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De Blasio changes tactics for NYC's state budget pitch

De Blasio changes tactics for NYC's state budget pitch
Blasio has keeps a lower profile this budget season

A year ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio waged a public campaign for his city's needs, exemplified by his repeated trips to Albany to personally lobby the governor and Legislature as they embarked on their annual, and often secretive, state budget negotiations.

But this budget season, de Blasio has kept a lower profile.

His trips to Albany have been infrequent. The high-profile lobbying efforts by the mayor's allies, like labor unions and other outside spending groups, have been scaled back. And largely gone are the public pleas for funding, which often took the form of news conferences with a rotating cast of sympathetic elected officials by the mayor's side.

The choice to make de Blasio less visible was a deliberate one, according to interviews with administration officials and those close to the budget process.

The mayor and his staff have worked behind the scenes to advance de Blasio's agenda - namely, increased funding for housing and homelessness programs, as well as a series of education proposals, including continued mayoral control of the school system - but the decision to keep de Blasio out of the daily spotlight was made with an eye on the shifting political landscape in the wake of ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's loss of power and with the hopes of avoiding the confrontations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo that marked last year's negotiations.

Fresh off his election, de Blasio was still putting together his legislative team when he embarked on his first Albany budget negotiation, a byzantine process that often ends with a deal struck by three men (the governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader) behind closed doors.

A fight emerged over de Blasio's signature campaign promise: to expand free prekindergarten in the nation's largest city. He planned to pay for it with a tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers, an idea that Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, rejected out of hand, only to instead try to co-opt the idea by funding pre-K out of the state budget (though most observers gave de Blasio credit for introducing the issue and securing funding, even if through a different means than first planned). That tussle, as well as a clash over charter schools, established a template in which Cuomo repeatedly has tried to thwart de Blasio's agenda while praising the mayor as a friend of over 20 years.

The terrain in Albany this year is different. The day after Cuomo gave his budget presentation, Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was indicted on corruption charges and later relinquished his leadership post.

Losing an advocate for New York City furthered the de Blasio team's resolve to change tactics even as it moved to build a relationship with Silver's replacement, Carl Heastie of the Bronx. The mayor, who is a polarizing figure among Senate Republicans, would largely stay out of Albany, but he and several top aides would work the phones repeatedly, calling allies to push their agenda, according to a person familiar with the efforts who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about private conversations.

They also turned more frequently to surrogates to make their case for them, including some unlikely allies such as Kathy Wylde, head of a business group that has an at-times frosty relationship with the liberal de Blasio, and Republican former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a frequent de Blasio critic, to advocate extending mayoral control of the city school system.

"New York City's education agenda remains clear," mayoral spokesman Phil Walzak said. "The status quo is unacceptable, and the city must have the resources and the local accountability it needs."

Cuomo has been fanatical about enacting an on-time budget, doing so for four straight years. But with the April 1 deadline approaching, much of the budget's contents remain in flux.

The governor wants to use the budget as a vehicle for sweeping changes to the state's education system - including to the teacher evaluation system and proposing that the state take over failing schools - but, with talks ongoing, much of those plans, as well as the fates of mayoral control and a cap on charter schools, could be pushed into post-budget legislative sessions.

Instead, Cuomo has pivoted to making ethics reform the centerpiece of the budget even as questions still swirl around his decision to disband an anti-corruption commission last spring. And de Blasio officials are hopeful the city will receive some additional state funding - though not as much as the mayor requested - for pre-K expansion and public housing, even as other ideas, like the authority for the city to set its own minimum wage or a plan to provide tuition assistance to children of immigrants who are in the country illegally, are likely left by the wayside.