Most people think of politics as a zero-sum game: whatever one guys wins the other guy loses. I’ve spent more than three decades in the business in one way or another, and that just isn’t true. Effective political actions are those that create win-win situations. The trick is to convince your base that you won while the other guy convinces his base that he won. To illustrate this, let’s look at the recent fight in the New York City schools over universal pre-kindergarten and charter schools. Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo squared off and both won — but you wouldn’t know it by the media.
When he got elected mayor, de Blasio had promised to fund universal pre-kindergarten in the New York public schools and pay for it by taxing the exceedingly well-off. He also came after charter schools’ rent-free use of city buildings. This played quite well with the city’s left-of-the-American-center electorate. In fact, he let most of the charter schools have their free space, and he denied it to just three of them. There are 183 charter schools in the city; 115 are in public buildings.
Governor Cuomo, who is up for reelection in November, has taken $400,000 from supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network. The three schools denied free space were hers. Guess which side the governor was on? Moreover, upstate voters (that is New York state residents who don’t live within an easy commute of New York City) traditionally side with the governor whenever there is a dispute between the state and city government. So, picking this fight with de Blasio earned Cuomo points with his financial backers and with those upstate voters.
Eventually, they hammered out a deal that both sides can show off as a victory. The city gets $300 million of state money for universal pre-K. The city doesn’t get to tax the very rich to pay for it, though. The city cannot charge charter schools rent; it must find room for them in city buildings or pay up to $40 million in rent on their behalf. However, the city’s Department of Education gets to decide where the space will be. If the charter schools don’t like it, they can go to arbitration rather than the courts.
So, how is this a win-win?
For the Cuomo team, he comes off looking more centrist (dare I say conservative) than de Blasio by fighting for charter schools (which the American right thinks of as a solution to the mess underfunding has made of public education). This will undermine any GOP gubernatorial candidate who argues for more charter schools — Cuomo can say, “me too” and mean it.
Moreover, Cuomo has protected the ultra-rich in New York from a special tax. They may expect fundraising calls and letters shortly heralding how the governor helped them keep more of their hard-earned money. The math is simple — I saved you tens of thousands, please send me a few of them. There is a rule in New York gubernatorial politics: don’t piss off the rich. There’s a corollary: if you can make them happy, do it.
So surely de Blasio lost. Actually, no. He got a huge start on his universal pre-K pledge. He didn’t get his funding mechanism, but who cares? While the state can, technically, cut this funding in the future, de Blasio can resurrect the threat of taxing the rich to balance that out. My guess is Albany will fund universal pre-K for years to come now.
On charter schools, de Blasio got to stick up for the unionized teachers in the UFT against the charter schools that tend to use non-union instructors. While he can’t force the schools to pay rent, he can give them less-than-prime real estate. If they’d like to voluntarily make an upgrade payment, well, that wouldn’t violate the terms of the deal.
Finally, there is the synergy. Cuomo and de Blasio have just shown that they can work together. That helps Cuomo all the way around, and de Blasio is starting to shed the image many have of a guy who is too liberal to get along in real-world politics.
If I were a conspiracy theory type, I’d say that the two of them cooked this up together because it turned out so well for each. In truth, there doesn’t need to be a conspiracy when both sides understand the art of compromise, which is looking like adversaries when you are actually on the same team.