Andrew Cuomo: Legend of a Fall

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is perhaps the most unfortunate of truisms that in a time of crisis the masses desperately seek to find comfort in the arms of a proclaimed leader. Just as unfortunate is there is never a shortage of charlatans eager to assume the role. The one consolation for this sentiment is that at least it usually does not age well. Those who lived through 9/11 in New York had to endure Rudy Giuliani elevated to America’s Churchill. This despite the fact no single action Giuliani took on that fateful day or in the aftermath could plausibly be connected to having saved a single life- something Giuliani openly lied about. His ballyhooed Office of Emergency Management, originally designed to coordinate emergency operations of different agencies, was completely useless since Giuliani insisted, over the objections of practically everyone else involved in the project, that the office’s headquarters be within walking distance of City Hall. It ended up inside WTC 7, a site that was already the target of a 1993 terrorist attack.

Due to a long bout of corporate cronyism involving Motorola, of which Giuliani’s administration was smack in the middle of, firefighters were equipped with inadequate, outdated radios that likely contributed to dozens of them unable to hear evacuation orders. Still the mythology survived for a few years, enough for a failed run at the White House (Fox News continues at times pathetically to refer to Giuliani as ‘America’s Mayor’). Yet in the long run Giuliani has loudly revealed himself to be the blabbering cretin he was all along. His ‘trial by combat’ speech to the rabble on January 6th in DC was the perfect coda to his speech to a drunken police mob outside City Hall in New York in 1992 protesting the establishment of an all-civilian review board.

After the 2004 presidential election, Democrat campaign managers lamented the difficulty in defeating George W Bush, at that moment a ‘war time’ presidential incumbent. In the weeks after 9/11, as the bombing of Afghanistan kicked off, Bush’s approval ratings were astronomical. Only a year prior to the election Bush performed his infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ stunt on the USS Abraham Lincoln. By the time he left office the approval rating was in the tank along with the economy. In 2016, he was so unpopular he was a liability to his brother’s fleeting campaign.

Future historians will have a field day examining the daily commentary of the COVID pandemic. Early on there was Madonna sitting nude in a marble bathtub filled with rose petals proclaiming COVID ‘the great equalizer.’ Trump of course supplied his daily dose of schizophrenic fare so incoherent that even conservative TV hacks were unable to morph it into a convincing picture of brave leadership. Yet nothing tops the spectacle of Ellen Degeneres and Trevor Noah actually declaring themselves to be ‘Cuomosexuals’, in honor of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a term that was immediately plastered on various merchandise.

With Trump’s press conferences being sprawling messes of id, Cuomo’s had liberals enthralled. Using a mix of family anecdotes and a commitment to lockdowns, Cuomo earned himself an Emmy. Desperate for a figure to contrast with Trump, and Republican governors who were too laissez faire in their approach, liberals circled the wagons around Cuomo. Right from the start, anyone looking would have seen some dark shadows hovering. Cuomo was late with the lockdown order. The San Francisco Bay Area shut down on March 16th of last year. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio told residents to prepare for it on March 18th only to have the idea dismissed by Cuomo who waited four more days to give the order. While the exact effect of the delay can never be precisely calculated, Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC, estimates the early death toll in the city could have been cut by as much as 80 percent. Cuomo’s ordering of nursing homes to accept COVID infected patients, even in the early days of chaos and uncertainty, stands out nationwide as particularly callous. In April, with the pandemic raging in New York worse than anywhere in the world, Cuomo’s budget featured cuts to Medicaid. In that same bill, Cuomo signed off on the Emergency Disaster Treatment Protection Act granting immunity for a collection of hospital and nursing home executives under the banner of the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA). Just by coincidence, GNYHA has been a major donor to Cuomo’s political machine, to the tune of $2.3 million during the last campaign. A further step back would reveal Cuomo’s administration having a role in the state losing 20,000 hospital beds in the two decades before the pandemic.

Yet none of this tarnished the glow of the moment nor stopped the talk of a White House run in 2024. No less than Rolling Stone Magazine featured Cuomo on its cover with the headline ‘Andrew Cuomo Takes Charge.’ After 111 straight days of press conferences, Cuomo signed off his final daily one in June 19th, 2020 with ‘New York loves everyone. That’s why I love New York. And at the end of the day, my friends…Love wins, always.’ By October, with audacity that can only be described as Trumpian, given the pandemic was still raging, Cuomo was good enough to dispense his wisdom via a book titled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. The house of cards was begging to collapse.

On Jan 28 2021, New York State Attorney General released a report that the state’s Department of Health undercounted COVID deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, also faulting nursing homes for lack of compliance with infection control protocols. At following day’s press conference Cuomo dispensed with the mushy talk for a direct ‘But who cares? 33 [percent]. 28 [percent]. Died in a hospital. Died in a nursing home. They died.’ A few days later, the New York Post reported that Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa revealed to Democratic lawmakers that the governor’s office rebuffed the state legislature’s request for the nursing home data last August out of fear of federal prosecutors (not to mention Trump’s twitter feed).

From there, Assemblyman Ron Kim, one of early critics of the governor’s handling of the pandemic, alleges Cuomo called him on the phone, in what Kim describes as a ten minute rant, threatening to ‘destroy’ him if Kim didn’t backtrack on his criticism. For his part, Cuomo accuses Kim of lying and alleged, with no evidence, that years ago Kim accepted illegal campaign donations from local businesses in his district. Cuomo’s bullying has long been a known feature of his governing. Mayor Bill DeBlasio called the incident ‘classic Andrew Cuomo.’ A few days after this, Lindsay Boylan, a former aide to Cuomo, accused him of what she calls ‘pervasive harassment.’ Then this past weekend a second former aide came forward.

Cuomo is an ego maniac par-excellence. When subway service in New York hid the skids in the summer of 2017, Andy Byford, fresh from a successful top transit job in Toronto, was hired to run the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the agency runs the city’s public transportation. Byford became a somewhat popular figure, showing up on subway platforms to talk to riders, even apologizing for delays. Plus he got some results. New York subways still uses a signal system that was installed from the 1930s to the 1960s. While planning to modernize, Byford established a team that systematically studied signals throughout the subway system and repaired them so that trains could run faster and operators could have faith that they would not trip a red signal by going the posted speed. He also worked with the union to reduce onerous penalties train operators would incur by tripping those fault signals- all in all saving residents hours per year in unnecessarily slow trips. His reward for all this effort? The scorn of the governor and a ticket out of town. Byford was popular and things apparently were not happening fast enough for Cuomo to take credit.

This same impulse was apparent when it came to the three-stop expansion of the Second Ave subway. A frantic push to complete the project for a celebratory inaugural ride for the cameras on New Year’s Eve in December 2016, Cuomo’s office issued nine press releases that week, cost the city millions extra (the final tally for the expansion came in at $4.5 billion, the most expensive subway project in history on a per mile basis) and quite possibly led to the neglect of the rest of the system that was in decline for years, culminating in that hellish 2017 summer. It was seen again in 2018 when the New York Times snagged an internal document that revealed contractors were incentivized to speed up completion of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge ahead of schedule just days before the last Democratic primary. The state apparently promised to pay any additional costs and for any accidents that may have occurred if construction went on while traffic flowed upon opening.

The tide has turned quickly. The New York Times ran a story this week about Cuomo’s longstanding awful behavior in office and even Saturday Night Live featured a skit on his bullying. Democrats are eyeing removing the emergency power Cuomo was given to deal with the pandemic (to issue executive orders that suspend existing laws) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on the state to investigate the Boylan’s accusation. The state is set to hire a special investigator, while Cuomo has finally offered the dreaded apology. It is fair to wonder if there has ever been a political fall this swift. One should hope it is a complete one.



Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).