of a relationship fractured is based on interviews with more than two dozen past and present aides, advisers and officials who have worked with Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio over the last two decades. Many spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from either camp. Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio both declined to speak on the record.

In their own way, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio both are vying to define the Democratic Party’s future in New York and beyond: the mayor as a progressive beacon for unrepentant liberalism succeeding, the governor as a deal-cutting Democrat who can actually make good on progressive promises.

“I believe in action. I believe in results. I believe in making a difference in people’s lives,” Mr. Cuomo said this year when asked about the mayor. “I don’t believe it’s about giving speeches about values.”

But the compulsive rivalry makes both look small.

“All rules of political decorum are out the window with these two,” said Andrew Kirtzman, a New York communications strategist. “The Cuomo people genuinely feel that de Blasio is incompetent and the de Blasio people genuinely feel that Cuomo is pernicious.”

Things have only worsened with the candidacy of Cynthia Nixon, the actress, education advocate and friend of Mr. de Blasio who is challenging the governor in the Democratic primary. Mr. Cuomo has seethed about what he believes is Mr. de Blasio’s hidden hand in her run, and has signaled to allies that he intends to punish the mayor for it, even against the counsel of his advisers.

The latest flash point: the recent statebudget that served as a cudgel to exert his dominance over Mr. de Blasio. He added new oversight to the city’s mayor-run school system. He forced the mayor to hand over $418 million for subway repairs, threatening to garnish property taxes if Mr. de Blasio resisted. He gave $250 million to the city’s beleaguered public housing system — but then declared a state of emergency and ordered an independent monitor.

On the Monday after the state budget passed, Mr. Cuomo held a triumphant event with the city’s top elected leaders to celebrate the new funding and sign the order. Mr. de Blasio was pointedly not invited. And when the mayor found out, he pressed at least one elected official not to attend, according to three people familiar with the efforts.

Later that week, at almost the exact moment that Mr. Cuomo was in a Manhattan ballroom condemning the city’s public housing as “disgusting,” Mr. de Blasio was on the roof of a New York City Housing Authority development in Queens swiping at the governor for acting “like the great white knight.”

“There are some politicians who suddenly believe it is stylish to visit Nycha,” Mr. de Blasio said. He didn’t leave it for people to read between the lines.

“Of course I’m talking about the governor,” Mr. de Blasio said when asked. “Let’s be real.”

It is more than a little ironic that the current tug of war between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio is over housing: They came to know each other when Mr. Cuomo, then the secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, hired Mr. de Blasio to oversee the New York region.

It was a critical job for Mr. Cuomo, who had clear political ambitions where his father, Mario M. Cuomo, had served three terms as governor. Mr. de Blasio became the younger Cuomo’s point man in his home state.

Mr. Cuomo had worked the phones to get Mr. de Blasio, then a rising star in New York politics, to take the job.

“He would say to them, ‘Tell Bill this is why he should do this job and why it’s important to his career,’” recalled Karen Hinton, who worked for Mr. Cuomo at HUD and later served as Mr. de Blasio’s press secretary in City Hall.

People who worked with them at the time, and others who have spoken with Mr. Cuomo in the years since, said he found Mr. de Blasio to be politically sharp but not particularly substantive. Others say even then Mr. de Blasio displayed a more ideologically leftward bent than his boss.

“I was proud to work for him,” Mr. de Blasio said recently of his tenure.

They were definitely seen as a pair.

In late 1999, when Mr. Cuomo’s department declared that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani could not be trusted to fairly dole out millions in federal funding for the New York City homeless, Republicans immediately suspected collusion — between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio, who was then Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

“It seems like Cuomo and de Blasio are still working together,” a Republican official said at the time.

By 2002, when Mr. Cuomo embarked on his quixotic bid for the governor’s mansion by challenging Mr. McCall, widely seen as the Democratic heir apparent and potentially the state’s first black governor, Mr. de Blasio was among his few backers.

“You could have gotten all of his supporters into a phone booth,” Mr. de Blasio joked recently.

But their bond, even then, appeared to many as one of political convenience.

“Friends might be a stretch,” said John Marino, another emissary deployed by Mr. Cuomo in that 2002 weekend when he withdrew from the governor’s race. “They both respected each other. There was no question Andrew respected what Bill thought, and vice versa.”

They climbed the ladder of New York politics in parallel steps. Mr. de Blasio to the City Council in 2001; Mr. Cuomo to state attorney general in 2006; Mr. de Blasio to city public advocate in 2009; Mr. Cuomo to governor in 2010; Mr. de Blasio to mayor in 2013.

There was mutual respect, too. Matt Wing, who worked for Mr. de Blasio as public advocate and later for Mr. Cuomo as governor, still vividly recalls watching Mr. Cuomo’s first budget address in 2011 over junk food with Mr. de Blasio.

“I remember Bill and I both being impressed and more than a little inspired,” Mr. Wing recalled.

Weeks after Mr. de Blasio’s inauguration on Jan. 1, 2014, Mr. Cuomo proclaimed, “I don’t have a better political friend than Bill de Blasio.”

But the problems to come were already apparent.

On the day that Mr. de Blasio’s last Democratic opponent bowed out in September 2013 (Mr. Cuomo had not endorsed his friend until then), aides to Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio nearly came to blows over the speaking order at a unity rally. It was meant to be Mr. de Blasio’s day of triumph; Mr. Cuomo spoke longer.

The battle to be the alpha male of New York politics had only just begun.

This is hardly Andrew Cuomo’s first feud. He has quarreled with a parade of politicians in the last decade: Eliot L. Spitzer, David A. Paterson, Eric T. Schneiderman, Michael R. Bloomberg and Thomas P. DiNapoli. While he was HUD secretary in the 1990s, Mr. Cuomo’s clash with the department’s inspector general was legendary. Before that, he tossed sharp elbows professionally for his father in the 1980s.

Those who have worked closely with the younger Mr. Cuomo over the years say he has a zero-sum approach to power, especially among Democrats in New York: The more anyone else has of it, the less there is for him.

Enter Mr. de Blasio into a job where tensions between Albany and New York City have been longstanding, even among members of the same party. In the 1980s, it was Mayor Edward I. Koch and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, two Democrats. In the 1960s, it was Mayor John V. Lindsay and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, both Republican moderates.

“They couldn’t be in the same room together,” Sid Davidoff, a lobbyist who served in Mr. Lindsay’s administration, said of his former boss and Mr. Rockefeller. “But it wasn’t a public spectacle. Now it is.”

If Mr. Cuomo has a penchant for picking fights, Mr. de Blasio has a notoriously stubborn streak. Some early advisers gave up trying to even help him out of exhaustion of his obstinance. For example: his lonely trip to Iowa to canvass for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, which some top advisers counseled against; his daily 12-mile treks to a Park Slope gym.

Mr. de Blasio’s recalcitrance can make it difficult for him to walk away from fights with the governor.

In some ways, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio are more alike than either would care to acknowledge: two ex-operatives who now serve as the principals themselves. They are demanding, if not difficult bosses. They operate with sometimes excruciatingly small circles of advisers, none of whom they seem to trust as much as themselves, often to a fault.

“He’s a lot like Andrew,” Mario Cuomo had said in 2009 when he endorsed Mr. de Blasio as public advocate.

What both sides do agree upon is that the seeds of their split were planted in 2014, Mr. de Blasio’s first full year as mayor. They just cite different episodes.

For Mr. Cuomo, it was the new mayor’s insistence on pushing for a tax increase on millionaires.

Mr. de Blasio had just been elected on a platform to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund an extra year of prekindergarten — but New York’s arcane political structure required him to go to Albany for approval.

Even before the election, Mr. Cuomo had told Mr. de Blasio raising taxes was a nonstarter given Republican control of the State Senate but that he would provide money for the prekindergarten expansion, people briefed on those conversations said. But the freshly elected mayor told the governor that he would be publicly pushing for it anyway.

Mr. de Blasio saw it as fulfilling a key promise to voters. Mr. Cuomo first saw it as irksome, and eventually disrespectful, as the mayor rallied the governor’s union allies to his cause.

There were competing rallies and hurt feelings. Eventually, the state approved money for prekindergarten without a tax increase.

For Mr. Cuomo, the experience fueled a belief that he has voiced with escalating emphasis in recent months: Mr. de Blasio is more concerned with political rhetoric and talking points than practical results.

“The job of government is to get things done for people. Not to issue press releases saying ‘I propose doing this,’” Mr. Cuomo said at a recent Nycha stop, talking about the mayor without naming him.

People close to the governor say Mr. de Blasio reminds Mr. Cuomo of what he sees as the failed liberal ideologues of the past.

“For 40 years, Cuomo has consistently said that the prior generation of Democrats focused too much on poetry and not enough on the prose of governing,” said Jon J. Cowan, Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff at HUD.

But Mr. de Blasio’s allies have recently cited a different dividing point late that same year.

When many New York City police officers turned their back on the mayor after the killing of two police officers in December 2014, Mr. Cuomo offered the mayor no support. Inside City Hall, the episode felt like an existential crisis for the administration and Mr. de Blasio had hoped that his old friend would be of some assistance, according to people in touch with him at the time.

Instead Mr. Cuomo said he supported both the mayor and the police union chief, who had just said there was “blood on the hands” at City Hall.

“There are so many ways for you to be both a responsible actor and a good friend and he did none of them in that moment,” one person close to Mr. de Blasio said.

The relationship soured entirely in 2015. The governor shut down the subways during a snowstorm without first telling the mayor. The mayor did not give the governor’s office a heads-up on plans to redevelop a rail yard in Queens, and the governor quickly squashed the idea.

By June, the governor was knifing the mayor through thinly cloaked anonymous interviews mocking him as “Mr. Progressive.” Then, Mr. de Blasio went on television to deliver the kind of public broadside rarely seen between two members of the same political party, let alone old friends.

“If someone disagrees with him openly,” the mayor said, “some kind of revenge or vendetta follows.”

“Vendetta,” in particular, stuck in Mr. Cuomo’s craw, people familiar with the episode said, in part because of its Mafia connotations in a fight between two men of Italian heritage.

It was notable, then, that on the day Ms. Nixon emerged as a likely challenger, a “Cuomo insider” used the very same V-word to link Ms. Nixon to Mr. de Blasio in a statement to multiple news outlets.

“This distraction is clearly an outgrowth of the mayor’s vendetta against the governor,” the insider said.

It was a clear message, especially for the two veterans of Mr. de Blasio’s warring with Mr. Cuomo, Bill Hyers and Rebecca Katz, who are now advising Ms. Nixon. In one of her first interviews, Ms. Nixon called Mr. Cuomo “famously vengeful.” The echo reverberated loudly through the governor’s chambers.

Of course, the mayor and the governor do talk, often by phone in calls that are hastily arranged via text message between the two leaders. Their calls are often not scheduled and, as such, aides are not always on the line or in the room, especially on Mr. de Blasio’s end, according to a city person with direct knowledge of the routine.

But even when relations appear to momentarily improve — as after terrorist strikes — they quickly worsen again.

From the perspective of City Hall, opinion has hardened that Mr. Cuomo can no longer be trusted, and some despair of trying to fight back. The state remains pre-eminent over most city affairs, a power the governor never shied from using: It is as if the mayor can only bring a knife and the governor avails himself of military artillery.

“The mayor can’t place a monitor on the governor’s decrepit state prisons, or his failing upstate jobs programs, or on the water supply in Hoosick Falls,” said Eric F. Phillips, Mr. de Blasio’s press secretary. “New York’s governance structure makes this an uneven fight that would only get worse if you give in to a governor this obsessed with hurting New York City and a fellow Democrat.”

That the state controls perhaps the city’s greatest resource, its sprawling transit system, has set up a protracted battle over funding and responsibility as the subway system has faltered.

The mayor and his team have sought, indirectly, to lump Mr. Cuomo in with a group of old-line Democrats — the “descendent Democrats” — facing challenges from what they see as the party’s ascendant progressive wing.

Still, Mr. Cuomo chafes at the primacy given New York City mayors in times of terrorism, those who know him say: The city is the target and the mayor controls the New York Police Department, and therefore access to information.

Mr. Cuomo had seen how Gov. George E. Pataki saw himself diminished by Mr. Giuliani after Sept. 11, 2001, and would not be similarly left in this mayor’s shadow.

And so, the governor deployed the State Police in the middle of Mr. de Blasio’s first term. “They never had uniformed guys patrolling in New York City,” said a former senior law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the discussions. The move served no apparent policing need, the official said, and led to the departure of the head of the State Police in 2016.

It was an example of a governor exerting his influence on the city directly. He has done so increasingly in recent months, from forcing a state monitor on public housing to an order to close one jail facility at the troubled complex on Rikers Island.

In response to a request for comment, the Cuomo administration said that its involvement in municipal matters is a function of state law, along with responding to tenant requests, federal investigations and security needs.

Mr. Cuomo has also cited the “incompetent” management of Nycha, which his office notes is controlled by the mayor, and he has mocked the mayor’s timeline to close Rikers.

Even on areas of agreement, there is no comity. Mr. Cuomo’s aides reached out to aides for Mr. de Blasio to suggest a joint push around bail reform — an important progressive issue in this year’s budget negotiations. City Hall officials suspected ulterior motives. In the end, it did not happen.

A majority of New Yorkers, among them Corey Johnson, the new City Council speaker, say the conflict is hurting the city.

“I don’t think it’s helpful for the city,” Mr. Johnson said. “At the same time, you deal with the cards that you’re dealt.”

Nearly everyone has been pressured to pick sides — few more so than Mr. Johnson, who has had three face-to-face meetings with the governor in three months, and weekly sit-downs with the mayor that included a recent one that stretched to two and a half hours.

“I would just say that it’s a little overwhelming,” Mr. Johnson said. “I didn’t expect to be drawn into this.”

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