Cuomo’s Cover-up Will be Most Effectively Weaponized by the Right

Photograph Source: DonkeyHotey – CC BY 2.0

On February 11, news broke that the Cuomo administration intentionally hid data on COVID-related nursing home deaths from the federal government and New York state legislators, ostensibly for fear of a Department of Justice investigation and potential federal prosecution.

The revelation was fairly shocking, but hardly out of character. Cuomo’s mishandling of the pandemic—coupled with a particularly personal brand of megalomaniacal arrogance—has been plenty obvious for some time. The specific issue of nursing home deaths has been a persistent note in this mismanagement. A rule adopted early in the crisis, forcing nursing homes to re-admit convalescing COVID-19 patients, was blamed, at least in part, for the rampant early spread of the coronavirus through New York State nursing homes. (As David Sirota pointed out, the rule coincided neatly with a corporate immunity provision in the state budget that protected the heavily Cuomo-donating healthcare industry from COVID-related lawsuits.)

For months afterward, the state refused to release a definitive total of individuals who had died in nursing homes. The administration was forced to address this about three weeks ago, when a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James estimated that the official count of nursing home fatalities may have been only 50% of the actual total. The official death toll has since been progressively revised upwards, and now stands around 15,000 deaths.

This latest scandal predictably triggered a wave of calls for accountability—including from left-wing New York politicians, like DSA-endorsed State Senator Julia Salazar, NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and many others. Some critics have called for the governor to resign; more mildly, others insist that his emergency powers be curtailed by the legislature.

The saga was further dramatized this past week, as it was revealed that Cuomo purportedly threatened to “destroy” State Assembly member Ron Kim. Kim’s uncle died from COVID in a nursing home, and the legislator has been an increasingly vocal critic of the state’s handling of this issue. It simultaneously came out that the Department of Justice is investigating whether the Cuomo administration manipulated nursing home data.

Calls for accountability are growing, and they may indeed have some effect. But it is the New York State Republican Party—a not-impotent force—that is poised to take fullest advantage of this blunder, and Cuomo’s many other missteps.

Why? Democrats are hardly in lockstep around the governor. Many are considerably and understandably frustrated; after all, this scandal involved his lying to legislative Democrats. With the revelation of his attacks on Kim, Cuomo appears to be losing sympathy and support at a startling rate. Even so, Cuomo has consolidated remarkable power over the last decade—accelerated over the last year—and there simply is no mass, countervailing force to his left in New York State. Gubernatorial challenges have been attempted twice during his time in office—Zephyr Teachout in 2014 and Cynthia Nixon in 2018—and both failed to amass close to sufficient power. The Working Families Party is a deeply weakened and compromised political force. While left-wing state Democrats would presumably like to see a stronger challenge in 2022—when Cuomo plans to run for a fourth term—it will likely be an uphill battle.

Is it because—as Cuomo likes to imply, if not say outright, to justify his own conservatism—New Yorkers are more inherently conservative? I’m not so sure. New York certainly isn’t the liberal, blue state its defenders—which again include Cuomo, when it’s convenient for him—make it out to be. Its politics are nuanced. (As a simple gauge, take a look at the Democratic primary voting maps from 2016, and the general election maps for 2016 and 2020; all reveal a complex, overlapping picture.) But the organization for a progressive challenge is very limited at present.

The right, meanwhile, is mobilizing. Already we see a consistent right-wing response—building on a longstanding, minoritarian, but widespread and growing dissatisfaction with Andrew Cuomo. Chairman of the New York GOP, Nick Langworthy, has been making the rounds to push for Cuomo’s impeachment. He and others are also promoting the establishment of a recall mechanism in New York State—looking at you, Gavin Newsome. Dutchess County Executive (and 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidate) Marc Molinaro has endorsed the move for impeachment, calling the governor “unfit for public office.”

New York-based national GOP figures agree. Elise Stefanik—the increasingly right-wing NY-21 state representative, and potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate, so recently on the defensive over her support for Trump’s “stop-the-steal” efforts—referred to Cuomo’s “stunning and criminal abuse of power.” Likewise, Long Island GOP Congressman Lee Zeldin announced that the entire state GOP congressional delegation would call on the Justice Department to investigate the cover-up.

As things get worse—and they likely will, as the state struggles with COVID, and New York’s heavily tourist-dependent economy continues to suffer—the calls for accountability will grow more stringent and vehement. And with a deeply neutralized left, the only direction for change will be to the right.

Already we see ominous signs of right-wing radicalization in New York State. As the protests catalyzed by George Floyd’s murder spread this summer, a pro-police “counter-protest” turned violent in Pleasant Valley, New York, in the Hudson Valley. As reported by Arvind Dilawar, BLM protesters were attacked, spat on, and called racial slurs. Dilawar later reported on a number of attendees of the Capitol Riot who came from the Hudson Valley, in the context of right-wing organizing in this region. A broad portrait of New York State shows considerable wariness around issues of race: one recent poll found that only a minority of New Yorkers—31%—consider race relations “excellent” or “good.” Here in swing district NY-19, incumbent Democrat Antonio Delgado beat Trump-supporting Kyle van de Water by about ten points last November. But it’s only Delgado’s second term, and the centrist Democrat will be acutely vulnerable in the 2022 midterm.

Indeed, while 2018 GOP gubernatorial candidate Molinaro was relatively moderate in his allegiance to Trump, it would be surprising if the 2022 GOP candidate for governor were not a MAGA supporter. The mythical “moderate Republican” exists here no longer, at least in electoral politics. Such radicalization, coupled with Cuomo’s “centrist” failings, leave a marked opening. Pending the course of the next year and a half, increasing Republican control of the state is entirely possible.

But perhaps, with Cuomo as governor, this was inevitable. This latest episode brought to mind a friend’s comment, about a year ago, that while she didn’t love Cuomo’s politics, she liked his style of combativeness towards Trump. I think this is a common sentiment: Cuomo’s liberal base of support sees him as a brawler, and they like that, because he’s their brawler, a liberal brawler.

What many thus far neglect, or fail, to see is that—in his bluster, his bullying, his impotent showmanship; in his ego, his contempt for reporters and health experts; in his inability to apologize for deadly mistakes; and above all in his inhumane politics—Cuomo most closely resembles Donald Trump. Let’s hope they see it now, and he is meaningfully held to account, because the failure to do so will only ensure that what comes next is worse.

Will Solomon writes a newsletter, Nor’easter, on climate and environment in the Northeast US. He can be found on Twitter and elsewhere at @wsolol.