Farewell to the Cuomo Pandemic

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
August 12, 2021

The mythology of Andrew Cuomo always struck me as disproportionate with reality. Maybe that’s because I never covered New York politics up close. But in that world, among beat reporters and operatives and legislators and media consiglieres, he was weirdly venerated: He was a brass-balled Italian alpha from another time, swatting away Democratic primary challengers, doling out favors, installing loyalists on committees and boards, cajoling the press with a mix of threats and his odd brand of charm, and emasculating New York Mayor Bill de Blasio whenever he felt like it, just for kicks.

Above all else, Cuomo was seen as a master of the inside game, muscling big legislation and working New York’s political levers like the Wizard of Oz. And as I wrote that very sentence, I hopped over to Wikipedia to see if I had stumbled upon a Cuomo metaphor that might work for this column. Et voila! “Toto pulls back a curtain, exposing the ‘Wizard’ as a con man operating machinery.”

Cuomo was considered untouchable until this week, when he resigned after 11 women accused him of harassment or unwanted touching. (Cuomo has denied accusations against him.) The curtain has now been pulled back in full, thanks to Attorney General Letitia James’s bombshell report that exposed the many ways that Cuomo allegedly acted like a creep around women in his claustrophobic orbit. It punctuated what I knew to be true last year, when media figures and Democrats were treating Cuomo like a divine savior coming down from the heavens to rescue us from Donald Trump and COVID. The reality is that he was simply never as majestic as he was held up to be—as a politician, a national figure, a media hero, and as we now know, a man.

Cuomo was great at operating the machinery, but his traditional levers had been showing rust for years. Cuomo took some pleasure in acting like a political boss from another time partly because of the waters he swam in. New York is one of the most corrupt states in the nation. Cuomo’s close aide Joe Percoco went to prison for accepting bribes. The state legislature in Albany, “a city without a good Chinese restaurant,” as Ed Koch once sneered, is notorious for its clubbiness, sexism and the constant odor of corruption. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, went to prison for bribery and extortion. Former Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos went to jail for taking bribes and getting his son a no-show job in exchange for favorable legislation. Both were running the show in Albany when Cuomo took office in 2011.

The State Senate, too, was controlled by Republicans for much of Cuomo’s tenure. Getting bills passed in New York amounted to a pissing contest between a lot of men who fashioned themselves as tough guys, like the kid from Westchester you went to college with who had a Scarface poster in his dorm room even though he took anti-depressants.

Early on, Cuomo muscled some transformational progressive legislation through the muck of New York state government. In his first term, he passed marriage equality before it became legal everywhere, raised the minimum wage and enacted the nation’s strictest gun law. Those are big progressive goals that most ambitious politicians on the left would have bragged about until their dying days. But Cuomo, who served as Bill Clinton’s HUD Secretary, has always been a tactical moderate first-and-foremost, not a liberal crusader like his father Mario. While he considered running for president in 2016 and 2020, he also never seemed to care much about his reputation outside of New York, declining national media requests and never bothering with the rubber chicken circuit in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Being the most powerful man in New York, or even just being perceived as that person, always seemed to matter more to him than ideology or favorable coverage in POLITICO. My friend Scott Conroy wrote a piece about Cuomo’s governing style back in 2013, when he was first being mentioned as presidential candidate. A Cuomo confidant cynically explained that the same-sex marriage legislation was as much triumph of process as it was substance: “It was very controlled, and it was very smart. We did not commit to move legislation until we understood how we were going to get it passed, and there was very tight control on what the people who were working with us were doing and saying.”

That sums up Cuomo’s brand more than anything else: Tight control. In his first term, after Democrats won a majority of seats in the New York Senate, Cuomo worked behind the scenes to create the “Independent Democratic Conference,” a group of right-leaning Democrats who ended up aligning with Republicans, giving them control of the chamber. Cuomo could then call in favors and steer his agenda as needed, while boxing out liberal New York City Democrats from getting in the way of his agenda.

Cuomo’s politics were all about power, almost like a modern Robert Caro subject. In 2014, he launched the Moreland Commission to investigate corruption and ethics violations in Albany. But Cuomo was soon accused of meddling in the supposedly-independent commission’s work, prodding them to investigate political foes and avoid looking into Cuomo’s allies. Cuomo eventually shut the whole thing down himself, and in very Trumpy fashion, scolded the reporters who questioned him on it—much like he would do years later when reporters questioned him about the nursing home deaths in New York during the early days of the pandemic.

The commission was his personal plaything anyway, he told them. “It’s not a legal question,” he said. “The Moreland Commission was my commission. It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So, interference? It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine.”

Then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bhahara, a budding political star, investigated Cuomo for shutting down the commission, but revealed no wrongdoing. Still, as Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker this week, Bharara was bothersome enough that Cuomo had the gall to dial up the Obama White House and complain to Valerie Jarrett. “This guy’s out of control,” Cuomo ranted on the call, according to a member of the White House legal team at the time. “He’s your guy.” Again: Trumpy!

Progressives hated Cuomo for many of the above sins, but Cuomo didn’t care. He cared about the maintenance of his own power. And that meant he read the polls and talked to the right people, and he understood that Twitter and the au courant Radical Chic zeitgeist of Bushwick did absolutely zero to win elections. Just as Joe Biden largely did in his Democratic primary campaign in 2020, Cuomo ignored noisy liberals on social media and focused on normie moderates who really make up the Democratic electorate—black voters, upstate voters, union voters, voters who cared about their taxes, schools and health care. He demolished the more progressive primary challengers in 2014 and 2018—yes, even in Brooklyn—in old school fashion, targeting New Yorkers with television and direct mail.

Very little of Cuomo’s complicated political backstory found its way into the fawning and ethically-dubious media coverage of his Coronavirus response last year. It made his sudden emergence as a #Resistance hero all the more weird and amusing. This guy? For PRESIDENT? Very few people talking about Cuomo, on cable news and the internet, seemed to know anything about him or his past. But his ability to form complete sentences, read from a PowerPoint and follow baseline CDC guidelines made him somehow godlike compared to Donald Trump.

Trump scrambled the brains of journalists and Democrats in many ways, but one of his worst legacies was spawning a mindless fan culture on the left, in which people who never paid attention to politics before 2016 fawned over whichever Democrat was “owning” Trump on this day or that. Like Michael Avenatti years before him, or Steve Schmidt when he started showing up on MSNBC with convoluted Third Reich analogies, Cuomo was the hot new thing for Trump-hating wine moms in the spring of 2020.

Celebrities and liberals on the Internet called for him to run for president in 2020. People on Twitter dubbed themselves “Cuomosexuals”—a title Ellen DeGeneres embraced. Jezebel headlined, “Help, I think I’m in love with Andrew Cuomo???” Chelsea Handler called him an “Italian hunk” and couldn’t stop herself from posting horny videos about how much she liked being bossed around. “We haven’t had leadership in so long,” she said at one point. “We had this man, this big Italian meatball. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna flatten the curve.’ I’m gonna flatten YOUR curve.”

Plenty of actors in the mainstream press, namely CNN and MSNBC, were also guilty of hyping Cuomo, abandoning all pretense of objectivity or restrain—and they were doing so when his fellow Democratic governors on the West Coast, Jay Inslee and Gavin Newsom, were in many ways handling COVID more competently in those early pandemic days. But c’mon! New York, baybee! CNN, my former employer, had already adopted as its point of view that Trump Is Always Wrong, a sureshot ratings magnet for outraged Boomers on the left.

But in what would probably do more to validate accusations of CNN’s political bias than anything the network had ever done, Cuomo was repeatedly invited on his brother Chris Cuomo’s primetime show, in which the two fellas would crack jokes about Mom and riff about how much Trump sucks. It was a betrayal of journalistic standards, and certainly of CNN’s own standards from the time I worked at the network. No matter: The segments were good for ratings, even as they later proved to be a huge embarrassment for the network, which still spends a lot of time these days attacking Fox News for its political bias and Republican cheerleading. All this … for Andrew Mark Cuomo?

The Cuomo worship was all happening, of course, while his administration was telling nursing homes to take back residents who had already been infected with COVID, possibly the cause of 15,000 deaths in New York’s long-term care facilities, the highest nursing home death toll in the nation. Cuomo waved off the criticism, blaming it on Republicans and belittling his critics. But when Cuomo’s health department was putting together a report on the deaths, his aides interfered to rewrite it and reduce the total death count. The FBI is now investigating whether those aides falsified the data. But whatever: Get this man a book deal! Penguin Random House obliged, giving Cuomo $5 million for his book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic. In some ways, the book, which was largely and hastily written by aides during the depth of the pandemic, signalled the beginning of the end of the Cuomo pandemic. It sold poorly and, according to The New York Times, put a lasting chill over the market.

In the end, the most curious aspect of Cuomo’s reputation as a political mastermind is that most people won’t miss him at all. He even stuck a finger in Biden’s eye on his way out, announcing his resignation and roadblocking the news just as Senate Democrats were cheering the bipartisan passage of their infrastructure bill. In the wake of the harassment scandal, his cheerleaders on social media and in the press are nowhere to be found. His constituents in New York? They liked him well enough, always delivering solid approval ratings, but they’ll be fine without him, too, come next year’s midterms, happy to have a choice on the gubernatorial ballot for the first time since 2010.

Cuomo had no rapturous following, no clear brand, no cadre of cunning political aides who are willing to put their careers on the line for him or his future. He is intensely private and bereft of charisma. Cuomo is close with his daughters, but outside of his family, he appears to have few real friends. All I can really tell you about his personal life is that he likes muscle cars and genuinely seems to enjoy life in Albany—so much so that he actually made the governor’s mansion his primary residence. And now he’s homeless. The son of a political giant, the kingpin of Albany kingpins, the generalissimo of the Resistance—it turns out he’s actually kind of a weirdo and a loner, now deprived of the political influence that animated his adult life.

If, at the height of his fame last year, his adoring audiences had bothered to examine Cuomo with clear eyes rather than through the lens of their political identity, maybe they would have seen that the big Italian meatball didn’t taste so great after all.