It was one of those typical Andrew Cuomo affairs Wednesday at Buffalo’s Father Belle Community Center, when the governor gathers together a few hundred of his closest friends to announce a major policy initiative.
Topic du jour: an incremental $15-per-hour minimum wage.
The Wednesday crowd differed significantly from the regulars summoned to Cuomo events. Union jackets replaced three-piece suits. Maintenance workers and nursing home attendants stood in for captains of industry.
And when Byron Brown ascended the podium to introduce the governor, the mayor of Buffalo received a thunderous ovation. He was “honored,” he said, to have led Cuomo’s special board that earlier this year recommended raising the minimum wage for New York’s fast-food workers.
“We are joining Gov. Cuomo’s push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage,” Brown then said as he announced the city’s new effort to reward its lowest-paid workers.
All this takes place as Cuomo assigns a major priority to hiking the minimum wage in his 2016 agenda. Indeed, during a conversation with the Politics Column earlier in the week, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said the governor will not let the expected fierce opposition of the Republican Senate deter him.
“If you bring up the other side of the argument, about the cost to taxpayers, I do believe it will [succeed],” Hochul said. “We believe there is an argument to be made.”
But Brown now occupies a hot seat he may not have anticipated while embracing Cuomo’s priority with action, not just words. It was not a coincidence that he suddenly advocates the wage boost in conjunction with the governor, he insisted.
“We feel that now we can afford it,” he said when asked why he had not acted earlier.
And it was no coincidence, he added, that Mayor Lovely Warren announced the same minimum wage hike just hours earlier in Rochester. She, too, was at Cuomo’s side.
“I was not aware that the mayor of Rochester was going to do it,” Brown said Wednesday.
Some observers believe Cuomo forced the mayor’s hand. One source familiar with the situation pointed out that unions and other groups have clamored for months about a minimum-wage increase, and were prepared to publicly call him out soon.
“For years it’s been no, no, no,” one observer said. “Then one call from the governor and it all changes?”
While all those cheering union workers at the Father Belle Center shouted their loud approval on Wednesday, the mayor may now pay a political price. For a reason not everyone fathoms, Brown has always coveted the backing of his beloved Conservative Party and all of its 1,107 enrolled Buffalonians.
Brown adhered to Conservative dogma by never boarding Cuomo’s SAFE Act bandwagon, unlike other big-city mayors around the state. And his Conservative backing is now viewed as a liability by statewide Democrats. Some wonder if the “C” after his name and his SAFE Act stand cost him a chance at becoming lieutenant governor.
Now Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo calls Brown’s latest move an “impediment” to party backing should he run for a fourth term in 2017.
“He believes in our values, and he wants to show people he is fiscally conservative,” Lorigo said. “I always believed he was, but this does not fall into that category. At the very least, it’s a mistake. This would hurt him in terms of our support.”
Things are going well for Brown these days as he touts the city’s renaissance despite its plague of widespread poverty. As he ponders a fourth term in 2017 and Cuomo a third in 2018, both recognize the widespread support that accompanies any discussion of hiking the minimum wage.
Brown, for various reasons, was able to avoid that discussion until his phone rang last week. Now he’s all in, ready for all the ensuing financial – and political – costs.