It’s been a sure bet over the past few years that whenever Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ventured into Buffalo, he’d tout the city and state’s progress inside a gleaming arena filled with the elite of local business and politics.
But the setting and the audience proved far different Tuesday as Cuomo ventured into one of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods to push for raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.50 per hour. On this visit, he gathered hundreds of union members and other supporters at the William C. Baird Boys & Girls Club on Bailey Avenue to argue that low-wage workers should be able to provide for their families with “decency and pride.”
“For billionaires and millionaires, this economy is doing great,” he told his enthusiastic audience. “When it comes to the middle class and working families ... there is a polarization of income that we haven’t seen before.
“That’s the duality, and it’s not what we believe ” he added. “And it’s destructive to our view of community and our community success.”
Indeed, Cuomo chose a tough part of town, like the corner of Bailey Avenue and Doat Street, to make his case for the minimum wage increase, a key element of his 2015 agenda that he claims can make the difference between getting by or landing on the welfare rolls. He predicted such a hike would lift 100,000 workers statewide out of poverty and pump $3 billion into the economy.
Cuomo seeks to raise the current minimum wage after signing the 2012 law that sparked incremental increases from $7.25 to $9 by the end of this year. His move would hike the minimum wage to $10.50 upstate and to $11.50 in metropolitan New York City, where the cost of living is higher. And he supports last week’s move by the state Department of Labor to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to $7.50 per hour.
His appearance marked the first of a series across the state to make his case for the idea, which is also being promoted with a website and banners proclaiming “Fight for Fair Pay” that aides say aim to “create a brand and raise awareness.”
At the Boys & Girls Club, Cuomo introduced Dennis Young, a downtown parking garage attendant who later described to reporters his struggle to sustain a family on about $18,000 per year. A raise of approximately $2,500, he said, would strengthen his ability to pay bills and put food on the table.
The governor, meanwhile, insisted that nobody can survive on such a low salary, and that the Legislature should approve his proposal either as part of its new budget or later in the session because “it is the right thing to do.” He received strong support from Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul, Mayor Byron W. Brown and Teamsters leader George Harrigan, who shared the dais with him and endorsed his proposal.
Cuomo acknowledged to reporters following his speech that the minimum wage idea faces stiff competition in the Republican Senate. But he has negotiated other controversial proposals during his four years in office, he said, and is optimistic this year, too.
“We’ve been able to reconcile our differences and reach compromise,” he said. “And I think we’re going to be able to do that again.”
The Senate Republican conference did not immediately reject the idea Tuesday.
“We will review the proposal while keeping in mind that the governor, Senate and Assembly recently enacted a minimum wage increase that is still being phased in,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.
Still, it is expected its members will feel especially intense pressure to reject a minimum wage hike from influential groups like the state Business Council. New York’s top business organization supported Cuomo’s re-election last fall, but vigorously opposes his latest proposal.
President Heather Briccetti said the Business Council considers the proposed hike “way too high and way too soon.”
“The problem is that raising the minimum wage won’t do anything to create jobs,” she said, adding that the real effort should concentrate on improving the state’s business climate.
Briccetti said Cuomo’s proposal would create the highest minimum wage in the nation, and that New York business would be subjected to a “competitive disadvantage” because the level in neighboring states remains significantly lower.
She predicted the Senate will feel “huge political pressure” to block the governor’s plan.
“I certainly hope they reject it,” she said, “and raise their voice and make it clear this is not the way to create jobs.”
That effort, however, must overcome the populist appeal Cuomo introduced in Buffalo on Tuesday that resulted in several standing ovations over the course of a 20-minute program. And while Briccetti and others fear the wage reserved for “entry-level workers” will hurt the economy, the governor argued it will achieve the “exact opposite.”
“The little detail is that it is has to pass first,” he said. “We have to get it passed by the New York State Legislature, and that’s what today is all about – talking to people about it, communicating what it will do, and asking people to contact their legislators.”