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Andrew Cuomo's Endgame
His horizons are closing fast. But he's not yet checkmated.
As you may know, I’ve written a book about Andrew Cuomo. It’s called The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall You of New York. The great OR Books is the publisher. It’s very much the first of its kind. You can (and should) pre-order it now.
It’s obviously been a busy week on the Cuomo front. For the Village Voice, I wrote about Cuomo’s crumbling political prospects. For the Guardian, I wrote about how Cuomo, a television character, is now dying by the sword he once lived by. And in Gothamist, I had a run-down of Cuomo’s past scandals and controversies.
On Wednesday, for perhaps the first time in his political career, Governor Andrew Cuomo apologized.
“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” Cuomo said at a virtual Albany press conference, his first in more than a week. “It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and frankly, I’m embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say. But that’s the truth.”
The apology came after a Cuomo classic: a briefing about COVID-19. From a pure politics perspective, it was as good a performance as someone in Cuomo’s position could muster. The game-plan was clear enough. Liberal viewers, nostalgic for the Cuomo that soothed them in the early months of the pandemic, could have a moment of what they remembered, and then the tough-talking governor could admit he made a mistake. (Charlotte Bennett, the 25-year-old former aide who said she believed Cuomo was propositioning her for sex, did not accept the apology.)
Cuomo has refused to resign. For now, at least one poll is showing that voters are souring on his governing and don’t want him to seek a fourth term but don’t want him to step down. As I’ve written before, Cuomo the Covid Conqueror is no more—he is a political mortal with sinking approval ratings and two separate scandals that could, on their own, end his career.
Late-breaking news on Thursday reminded us that it was his handling nursing homes, before his conduct towards young women came to light, that originally imperiled him. The Times and the Wall Street Journal each reported what we long suspected: the Cuomo administration was intentionally scrubbing data from a 2020 report on nursing home deaths in New York, depressing the tally substantially. What is new is the revelation that the numbers weren’t withheld just because Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, feared a Department of Justice investigation. (There is currently another FBI probe into Cuomo’s oversight of nursing homes.)
It was done, possibly, because it would be bad for Cuomo’s book.
“The extraordinary intervention, which came just after Mr. Cuomo was starting to write a book on his pandemic achievements, was the earliest act yet known in what critics have called a monthslong effort by the governor and his aides to obscure the full scope of nursing home deaths,” the Times reported Thursday.
Cuomo, of course, released a memoir on lessons for combating the COVID-19 pandemic—last October. It was a moment of ultimate hubris, the sort usually reserved for a mythological Greek flapping his waxen wings in the glare of deadly sunlight. We still don’t know how much money Cuomo was advanced to write the memoir—he refuses to say, and will be forced to reveal it when he eventually discloses his tax returns—but my guess is he could have easily earned a million dollars in 2020, based on the lavish advance he received for a much less-read memoir in 2014.
What’s really next for Cuomo? There are three potential outcomes. Two are terrible for him. One is his ideal.
First, the ideal—the Ralph Northam approach. Northam is the Democratic governor of Virginia. You may remember in 2019 when just about everyone of note in Virginia, and plenty of Democrats nationally, called for him to resign from office. Northam had been found to have worn blackface in a 1984 medical school year book. The photograph was awful and racist. Northam profusely apologized. He refused, however, to step down. He was able to wait out the scandal and maintain the backing of Democratic voters in the state. Eventually, the clouds cleared and he’s enjoyed respectable, rising approval ratings since.
Does Northam offer a path for Cuomo? At first glance, yes. There is a clear generational divide in how the sexual harassment allegations are viewed—and it is older Democrats, particularly women, who show up for primaries. Cuomo would seek a fourth term in June 2022, a long time from now. Attorney General Letitia James is deputizing investigators to probe the allegations against him. Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday they should wait for the facts in the report before rushing to judgement, strongly implying he believes the investigation could exonerate him. Cuomo is accused of forcibly kissing one woman, making another deeply uncomfortable, and grabbing and kissing another woman against her will. If the James report confirms only some of these allegations, doesn’t go further, and supports Cuomo’s central claim that he didn’t intentionally cause any harm, it could potentially save his candidacy going into next year. By that time, the allegations could be forgotten and Cuomo would be able to raise money at an absurd clip once more, his rivals buried.
That is my rosiest projection for Cuomo—and probably, at this point, the most unrealistic. Northam’s scandal was isolated, confined to a photograph taken more than 30 years ago. He also had the advantage of being a Democrat in a state with many Republicans, serving with a lieutenant governor facing his own allegations of sexual misconduct. Had both resigned, Republicans could take over the governorship and be well-positioned to keep it. Ultimately, many Democrats rallied around Northam out of political expediency. Virginia might be becoming a safe Democratic state in presidential elections, but Republicans have controlled the state legislature and the governor’s mansion plenty. There are enough of them to pose a threat, forcing Democrats to weigh their partisan advantage over the moral failings of their leaders.
New York is a one-party state. There are blinkered, brain-poisoned Democrats who believe the allegations against Cuomo are a plot to save Donald Trump and put Republicans in charge of New York. None of these people seem to understand a Democrat, Kathy Hochul, would become governor if Cuomo stepped down and a Republican has not won statewide in almost 20 years. Democrats far outnumber Republicans across the state. The voters are concentrated in heavily Democratic New York City and its surrounding suburbs, which are trending left. There really is no path to victory for a Republican anymore.
For the Democratic officials and power brokers who turn on Cuomo, there is no fear they’d hand the state to the other party. Democrats have supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Cuomo’s downfall will not take the party with it. This is the calculus he must reckon with. He knows it very well.
More likely is that Cuomo will be too weakened to seek a fourth term. The most powerful Democrats in New York beyond Cuomo—the legislative leaders of the Senate and Assembly, and James herself—are waiting for one of two things to happen: the conclusion of the report or the emergence of another allegation. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the understated Senate majority leader, made her position very clear on Thursday. “If any further people come forward, I would think it would be time for him to resign,” she said.
Speaking to people in the upper echelons of New York Democratic politics, this is the reasoning I hear. Politician have called for Cuomo to resign, but they are mostly limited to progressives who already opposed Cuomo or ambitious Democrats like Kathleen Rice, who would likely want to make a run at governor or attorney general. Most have held off from calling for Cuomo to step down. Another allegation—a fourth, or more—would multiply and amplify these calls, and motivate those who hold Cuomo’s fate in their hands to step forward.
One is Stewart-Cousins. The other is Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker who has the power to begin impeachment proceedings. Heastie has been circumspect so far. But fresh allegations could prompt him to act. The same could be true if the James report reveals more troubling behavior than what has been reported publicly.
If both legislative leaders called for Cuomo’s resignation, large labor unions and interest groups would likely follow. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader and no fan of Cuomo, could join in too, sensing the end. Such an onslaught would be impossible to fight off. Wounded, Cuomo would have to slink away from office before the end of his term.
The odds of this scenario are increasing, though it is far from guaranteed. If there’s one politician who is ruthless, cunning, and obstinate enough to fight his way through an FBI investigation, sexual assault allegations, and the opposition of the Democratic establishment, it’s Cuomo. He has nowhere else to go from here. He is not going to be president and he is not going back to anyone’s cabinet. There is no political afterlife. He will battle to the bitter end. He will battle long after other politicians, with less gumption but more sanity, step away.
What does seem more likely is that a wounded Cuomo, his poll numbers slipping further, announces he will not run for a fourth term next year. This will probably not come before the release of the AG report. It will come after, when the political fallout will be clearer. Ultimately, it may be up to the richest men and corporations in the state who fund Cuomo’s campaigns to tell him to stand down. Cuomo was counting on $30 or $40 million to demolish his rivals next year. He’s banked almost $17 million. If he’s stuck at that number, he loses leverage over his enemies. Voters won’t factor into his decision-making so much as billionaires, whispering in his ear, will. The largest labor unions will have a say too. If they collectively tell Cuomo to serve out his term and go away, there will no path to 2023 for him.
All of this comes with the assumption that Cuomo will meet his possible demise in the most usual way. Besieged by multiple scandals, an ordinary politician would decide it’s all not worth it and retire, particularly one with decades in public office. He can collect his pension in peace. But Cuomo, of course, is not ordinary. We shouldn’t forget that surrendering power for him is like surrendering oxygen for the rest of us.