Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Andrew Cuomo Is Actually, Really Finished
The most powerful New Yorker since Moses and Rockefeller will be no more
Betting against Andrew Cuomo is always a difficult thing to do.
Cuomo has dominated the state, for the last decade, like no one since Nelson Rockefeller. Beyond Rockefeller, only Robert Moses rivaled Cuomo for influence. The Moses tenure lasted longer and accomplished more, but each man was adept at wielding power and inspiring great fear in those who contemplated challenging them. It was no exaggeration to say that almost all decisions, major and minor, could run through the executive branch, with local leaders feeling independent only when Cuomo permitted them to be. The trains, the bridges, the airports, the schools, the hospitals, the taxes, the spending, the laws—all of it was under Governor Cuomo’s thumb always, every political actor an outer rim planet orbiting a great sun at the center of New York’s solar system.
The coronavirus pandemic cemented Cuomo’s control. With sweeping emergency powers, he ran the state by decree, opening and closing counties while slashing their budgets at will. In 2020, there could hardly be said to be such a thing as a state legislature. Cuomo was inordinately popular, a national superstar at last, and there were serious-minded people who wished he would subvert the doddering Joe Biden and run for president. There was time, they insisted—the DNC, somehow, could dump Biden and throw Cuomo against another odious Queens native, Donald Trump.
“The American writer,” the celebrated novelist Philip Roth once wrote, “has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality.” Indeed, no novelist could sketch such a dizzying arc for the career of Andrew Mark Cuomo. It would seem too ludicrous. This time a year ago, Cuomo was coming off a peak of popularity rarely seen anywhere. Credited with guiding the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the more than 50,000 that would eventually die here, Cuomo was a hero to blinkered pundits, journalists, and liberals everywhere, feted by cable TV and the celebrities who deemed themselves “Cuomosexuals.” None of it was earned—New York’s pandemic response was belated and poor, and Cuomo was actively hiding the death toll in nursing homes—but he was revered nonetheless. If he would never be president, a fourth term was a guarantee, with residual goodwill and tens of millions to bury whoever stood against him.
Now here we are. Letitia James, the state attorney general once elected with Cuomo’s strong support, has delivered the deathblow. The dramatic arc closes. Cuomo was found, as we all suspected, to have sexually harassed current and former staffers, as well as a state trooper. The culture of his administration, odious and predatory, was revealed to the nation. It can be argued Cuomo’s conduct, in a vacuum, wouldn’t normally be enough to end a political career, but the politicians and union leaders calling for his resignation have more on their mind. Cuomo’s behavior is deplorable, but if he had real friends in politics—and wasn’t facing overlapping federal investigations into his cover-up of nursing home data—he would not be so defeated today. He would have a fighting chance.
Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic, on its own, should have been enough to end him. He downplayed the threat of the virus in March 2020, comparing it to the common flu like Trump did. He rejected the idea of a shutdown order for New York City because Bill de Blasio suggested it first. He attempted to cut Medicaid funding to front-line public hospitals. He tried to gut public universities and social services. He granted sweeping, unprecedented legal immunity to nursing homes and hospitals, allowing well-connected healthcare executives to do whatever it was they pleased with state government. He invented bizarre criteria for counting a nursing home death, hiding a crisis in plain sight.
Cuomo’s career, it’s becoming clear, is going to end one of two ways. Like Richard Nixon, he can decide leaving on his own terms is preferable. For a moment in March, this almost seemed plausible until Cuomo decided that denial and defiance would suit him better. That worked as long as the State Assembly was cowed by him. Now, their speaker, Carl Heastie, has called for Cuomo to step aside. Either Cuomo does so or he gets impeached. If he’s impeached, he will be convicted. This is not Washington. Trump had his Republicans to exonerate him. Senate Democrats want Cuomo gone. Senate Republicans agree. Cuomo has nothing to offer anyone anymore. And he has no ability to intimidate. He is utterly defanged.
Cuomo’s time in office will end soon, his obituary marred. A man so arrogant and sadistic, so devoid of mercy for his enemies, deserves nothing less. Those who enabled his behavior deserve to join him in the gutter of history. This sounds harsh, but really isn’t. Were the situation reversed, Melissa DeRosa and Rich Azzopardi and Alphonso David would be reveling in the downfall of anyone who had crossed Cuomo. Cuomoland, a dark and empty place, would be momentarily alit in celebration. Think of how they treated the rest of the state for the last 11 years.
Cuomo earned his fate, as did his rapacious underlings. When Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor, replaces him, she should purge as many Cuomo hands as she can from the government. Seek out new faces who will come to Albany with a greater vision, who will not exist simply to serve the whims of a governor who believed himself to be so impregnable. Give New York the competent, respectable government it deserves. Never again should there be a governor who dreams up the IDC or makes a mockery of the public transit system or politicizes how life-saving vaccines are handed out.
There will be time to pick over the post-Cuomo future. New York may see its first competitive Democratic primary for governor in decades. Hochul, if she’s elevated, may seek a full-term. James herself would likely enter the fray. As could Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, Congressman Tom Suozzi, and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. Mayor Bill de Blasio, for some reason, wants to run too. The vacancies these men and women open will create more competition, as a new generation seeks a rare promotion in political life. All of it will be strange and very interesting. All of it will play out with Cuomo no longer looming. He will be furiously and forever retired, forced to live off his book advance money and whatever sinecure one of his remaining friends can hunt out for him.
Nixon found rehabilitation in the decades after his downfall, and his quasi-liberalism—relative to the savage turn of the modern Republican Party—has aged well. His scandal, a cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, is rather quaint by today’s standards. He became, in his final years, an elder statesman, undertaking many foreign trips and writing many books. There were enough people who wanted to hear from him, and even those who wanted to forgive.
Who would want to hear from Cuomo again? What does he have to offer? He is not an ambitious policy mind, a man of introspection, a Democratic beacon. His life story teaches no lessons; he is the son of another governor, nepotism personified. He has never won a competitive gubernatorial election without spending tens of millions more than his nearest rival. Unlike Nixon, he was not a self-made man, and unlike Moses, he did not dream bigger than anyone else. He found power and deftly perpetuated it as long as he could, until his sins caught up to him. We can wish him peace in the shadows. Everyone, even Cuomo, deserves that. We don’t have to wish him anything else.