When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his first-in-the-nation proposal to make state college tuition free for middle-class students, he stood next to Bernie Sanders. This week when Cuomo celebrated its approval, he was arm in arm with Hillary Clinton.
Democrats still smarting from Clinton's presidential loss are already looking for a new standard bearer for 2020. And some observers say Cuomo is already acting like it, increasingly positioning himself with party leaders, aiming his message at middle-class angst and touting measures such as free tuition as an example of the kind of big ideas he can accomplish.
"He's running. It's pretty clear," said University of Maryland political scientist Robert Koulish, who said the second-term governor appears to be positioning himself as a hybrid: a centrist in the mold of Clinton who supports social policies championed by liberals like Sanders. "Maybe he'll present himself as a progressive who gets things done."
Cuomo sidesteps questions about his political future and says he plans to seek a third term next year. He prefers to talk about his newly passed, $153 billion budget, which he calls a progressive model for the nation, with a marquee tuition measure that covers the cost of state university tuition for students from families making up to $125,000. It also continues a series of middle-class tax cuts, expands the child care tax credit, invests billions in aging water infrastructure, sets up a legal defense fund for immigrants, and raises the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, a longtime priority for Democrats.
"Never has New York achieved more, built more or produced more impactful legislation," Cuomo wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Daily News. "During these times of anxiety and uncertainty, New York will continue to lead the nation forward."
Scarlet Brown, a 21-year-old women's studies major at the University at Albany who stands to benefit from the free tuition proposal, said she is thrilled about the reforms lawmakers are pushing. But she is also very aware of the political advantages they carry.
"I don't know if Cuomo really cares about this stuff," she said this past week. "It's good, but it's clearly saying, 'Hey guys, I'm a progressive and I want to be president maybe. Vote for me.'"
Cuomo's critics say the tuition initiative, for one, shows Cuomo values headlines over substance. For instance, it doesn't cover any other major costs of college, such as room and board, and requires students to remain in the state for up to four years after graduation or else pay back the assistance.
"This so-called 'free-college' plan is a hoax, trapping people in New York state to benefit the governor's presidential ambitions," said Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, who has emerged as one of the governor's sharpest critics.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins noted that one of the biggest failures was on ethics reform, which was under the microscope after the leaders of both houses of the Legislature were convicted on corruption charges in the last year.
"Voting reform was not dealt with, either," she said. "There are so many things that we could have done."
Cuomo, 59, was considered a possible candidate in 2016 but opted to instead endorse Clinton. Cuomo was U.S. housing secretary in the administration of former President Bill Clinton before winning office as New York attorney general and then governor, the position his father, the late Mario Cuomo, held when he himself considered a run for the Oval Office.
In recent months, Cuomo's administration has hired several veterans from Clinton's campaign and the office of former President Barack Obama. And late last year he was tapped for a top post at the Democratic Governors Association, an influential group that could help Cuomo build political relationships across the country.
If he does announce his candidacy, Cuomo can expect more questions about Albany's chronic corruption problem. Joe Percoco, a former aide and confidante whom Cuomo has likened to a brother, is expected to head to trial this fall in a federal bribery case involving Cuomo's economic development programs. And Cuomo himself has been investigated by federal prosecutors but has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Other Democrats mentioned as possible candidates in 2020 include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and a long list of governors. It's a list likely to grow as more Democrats consider challenging Trump. One prominent Democrat said Cuomo is off to an early start.
"He reminded us what presidential sounds like," the Rev. Al Sharpton told The New York Observer following a Cuomo speech in Harlem on juvenile justice reform. He stopped short of a full endorsement. "I'd have to see who was in the race, but right now whoever's in would have some catching up to do."