Activists in New York Target “Governor 1 Percent”: Cuomo Under Fire for Refusing to Extend Millionaire’s Tax

“Where is Cuomo? Protecting the 1 percent!”

That was the chant outside the Skylight SoHo according to Democracy Now! reporter Ryan Devereaux, who accompanied a group of about 150 Occupy Wall Street protesters on a march to protest Governor Andrew Cuomo's stance on taxing New York's wealthy. Cuomo was in town to receive an award at the Huffington Post/AOL's “100 Game Changers” event; the Democratic governor was apparently named “Game Changer of the Year.” Author Naomi Wolf was attending the event, along with Arianna Huffington and reality TV star Kim Kardashian, among others, but Wolf joined the protesters and wound up taken away in handcuffs after marching in front of the restaurant where the event was held.

Reporter Allison Kilkenny told me that the protesters decided to target Cuomo, whom they called “Governor 1 Percent,” because of his refusal to extend a temporary tax on the rich that is set to expire December 31st, despite widespread support for keeping the tax in place. The so-called “Millionaires' Tax” is the only thing polling better in New York right now than the Occupy Wall Street crowd, it seems. 72 percent of the state, including a clear majority of Republicans and a huge majority of Democrats, support keeping the tax. That's according to a Siena College Research Institute poll; a separate Quinnipiac poll just of New York City residents showed those voters support extending the tax by 61% to 28%, with Republican support holding steady at 55%.

New York State has been in the throes of a battle over the millionaire's tax for a while now. Instituted in 2009 to help close the state's massive deficit, it created two new tax brackets, hitting families with incomes of $300,000 at a rate of 7.85 percent and those over $500,000 at 8.97 percent (which the New York Times points out is the same as neighboring New Jersey's highest rate).

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Allowing the tax's expiration, said advocates, would amount to a $5 billion tax cut for New York's richest.

Olivia Leirer, Communications and Social Media Director for New York Communities for Change, said that New York's politicians only seem interested in austerity, not new forms of revenue. “It's becoming clear that they're not interested in solving a budget crisis, they're interested in getting benefits for the rich off the backs of the poor,” she said.

It's no surprise that billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn't support the millionaire's tax. It should be a little bit more surprising that Cuomo, son of liberal icon Mario Cuomo, opposes the tax as well. But Cuomo has long had an ambivalent relationship with his own party—and even as momentum created by Occupy Wall Street has politicians from Barack Obama on down realizing that the time is ripe for some economic populism, Cuomo appears committed to protecting the interests of the rich, and in a press conference recently he actually compared his opposition to the millionaire's tax to his father's fight against the death penalty:

“My father was governor of this state. He was against the death penalty. Everyone in the state wanted the death penalty — everyone. It was near 80 percent. And he was the governor of the state and he said he wasn’t going to sign it. Every year — go back and talk to some of the people who know the history — every year we had to scramble and make sure there wasn’t an override of the veto. . . .

“The point is, we don’t elect — the governor isn’t a big poll taking machine. And that’s what we do, we take a poll and do whatever the poll says and you wouldn’t need me … so the fact that everyone wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much. I respect the people, their opinion matters, but I’m not going to go back and forth with the political winds.”

Jonathan Westin, organizing director of New York Communities for Change, told AlterNet in response, “[Cuomo's] true 'liberalism' is showing through, the fact that he's comparing a tax break from millionaires to the death penalty shows his true colors and where he's at.”

He continued, “His liberalism only goes so far until it starts to creep up on his millionaire donors.”

The Governor and the 1%

Before winning the governorship, Cuomo served as New York's attorney general, but unlike his predecessor in that role, Eliot Spitzer, or his successor Eric Schneiderman, Cuomo didn't exactly make a name for himself going after the big banks. Instead of fighting the tenacious battles Spitzer waged, James Bandler and Doris Burke at CNN Money wrote of Cuomo, “He'd rather have a quick and easy settlement than a protracted legal fight.”

And Albany Project blogger and longtime New York political activist Phillip Anderson said, “Cuomo went after Wall Street just enough as AG to maintain the fiction that he gave a damn. Worked out well for both parties and he has been rewarded accordingly.”

Alyssa Katz wrote of Cuomo's election at The Nation, “The big money in New York State politics—from real estate and Wall Street—is backing Cuomo against Tea Partyer Carl Paladino and expects to be taken care of in return.”

And the numbers back her up. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, nearly ten percent of Cuomo's total campaign funding for 2010 came from securities & investment firms, a total of $2,057,027—only the real estate industry gave him more. Not only that, but he got approximately 50 times more than his largely self-funded Republican opponent, Carl Paladino, who raised $39,800 from securities & investment firms, and twice as much as Eliot Spitzer, who was elected New York's governor in 2006 before having to step down after a sex scandal.

Over his career, Cuomo's gotten $4,148,597 from securities & investment firms, $841,300 of that when he ran for Attorney General (nearly twice as much as his successor Schneiderman got from that industry during last year's election).

New York's election laws allow individuals to give large amounts to candidates—several gave Cuomo over $55,000 each. One would assume that individuals giving $55,000 in an election cycle are probably making well over $200,000 a year (the cutoff for the surcharge for a single earner).

Cuomo says he supports a tax on the rich on the federal level, but doesn't want New York to be the only state with one, claiming that it'll put the state at a competitive disadvantage. But it's hard to see how that could be true—no matter how much cheaper it might be to live in New Jersey, for example, New York's richest are hardly going to give up their parkside views and status parties for the suburbs.

Ron Deutsch of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness dispelled what he called “the myth of the moving millionaire” at a press conference for 99 New York, the new coalition pushing for the tax. He pointed out that between 2003 and 2005, when the state imposed a post-9/11 surcharge on the rich, they actually saw a 30 percent increase in wealthy tax filers, and that a 2007 study found that New York's richest are its least likely to move—whether that's because of those posh penthouses, the social scene, or the ease of the commute, the wealthy simply aren't going to pack up and leave.

Cuomo's attempt to appear to support the people while actually enacting business-friendly policies isn't exactly new to Democrats, but the sudden rise of economic populism in the form of Occupy Wall Street has him looking extraordinarily out of touch with his constituents on this issue.

Fighting Back for the Millionaire's Tax

Back in March, long before Occupy Wall Street, 500 activists organized in part by New York Communities for Change spent the night in the Capitol building to protest the austerity budget and call for the millionaire's tax. In May, community groups and unions formed the May 12 Coalition and organized a massive teach-in and march on Wall Street, again calling for alternative forms of revenue (like taxes on the rich) instead of budget cuts that overwhelmingly hurt New York's poorest.

Thus far, the movement hasn't gotten very far with its demands, but the change in the public debate brought about by Occupy Wall Street may provide just the momentum they needed. And if they have success, they could also provide a model for making political change in solidarity with the demand-less occupiers that doesn't require their endorsement.

Leirer explained, “We've been really hooked in to the people who've been on the ground at Zuccotti Park since day one. We have a good working relationship with them, we have their trust, the ability to ask them to join us and give them a seat at the table without pushing our agenda down their throats. It's been great to build that as a new model of collaboration.”

This model was tested recently when community groups working with Occupy Wall Street activists organized a walking tour of millionaire's homes in New York City's Upper East Side. (Lynn Parramore attended and reported on the march for AlterNet.) Occupiers participated in the march, which left from Liberty Plaza and highlighted the inequality right here in New York City.

Other groups with particular demands that could use this type of partnership to direct some of the public support for Occupy Wall Street into policy goals might include the National Nurses United, who have been agitating for a financial transaction tax for months, or community groups fighting foreclosures.

Here in New York, the public support from even Republicans has the 99 New York coalition (the new name an obvious reference to the 99%) ready to fight hard. As the occupations continue to gain momentum around the country, politicians who ignore the turning of the tide may find themselves left behind, on the wrong side of the battle lines. Anderson said, “Even the GOP in the NY State Senate are starting to waver on the millionaire's tax, especially because the largely rural districts they represent are filled with municipalities that are in serious trouble.”

Leirer said, “Expect a showdown in the next couple of months over the millionaire's tax.”