One year ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was being heralded as an example of leadership the country was sorely missing. But Cuomo's strengths have also been his weaknesses, as the last month has shown. The rough edges and domineering attitude that drew applause as the state moved decisively against Covid-19 when so many others were flailing have also burned many bridges over the years.
His acumen on camera and ability to deliver a solid sound bite got him momentary praise, but his desire to avoid political attacks led his administration to delay releasing data showing the toll the virus took on the state's nursing homes. Likewise, Cuomo's hard-charging attitude won him elections and got his preferred bills passed. It also alienated everyone around him, leaving him vulnerable to an impeachment inquiry from the state Legislature and leading most New York Democrats in Congress to call for his resignation in the last two weeks. And allegations from several women in recent days of behavior ranging from uncomfortable interactions to sexual harassment have left his team scrambling for how to respond.
On the whole, most people crave leadership in a crisis; we look for someone who can tell us what's wrong and that it will be OK and then pull the levers of government to turn that promise into reality. That small-c conservative need for order and stability has enabled authoritarians around the world for decades. It's what former President Donald Trump counted on during his term, when he convinced his supporters that his bullying, his lies, his harassment were actually strengths.
Cuomo spent last spring being hailed as the anti-Trump in his tone, his drive and his competence. But he has lasted as long as he has in politics only by betting that people won't care about the process when they're at the ballot box — just the outcome. He's likely assuming now that should he beat any impeachment trial and choose to run for a fourth term as governor, New Yorkers will remember the man on their television during the darkest months of the pandemic, the one who made jokes about his daughter's boyfriend and who told them that it would be all right.
That hunker-down, never-give-up mentality fits well with Cuomo's persona and politicking aesthetic. Reading through The New York Times' recent wide-angle look at Cuomo's rise and weeks in free fall, I couldn't help but be struck by the ways that the governor — who was briefly bandied about as a potential replacement for Joe Biden at the top of the 2020 Democratic ticket — resembles the man he spent most of 2020 being contrasted against.
In Cuomo, there are glimpses of what a competent and focused Trump might have looked like.
Cuomo was often reported to be "obsessed" with his ratings and "would sometimes quiz aides as soon as he ended a broadcast about which networks carried him live and exactly when they cut away — data they were expected to have at their fingertips."
Cuomo has famously operated as a steamroller, demanding fealty or doing everything he can to crush his opponents
He has scorned "experts" (air quotes his) in a war on his own administration that has driven nine top state health officials to resign. On the day of his final daily briefing, he "gathered his team in the backyard of the governor's mansion in Albany for a mostly mask-less celebration" to toast their achievements. That premature hubris led him to get what was reported to be seven-figure book deal about his leadership in the pandemic, a book whose sales have tanked since its release.
Meanwhile, Cuomo is reported to be a horrible boss, having continuously demeaned and degraded his staff over the years, fostering toxic work environments as he has worked his way up the political ladder. And rather than rely on persuasion or personal relationships, Cuomo has famously operated as a steamroller, demanding fealty or doing everything he can to crush his opponents. Taken together, it's hard not to see the outline of the former president superimposed on the governor's frame.
A reluctance to earn Cuomo's ire kept the Legislature in check for years, much as Trump's rages kept the congressional GOP in line. (Cuomo also relied on his domination of a group of rebel Democrats that for years allowed Republicans to control the state Senate, ensuring he'd be in the middle of any deal.) That dam broke in late January, when Cuomo's concealment of nursing home deaths — 15,000 residents died, rather than the 8,500 previously disclosed — became public. Assemblyman Ron Kim went to CNN to allege that the governor had called him to "threaten my career" if he didn't "cover up" for the aide who had confirmed that the data had been purposefully withheld. (The feds are looking into the administration's handling of the data.)
Kim said Cuomo went on to tell him "we're in this business together and we don't cross certain lines, and he said I hadn't seen his wrath and that he can destroy me." That may sound like hyperbole — unless you're familiar with Cuomo's style. See also: Larry Schwartz, the state's vaccine czar, who was the person tapped to call county executives to gauge their support for the governor.
That would be a lot to deal with alone. But in the last three weeks multiple women have also come forward to speak about their uncomfortable interactions with Cuomo. As a result, New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office first accused Cuomo's administration of having undercounted nursing home deaths, is investigating the governor's behavior. Albany police are meanwhile looking into an accusation from an unnamed former aide who told the Times Union of Albany that the governor groped her at Gracie Mansion late last year.
Cuomo has remained defiant so far, though, unlike Trump, he has apologized. In doing so, he refused to resign and claimed that he'd never touched anyone inappropriately. He doubled down again on Friday, saying New Yorkers know the difference between "bowing to cancel culture and the truth."
All of the behaviors I've noted have been there, in the open, for years. Cuomo has spent his life leading through a combination of bullying and subterfuge. Even his most popular successes have come at a high cost behind the scenes. That style of leadership depends on fear — fear of losing your job, fear of being humiliated publicly, fear of being yelled at, fear of being harassed.
But in this way, Cuomo is only as powerful as his influence allows him to be, and the Legislature seems like it's had enough — two-thirds of the Senate has called for his resignation. He may be right, though, when he placed his faith in New York's voters, because a poll released Monday shows that only 35 percent of them think he should leave office, even as his approval numbers have taken a 30-point dive compared to their peak last year.
His fellow Democrats may not be afraid of him anymore — but New Yorkers are clearly afraid of what might happen if he's not in control of the state. And for Andrew Cuomo, that's probably good enough for now.