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“His Thinking Is, Don’t F–k With Me”: Andrew Cuomo’s Week From Hell Will Test His Political Stranglehold

Andrew Cuomo has had a terrible week. The turbulence started last Thursday, when the New York Post broke the news that the New York governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, had confirmed in a private meeting with state legislators what had been suspected for the past year: that the governor’s office had been withholding data on nursing homes deaths caused by the coronavirus. (Later she claimed the administration asked lawmakers last September for a “pause” in responding, due to a federal inquiry, an account that legislative spokespeople have questioned.) On Monday, Cuomo tried to lower the volume with a quasi demi-apology for a “delay” in turning over the numbers—only to exponentially escalate the furor on Wednesday afternoon, when he used a press conference to blast a state assemblyman who had accused him of obstruction of justice. Which was followed, hours later, by the Albany Times Union breaking the news of a federal investigation into Cuomo’s pandemic nursing home maneuvers.

Cuomo has been on his heels several times before, especially in 2014, when he abruptly disbanded a commission investigating political corruption that had asked questions about the governor’s associates, and in 2017, when he tried to dodge responsibility for the crumbling of New York City’s subways. He rebounded fairly quickly from those, deploying a mix of horse trading, policy, and money, and he has remained far more popular with New York’s voters than its political class. 

The current nursing home mess has a couple of things in common with those episodes: Cuomo’s obsession with controlling events and his willingness to strong-arm people made each of them worse. What’s different this time are the life-and-death stakes of the pandemic, and the dynamic inside Albany. The 2018 and 2020 elections gave Democrats a supermajority in the State Senate, and younger, more progressive, more recently elected legislators are publicly pushing back on Cuomo’s muscular style. Early in Cuomo’s run as governor, a close aide said the administration operated at either of two speeds: “Get along and kill.” Cuomo is capable of nuance, but a decade later, that’s basically still true. “People are fucking scared to death of this man,” says Alessandra Biaggi, a 34-year-old state senator who won her Bronx-Westchester seat in an upset in 2018. “A lot of legislators normalize the governor’s abusive behavior. But this was such an egregious admission about what happened with nursing homes that if you stay silent, you’re basically condoning it. Fifteen thousand people lost their lives, and their families deserve to know what happened here.”

Cuomo has been trying to defend a state order requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients from hospitals pretty much since the moment his health department issued it last March. He amended the order in May 2020 and has argued all along that the policy did not increase the number of nursing home deaths. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, blew a hole in Cuomo’s case in late January, issuing a report that estimated the administration had undercounted nursing home deaths by as much as 50%. DeRosa’s two-hour Zoom meeting with state legislators was, in part, an attempt to repair some of that damage—but it backfired when she said Cuomo’s team delayed turning over nursing home data because it had prioritized responding to a Department of Justice inquiry, and that it was worried the information “was going to be used against us” by President Donald Trump.

Which was an entirely realistic political concern—but it also looked like a cover-up. Even if the data delay was entirely benign, the tight control was characteristic of Cuomo. Nothing significant happens in state government—tax reform, school shutdowns, turning over data to the state legislature—until he determines that the timing is right (or, in the case of releasing the nursing home death count, a court orders him to do so). Biaggi and Ron Kim, an assemblyman from Queens, responded by introducing a bill to strip Cuomo of the emergency powers he was granted last March to deal with the pandemic. Kim followed up by accusing Cuomo of obstructing justice, in a letter cosigned by other lawmakers; he says the governor then called and threatened to “destroy” him (Cuomo’s spokesman denies such a threat was made). Cuomo returned fire, accusing Kim of lying about the phone conversation and of running a “racket” involving donations from the owners of nail salons. “It is pathetic and sad that when at least 15,000 people died while the governor tried to hide the information, he thinks he can distract attention from it with a personal attack that was debunked years ago,” Kim says. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the crisis we’re facing right now. The facts are that he helped his large health care donors give nursing home CEOs immunity and hide nursing home casualty data, and now 15,000 people and counting are dead.” 

The intended audience for the governor’s brushback pitch wasn’t simply Kim, but the entire legislature. “His thinking is, Don’t fuck with me. Remember who I am. Don’t mess with me, and don’t mess with my staff,” a Cuomo insider says. “So far the polls suggest that the public has made a determination on nursing homes—and his numbers are fine. I think what he’s banking on is that this stays a political noise fight, that people are done with the nursing home debate and just want their school open and their bar open and their taxes down. I don’t know.”

Cuomo is up for reelection in 2022, and he badly wants to win a fourth term, surpassing the three won by his father, Mario Cuomo, and giving him a chance to become remembered as the greatest governor in the history of the state. No plausible, well-funded challenger, either Democrat or Republican, has emerged. “He’s got a bunch of lefties who hate him and a bunch of people on the right who hate him. He’s not particularly vulnerable,” says a senior New York Democrat who is no fan of Cuomo’s. “The formula would be a woman of color who can tap into progressive energy. Does Tish James have it in her to go after him? My gut says not at the moment.”

Political intrigue aside, there is also a large element of karma to Cuomo’s current headaches. Last spring and summer daily televised pandemic briefings made him a national Democratic star because he appeared to be a comforting and logical and hardworking presence, in sharp contrast to the erratic, incompetent Trump. In New York, Cuomo’s public approval rating crested at 77%, according to a Siena College poll. “Andrew will overreach,” a longtime Cuomo associate told me at the time. “He always does.” In October, with the pandemic still raging, the governor released a victory lap of a book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic. The paperback edition may need an afterword.

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