Those who want to stop Amazon from setting up a major new campus in Queens have gotten their most tangible boost yet: An opponent of the deal has been selected for a spot on a little-known state board that could veto the development plan completely.
NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and newly emboldened Democrats in the state Senate appeared headed for open warfare Monday over a plan to bring Amazon to New York City after the Senate leader named a critic of the $3 billion deal to a state board that could scuttle it.
The decision to choose the critic, Sen. Michael Gianaris, for the board immediately presented a direct political challenge for Cuomo — who must decide whether to refuse the Senate’s selection. And it demonstrated the ability of the Democrat-led state Legislature to call into question the governor’s control over the kinds of state boards that, in recent years, he had been mostly able to bend to his will.
In November, Democrats reclaimed simultaneous control of the Assembly and the Senate for the first time in a decade, radically shifting the dynamics of power in Albany and making it easier for the Legislature to resist Cuomo, also a Democrat. The governor can no longer point to Republicans to avoid legislation he disliked, or use the GOP majority in the Senate as leverage with recalcitrant members of his own party.
Cuomo could reject the pick, though doing so could create a protracted standoff with the Senate leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and her fellow Democrats. Already, the battle lines were hardening Monday as Cuomo’s office reacted angrily to Gianaris’ appointment.
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“This recommendation puts the self-interest of a flip-flopping opponent of the Amazon project above the state’s economic growth,” Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement. “Every Democratic senator will now be called on to defend their opposition to the greatest economic growth potential this state has seen in over 50 years.”
She declined to say whether Cuomo would reject the selection of Gianaris, who represents the Queens area where Amazon would like to build a campus.
It was yet another sour note in the Amazon deal. Company executives have bristled at the intense criticism and, last week at a City Council hearing, seemed to float the notion that Amazon could reconsider its commitment to New York.
The ability of a local legislator to block the deal to bring a major new Amazon campus to Long Island City was exactly what Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to avoid when they decided to use a state development process and to bypass more onerous city rules. Opposition, while vocal, seemed futile.
But now, with the insistence of Senate Democrats on appointing Gianaris to the little-known Public Authorities Control Board, those who want to stop Amazon from coming to Queens have gotten their most tangible boost yet. The board will have to decide on the development plan for Amazon, Cuomo has said, and could veto it.
The selection of Gianaris, detailed in a brief letter obtained by The New York Times, was cheered by those who have advocated for elected leaders to try to block the agreement, which could amount to $3 billion in state and city incentives for Amazon to create 25,000 to 40,000 jobs in Queens.
The obscure state board does have a history of blocking major deals: 14 years ago, it helped derail former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans for a new stadium in Manhattan.
The new majority leader, Stewart-Cousins, sent the letter Monday to Cuomo. Gianaris has been a frequent critic of the governor and has called the incentives for Amazon “offensive.”
Stewart-Cousins said in a statement that Gianaris “will bring an important perspective and accountability to this board as it reviews numerous projects.”
In response to Lever’s comment, a spokesman for Stewart-Cousins, Mike Murphy, said that signs of an economic slowdown, highlighted by Cuomo on Monday, made it “even more imperative that we are vigilant with taxpayer money” for development projects.
Amazon declined to comment and referred questions to the state. Company executives have said they expected the development plan would not go before the board until next year. Voting members of the board are appointed to one-year terms, and Murphy said Stewart-Cousins was likely to renominate Gianaris for subsequent terms.
He would be one of three voting members of the board; any voting member of the board has the power to stop projects that come before it.
“My position on the Amazon deal is clear and unambiguous and is not changing,” said Gianaris, who has been present at protests against the deal. “It’s hard for me to say what I would do, when I don’t know what it is I would be asked to opine on.”
However, he added, he said he did not intend to use his position to seek concessions from Amazon.
“I’m not looking to negotiate a better deal,” Gianaris said. “I am against the deal that has been proposed and don’t believe that it can form the foundation of a negotiation.”
Gianaris, like several local elected leaders now opposing the deal, signed a letter initially supporting city and state efforts to lure the company to New York City.
The sudden injection of uncertainty followed a troubled unveiling of the project and a concerted effort by activist organizers to rally opposition to the deal. The company, in recent weeks, has been trying its own charm offensive, engaging local business owners, lobbyists and friendly officials to sell the deal.
Last week, Amazon executives endured a barrage of questioning during a second hearing on the deal before the New York City Council, a solidly progressive Democratic body whose members have been critical of the company’s treatment of its workers. During the hearing, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, said the company would not remain neutral if its employees tried to unionize.
The comment led to criticism from Stewart-Cousins and her counterpart in the Assembly, Carl Heastie.
At the same time, Amazon executives have privately voiced frustration at the opposition in New York, comparing it with the welcome they have received in Virginia, where a similarly sized campus is planned. Huseman, in his prepared remarks last week, said pointedly that the company had been “invited to come to New York, and we want to invest in a community that wants us.”
Lawmakers have used the Public Authorities Control Board — whose voting members are appointed by the Senate, the Assembly and the governor — as a roadblock to big projects before. In 2005, Bloomberg saw his plan for a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, part of the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics, shot down in front of the board by the vote of one state lawmaker, Sheldon Silver, who was then the Assembly speaker. Silver said he could not support a deal that could harm the district in Lower Manhattan that he represented.
Experts on state government have said that the board would need to weigh in on the Amazon project too, though top officials in the Cuomo administration have delivered mixed signals.
Shortly after Amazon announced it would be building the new campus, Robert F. Mujica Jr., Cuomo’s appointee to the board and its chairman, suggested that the deal might not necessarily come before the board.
But Cuomo has since said it would play a crucial role.
“The state, through Empire Development Corp., will do a project plan that will be approved by what’s called the PACB,” he said in an interview with WNYC last year. (Part of the deal, a $500 million capital grant from the state, would not require board approval, Cuomo said.)