For all the Cuomo-de Blasio feuding, the coronavirus is really in charge
So Batman and Joker — or was it Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny? — spent the weekend squabbling over a reopening date for Gotham’s schools. This was an eye-rolling event on its face — won’t New York’s feuding first citizens ever grow up? — but maybe it was more than that.
Maybe it was a taste of the political, fiscal and social chaos that easily could attend a botched effort to bring New York back to an approximation of normal when the coronavirus crisis recedes.
Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off the kerfuffle Saturday morning. He and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that the 2019-2020 school year was over, period — see you in September.
Not so fast, responded Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Only he has the power to issue such an order, he said, which may or may not be a fact, but who wants to pick a fight with someone who doesn’t have to pay for his own lawyers?
But here’s the rub: The man in functional control of the city’s schools wasn’t even a public part of the discussion. That would be Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, and anyone who thinks the schools will reopen without his explicit approval is sorely mistaken.
And Mulgrew’s cooperation won’t come easily. Like so many of Gotham’s key players, his best interests don’t naturally coincide with those of the city at large; his 100,000-plus members have every reason to distrust the de Blasio administration’s candor regarding the coronavirus, and Mulgrew must respect that.
This doesn’t make him a bad person. It makes him a union leader. And it is a fact of life that New York’s public-employee unions — along with its legion of lobbyists, not-for-profit social-services providers, trial lawyers, political activists and self-interested seekers of public office — collectively comprise an epic leadership challenge.
Is New York equipped to meet it? The weekend’s public-schools scuffle does not inspire confidence.
For sure, the governor’s aggressive, high-personal-profile approach to the pandemic has folks hawking “Cuomo for President” T-shirts on Facebook. And who knows where that multistate reopening compact announced Monday might lead? But New York is where the test is; as for de Blasio, well, don’t ask.
Now the future beckons, and the fact is that both men are reeds before the wind; the virus seems pretty much to be in charge. And so the best New Yorkers can hope for is that the duo doesn’t make things worse than they need to be.
They have much in common, beyond the mutual animosity: Both are looking at a dramatically reduced supply of tax dollars; neither has any experience in managing real resource scarcity, nor has either ever shown an appetite for such a thing.
New York has weathered three roughly comparable near-calamities in recent memory: 9/11 and the market upheavals of 2008-09 sorely tested New York’s resilience, and the government-financing crises of the mid-1970s nearly brought it to its knees.
Details differed in each case, but New York was blessed with competent, professional leadership at both the city and state levels — not friction-free by any means, but in the end the job got done.
It’s worth noting that the late Ed Koch’s principle — probably indispensable — contribution in the ’70s was that of cheerleader-in-chief, easing down bitter medicine imposed by outsiders.
Is either Cuomo or de Blasio up to that challenge? Especially because this time they will be the ones writing the prescriptions?
Three of New York’s principal tax-revenue generators — tourism, Wall Street and commercial real estate — have been savaged by the virus. And public-health spending, close to out of control before the pandemic, has exploded.
Nobody is pretending that Cuomo’s just-approved state budget is anything but a template for down-the-road revisions; de Blasio’s, now under construction, needs a radical rewrite.
Notoriously feckless lawmakers must be brought into line; public union leaders with restive memberships must be persuaded; well-connected special-interest pleaders must be sidelined, if not shamed into silence — and pie-in-the-sky federal bailout expectations must be tempered.
This would be a challenge for statesmen of the first rank, and New York is now led by two fellows who can’t even agree on which one is boss of the public-school calendar.
New York requires many things at the moment, but what it needs most is for Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio to get over themselves. The rancor is a preexisting condition, for sure, but it’s also a luxury the Empire State no longer can afford.
So grow up, guys. History will notice.
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