And yet, it is far from clear that any of this will bring down Unaccountable Andy. Recent polls show that Cuomo’s constituents largely still have his back: Half of New York’s voters want him to stay in office, while smaller shares say it’s time for him to go. Democrats are even more supportive, with roughly two-thirds saying he shouldn’t resign.
This is all the more confounding when you consider how consistently Cuomo has governed New York against the expressed wishes of his own party, particularly its ascendant progressive wing and its most vocal advocates in New York City — from the billions in public subsidies he offered to Jeff Bezos in an effort to lure an Amazon headquarters to Queens, to his resistance to raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents. Some of the governor’s advisers in Albany have close family ties to powerful state lobbyists, or close political ties to the Republican Party. For years, his closest supporters in the state legislature were a caucus of conservative, ethically challenged Democrats. And for all that he revels in playing the man in charge, when faced with a collapsing subway system in New York City and damaged rail tunnels under the Hudson River, Cuomo has claimed, dubiously, to have little or no authority.
So, what is it that nonetheless keeps Cuomo the Lesser popular among his constituents? The answer seems to be partly his unflagging control of the political narrative, as well as a Praetorian Guard of powerful special interests he has cultivated over the years. But there is something deeper too: the inclination of voters here to value toughness — or more accurately, rampant, ceaseless aggression — over everything, despite a history that shows you don’t need to be a jerk to be a good governor of New York.
Andrew Cuomo has always displayed a bulldog-like tenacity in shaping the story he wants to tell. In campaign season and out, New Yorkers are bombarded with television ads telling us what great things Cuomo is doing. It is this relentless messaging that reportedly accounts for some of the “toxic” and “hostile” work environment in his office — the frenzied pace, the aides hauled back from vacations and children’s birthday parties even to transcribe television interviews, wearing themselves out not in the service of the people but in burnishing the image of Dear Leader.
When things go bad, there is always some sleight of hand to distract us. By no possible measure has New York’s response to the pandemic been a good one. The state has suffered the second highest rate of Covid deaths in the country. Yet Cuomo’s daily press briefings on the virus last year resulted in nationwide accolades, along with a book contract and an Emmy Award. (“The first Emmy ever for controlling the narrative,” as longtime Cuomo critic John Kaehny, the executive director of the public watchdog group Reinvent Albany, put it to me.) “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo Right Now,” read a headline in Vogue last March. “Help, I Think I’m In Love With Andrew Cuomo???” a Jezebel writer confessed.
Another reason Cuomo has managed to hold on is his sheer power. Undoubtedly, the most risible thing that Cuomo — a man who has been at or near the center of state and national politics since he was a teenager — has said in this, his season of discontent, was, “I am not part of the political club.” The fact is that Andrew Cuomo is the political club — at this point, pretty much the only political club still operating in state politics. He sits at the center of a cozy network of corporate donors, state authorities, public-sector unions, business associations, Black churches and pretty much every other major political player in New York. The result is a state government that continually yields big plans and poor results, with little consequence. Hospitals and nursing homes went along with the Cuomo administration’s botched plan to transfer dying Covid patients from one to the other — after the governor pushed through a bill immunizing the nursing homes from potential malpractice.
To their credit, some New Yorkers have publicly revised their opinions of Cuomo amid the recent scandals. Yet majorities of voters still approve of the way he is handling the coronavirus pandemic and the allegations against him. No doubt, this is due in part to the fact that we New Yorkers have made working endless hours in a toxic environment into a badge of honor. Beyond this bent toward office masochism, though, I fear there’s another explanation: New Yorkers don’t think we can do any better.
Call it PTSD from the government dysfunction of the 1970s, Stockholm Syndrome or a weird sort of vanity. But the prevailing belief in recent decades, even among some of the bluest of liberals I know, seems to be that we are so tough and unruly that only someone with the personality of a bridge troll can rule over us.
We applauded Cuomo’s regular abuse of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as if we were at a prize fight, rather than watching two supposed adults tend to our nation’s greatest city. We have persisted in this mentality even as we watched the political carapaces of such former New York tough guys as Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani crack wide open like so many overturned beetles on the national stage. The suspicion grows that we are not so much truly tough at all as insular and voyeuristic in our pleasures, given over to cheap displays of bravado rather than real strength of character. “If you don’t want people to be mean to you, you shouldn’t go into politics,” “Cuomo may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” “Who else can run this place?” and “At least he gets things done” are some of the psychic shrugs I have heard of late — and for years now — from those I know who are among Cuomo’s legion of apologists.
The saddest part about New Yorkers’ loyalty to Cuomo is that it traces how we the people of this state have lost faith in our own ability to run a democracy. Cuomo might like the nostalgia he conjures when he drives over a bridge named for his father in a car used by FDR, such men used to be more the rule than the exception. For much of the state’s 20th-century history, New Yorkers managed to choose probably the best run of governors in the nation, Democrats and Republicans: Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, Al Smith, FDR, Herbert Lehman, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Hugh Carey and Cuomo the Greater. These were all serious individuals who got things done. They were also men of distinction, who usually managed to rule without abuse or fraud.
They reined in corporate power and built the civil service (TR); regulated utilities, fought child labor and started workmen’s compensation (Hughes); reorganized the state’s entire government, built its first park system and fought for women’s rights in the workplace (Smith); fought for environmental conservation and started New York’s first welfare state in the teeth of the Great Depression (FDR); implemented a state minimum wage, unemployment insurance and the right to form unions (Lehman); passed the first state law against employment discrimination by race, started the state university system and the New York State Thruway, and oversaw a vast program of postwar reconstruction (Dewey); led in the fight for civil rights and brought massive new spending to education, environmental protection and infrastructure (Rockefeller); and pulled New York City out of its fiscal crisis and rebuilt much of the state’s financial system and physical plant (Carey and Mario Cuomo).
They also made mistakes and had their personal foibles. But none of them pretended he needed to rule by abusing or humiliating people. They worked to make allies, not shields, relied on inspiration more than fear and built for the people, persistently widening circles of freedom and opportunity. Now, the turmoil of recent decades — crime, economic downturns, 9/11 — and some weak or ineffectual leaders in the White House and Gracie Mansion seem to have left all too many New Yorkers apt to turn to the iron fist.
The uncomfortable question for liberals is: When does this become Trumpism — albeit on a much less threatening scale? When do progressive New Yorkers admit that Cuomo is a man from whom many of them will accept any level of sexual harassment and bullying, any amount of corruption, any amount of incompetence, because they like his public persona? How exactly does this differ from Trump worship?
A former, longtime associate of Mario Cuomo’s recently compared his old boss to Andrew by invoking Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.
“Mario was a complicated man with many fine qualities,” the associate told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the long memories and long knives in New York politics, though, “he could be secretive and bullying, intolerant of dissent and determined to crush his enemies. It wasn’t the virtues of compassion, intellectual inquiry and soaring eloquence that Mario possessed which showed up on Andrew, but exaggerated versions of the disfiguring sins — ruthlessness, suspiciousness, arrogant belief in the righteousness of whatever he did, the need to dominate.”
Today’s New Yorkers, it seems, would rather have the ugly picture in the closet.