Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s transition from Albany’s long-jowled bullyboy to America’s lockdown lovebug was as swift as it was unlikely. The Empire State early on had become America’s coronavirus killing ground, and who would have thought a hero could emerge from that? Especially one best known for bombast, a withering stare, backroom brawling, and the joy he derives from tormenting the hapless mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio.
By midsummer, total coronavirus deaths in New York were far and away the highest in the nation—seven times those in Florida; nine times Texas’s; and four times those in California, a state with a population more than twice that of New York. Even so, the most trusted medical voice in America on the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was telling the country in July that because New York’s numbers had fallen, the state “did it correctly.”
He said this even though he knew about New York’s nursing-home calamity—a disastrously ill-considered Cuomo executive order that sent virus-infected patients directly from hospitals into nursing homes, where infections spread wildly and thousands died, quickly and quietly. The governor, characteristically, blames others for the debacle, but the fact is that such things didn’t happen elsewhere. Nonetheless, Cuomo’s reputation remained bizarrely intact as the summer deepened.
Cuomo had appointed himself New York’s chief COVID officer on March 2, kicking off a series of more than 100 daily briefings that combined useful information with breezy ad-libbing and family anecdotes, drawing buckets of media attention—and then, national attention.
And why not? Cuomo appeared to be the only one in the room who knew what he was talking about. Plus, there was a calm firmness to his presence, he tossed off just enough partisan schtick to please his party base without over-riling everybody else. He wasn’t the hated Trump, and so he became a social-media sensation.
Cuomo had long been auditioning for such a gig, and it kept eluding him. When thunderclouds appear on the horizon, or there is a snowstorm in the forecast, New Yorkers know that their governor is half-zipping his New York Tough™ windbreaker—to caution, to cajole, and to warn the unwary that yes, by golly, icy roads are slippery. Once he even helped hook a tow-truck to a car stuck in a snowbank—with a video of the smooth-as-silk extraction arriving on the Internet almost in real time.
So the smile that suddenly dazzled America was practiced. Also, deceptive.
Andrew came to Albany in 1983 as his father Mario’s chief knee-capper, having helped guide the Empire State’s newly elected governor to an upset primary win over New York City’s popular mayor, Ed Koch, and to a surprisingly close general-election win over a self-funded, big-spending policy intellectual, Republican Lew Lehrman.
Andrew was 26 then, supremely confident and assertive. He embraced his initial task—clearing the capital city’s political stables of detritus dating to the Nelson Rockefeller era of the 1960s and early 1970s—with uncamouflaged enthusiasm. As his biographer Michael Shnayerson put it in 2015, the young man arrived as “his father’s all-knowing, all-purpose henchman…his father’s heavy,” adding: “He was a nasty piece of work who took delight in firing and cutting down to size people decades older…. You do not want him mad at you. He takes no prisoners.”
Back then, Albany was a lot like Andrew’s hometown of Queens: leafy, clannish, and stuffed to the rafters with shady lawyers and corrupt politicians, mostly Democrats. In the event, despite years as Bill Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development, he has never really left and shows few signs of ever wanting to.
He loosely resembles his father in this respect. Mario famously developed a coy presidential-flirtation-followed-by-reluctant-withdrawal schtick into an art form. (It’s hard to forget December 1991, when a chartered airplane sat on an Albany County Airport runway as Mario pondered a flight to New Hampshire to file for a spot on that state’s presidential primary ballot. In the end, of course, he never did.)
Andrew’s approach to such things has been less sophisticated. He regularly shows presidential-aspirant leg—his COVID mic drops, for example, spurred talk of a spot on the Democrats’ 2020 ticket—then simply scoffs at suggestions he might want to move up. His current engagement, Cuomo avers, is “the most important job to me that I could ever have.”
This is what they all say, of course. But it’s not hard to find old hands in Albany who believe Andrew’s principal ambition at the moment is to achieve something Mario ached for, but that was denied to him by Republican George Pataki in 1994—a fourth term. It’s not so much that Andrew wants a fourth term as it is that his father couldn’t win one—so there must be another inauguration simply to prove a point. They were family, but intense rivals as well.
In 2002, as the younger Cuomo tentatively sought his party’s gubernatorial nomination for the first time, Adam Nagourney provided a fascinating glimpse at just how fierce that competition could be. In a long profile for the New York Times Magazine, Nagourney related Andrew Cuomo’s recollection of a walk he recently had taken with his father in the Westchester County woods: “Andrew Cuomo broke out in a loud laugh as he described how the other politician in the family had fared in the woods, of watching Mario (‘He was wearing, like, a suit!’) warily surveying [a] rocky hill that Andrew Cuomo had conquered. ‘He, like, looked at the hill and said, ‘Oh, no—ho, ho, ho—oh, no, I don’t understand why we are doing this!’ Cuomo recounted, booming out his imitation of his father. The father-son walk in the woods lasted, by Andrew Cuomo’s wristwatch, about seven minutes; if this was a competition, which it certainly was, there could be no doubt in his mind about who won it.”
That is to say: Anything Pop can do, I will do better.
Eighteen years later, this very much remains to be seen. The contrasts between the two administrations sharply underscore the strangeness of Andrew’s emergence as America’s pandemic pinup. If Ronald Reagan had been American conservatism’s great communicator in the ’80s, the same fairly could have been said of the left and Mario Cuomo. Opponents often found each leader’s views distasteful, if not obnoxious, but it’s hard to argue that they weren’t clearly and often courageously argued. Cuomo’s choice of Notre Dame University for his 1984 declaration of independence from Roman Catholic orthodoxy on abortion established him as a political orator of the first rank: He respectfully made his case, however repellent it might have been to his hosts. His party and most of the media embraced him as an inspiration, and nobody thought of him as a bully for doing it the way he did.
In this respect, Andrew is not remotely his father’s son. While he is quite capable of speaking with a smile in his voice, Andrew’s usual oratorical style is far from silver-tongued. He is more pile driver than persuader, satisfying to those who share his worldview, but off-putting, and sometimes deeply disturbing, to those who don’t. And as for dissent, well, he’ll brook none of that, thank you very much.
He says, for example, that those who hold traditional views on abortion, marriage, and the Second Amendment are to be cast out from his Empire State: “Who are [these people]?” Cuomo thundered in 2014. “Are they these extreme conservatives, who are right-to-life, pro–assault weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that is who they are, they have no place in the state of New York. Because that is not who New Yorkers are.”
This is a breathtakingly upside-down condemnation of extremism, although that seemed beyond his grasp. But it fairly reflects the unsubtle authoritarianism that has been broadcast from Albany’s Executive Chamber since Cuomo the Younger took office in 2011.
It is not so much a left–right thing as it is a “because I say so” approach to governance, with pronounced “how dare you” undertones whenever he is challenged. Seeking an increase in the state’s minimum wage, for example, and having grown impatient with the democratic process, he escalated his rhetoric and bludgeoned one into law—after dismissing out of hand all consideration of the economic impact of the hike and transforming the issue into a moral crusade.
“With the historic increase in the minimum wage, New York continues to set a national example in the fight for economic justice,” he declared. “In New York, we believe in a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and are proud to be stepping up for hardworking families and making a real difference in the lives of New Yorkers. We won’t stop until every New Yorker is paid the fair wages they deserve.”
Irrespective of the impact of such things on New York’s fragile, post-industrial economy, he might have added, though he did not.
But while Cuomo has the rhetoric of wealth redistribution down pat, and once declared upstate New York to be in “economic crisis,” he has done virtually nothing to encourage systemic wealth creation. And in one critical respect—mitigation of energy prices in America’s costliest-kilowatt jurisdiction—he took a knee to green-activist doctrine with a bowed head.
The governor effectively banned natural-gas production in New York’s economically forlorn Southern Tier. He has also blocked construction of gas pipelines and electricity-transmission networks across the state, and he all but single-handedly forced next year’s shutdown of the Hudson Valley’s Indian Point nuclear-power complex. While the net impact of all this doubtless will be muted by the state’s deepening, pandemic-driven recession, whenever recovery does resume, it’ll be no thanks to New York’s unnecessarily sky-high energy costs.
No surprise, then, that what economic development the administration has undertaken involves top-down, tightly controlled, heavily subsidized corruption-magnet schemes in depressed upstate cities. This approach has produced no discernible economic growth. To take one example, Cuomo sank a billion tax dollars into a fruitless solar-panel production scheme in Buffalo. But it has led to one crushing embarrassment after another.
These would include the six-year federal prison term for an intimate Cuomo family friend and political ally to Andrew. Joseph Percoco, once described by the governor as “my father’s third son,” came to Albany in 2010 to serve as Andrew’s principal confidant and enforcer—that is, filling the role Mario had initially assigned to his son.
Once a fearsome Executive Chamber presence, Percoco now sits in a medium-security federal prison in Orange County, New York, convicted of receiving bribes. He was a victim of an inability to control the powers of his office and the urge to live beyond his means—and he’s not the only former Cuomo-administration official to be caught up in economic-development-related bribery schemes.
But Percoco is the Exhibit A illustration of what arguably is the principal difference between the Cuomo incumbencies. By all appearances, Mario’s was clean; Andrew’s has been dogged by overt scandal—the corruption convictions but also low-rent ethical corner-cutting—since the beginning.
Perhaps most egregiously, after Andrew in 2014 appointed a special ethics commission to investigate campaign-finance corruption, he abruptly disbanded the panel when it began to probe some of his own campaign dealings.
And even when the incumbent governor does the right thing—take his well-publicized support of charter schools, for example—there have almost always been fat-cat campaign donors in the background. So, to continue the example, it was no surprise that when hedge-fund donors’ ardor for charters began to cool, so did the governor’s.
Similarly, Cuomo’s enthusiasm for increased health-care spending has been matched by reciprocal support from New York’s immensely powerful health-care-industry unions and hospital executives. This is seamy but legal; the health-care cartel has hugely outsized influence in writing the rules. But it’s also worth keeping in mind when considering the governor’s pandemic performance. He has a donor base to pacify.
And what about his performance? It’ll be a while before all the facts are clear. The pandemic itself is hardly played out. It’s proceeding differently in different jurisdictions as experts adapt and as different strategies are applied. And who knows whether a second or even a third wave will appear?
Certainly the virus itself is a free agent; it will do what it will do. As far as government is concerned, though, the principal challenge now is dealing with the social, educational, and economic impact of pandemic shutdowns that have staggered private-sector employment and, in turn, ravaged state- and local-government finances.
That is, Andrew Cuomo ain’t seen nothing yet. Neither has New York. But in virtually all significant respects, Cuomo is the government in the Empire State, largely by default, so it’s on him.
The state’s other major elected chief executive, Bill de Blasio, has been a tumbleweed throughout the crisis, feckless, unfocused, ineffective, and no fit partner for any serious policymaker. The Democrat-controlled legislature has been equally hapless and doubtless will continue to be so. The Assembly speaker is a small-bore machine politician from the Bronx, and the Senate majority leader is new to her position and untested. The pair ceded extraordinary executive power to Cuomo as the pandemic emerged and then quietly faded away. This couldn’t have pleased the governor more. He likes having things his way—he insists on it, in fact—and that set the stage for his star turn.
“We think we have the best health-care system on the planet right here in New York,” Cuomo said on March 2, during the first of what would be 111 consecutive daily press briefings. The governor soon would have reason to regret those words: Again, by mid-July, New York’s pandemic casualty count, both absolutely and relative to other states, was appalling. But he had presented himself as calm, competent, and reassuring, and no one really challenged the image as reality began to intrude on it.
There were occasional panicky outbursts—once over the scarcity of ventilators, and another time regarding crowded hospitals. After a time, the patter just got old. Soon there were hilarious spoofs on Twitter, and toward the end of his daily soap, Cuomo bizarrely offered a green papier-mâché construction that he said represented the mountain New Yorkers had conquered during the pandemic. But the prop more closely resembled the mashed-potato-butte scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only with green spuds. Then, as New York’s fits-and-starts reopening began, Cuomo became peevish, inconsistent, and dictatorial. He said it was OK to eat out but not to drink out. He threatened to close down what he had opened up. He tormented small-business owners with his entirely personal style of decision-making. In other words, he was reverting to his ordinary state of nature.
No doubt weighing on Cuomo’s mind are those numbers—appalling, singular, and demanding redress. Certainly someone has to answer for the nursing homes, and perhaps he fears the time is nigh.
His search for a scapegoat has been intense, as was his finger-pointing, but the fact is that Cuomo thrust himself center-stage early on. He holds all the power levers, he defines the terms of debate—and he wouldn’t have hesitated to take full credit had things proceeded differently.
But they didn’t. So who better to hold answerable for what was arguably the worst decision made by any public official during the virus outbreak than Andrew M. Cuomo, son of Mario and the self-created colossus of New York?
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