By J Brooks Spector | Daily Maverick
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, after a year in which he was the most senior public official speaking clearly and directly to a frightened US public about the Covid pandemic, found himself way over the line in creating a toxic working environment and was forced to resign from his powerful office. Was this a tragedy, a clash of cultures, or a powerful figure taking advantage of his office and getting his just rewards?
And so, suddenly, just like that, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political career — and likely his future public presence entirely — has evaporated as he pulled the plug on himself, on Tuesday. Now 63, Cuomo has been a nearly constant presence in the nation’s political life since he was 24 years old, when he managed his father’s successful campaign for the governorship in New York. His father went on to serve three terms as governor, and the son had been elected three times as well, and he had been hoping to run for a fourth — exceeding his father’s long run as governor — in 2022, but this dream now lies in ashes.
Back when the Covid pandemic was first burning through the US and as the Trump administration’s carnival sideshow of prevaricating casuistry had been designed to downplay the disease, or even the need for major emergency public health responses, Cuomo’s internationally televised, almost daily media conferences became must-see events for millions.
In those broadcasts, Cuomo delivered the facts and reams of data, all seasoned with well-placed, righteous anger. As he delivered his message, there were always crisp charts and comprehendible diagrams, nuggets of expert testimony, and a rhetorical stance pouring scorn (along with pleas for urgent federal help) on any fatuousness that the then-president had offered about the pandemic, and his administration’s feckless responses. It was riveting television, an antidote to the nonsense spewing from the president’s mouth, especially if the viewer was not a pandemic policy nerd or an epidemiologist. This was real life and death stuff.
But there was a serpent in Cuomo’s garden — or, rather, there were several. First it began to come out that the statistics on the spread of the pandemic in nursing homes in New York state (mostly affecting the elderly) were not entirely accurate. Perhaps, cooked by gubernatorial aides eager to make the governor look better than the facts would support, would be a more accurate way to describe this sleight of hand. Then, after he had signed a massive book deal — for $5-million divided over three years — and the publishers rushed it into print, it was being reported Cuomo had received some significant assistance from staff aides, an abuse of state law.
Well okay, everybody can make a mistake or two. Nobody’s perfect. Who in an official position hasn’t at some time or other fudged some numbers just a bit, or asked an underling to do some research for themselves and then taken (in his case, some very well-remunerated) credit for the resulting work?
But then, along came the third serpent. A growing list of women, 11 at this point, who had been on his staff or in other official jobs that had brought them into contact with the governor, began stepping out from the shadows to charge the governor had engaged in a pattern of sexual intimidation that included obvious suggestive comments, as well as a range of unwanted touching and close physical contact.
We should make it clear that, at least at this point, no one has alleged any actual sexual intimacy had been imposed upon these women by the governor. Nevertheless, an investigation into his behaviour as portrayed by the 11 women, and carried out by the state’s Attorney-General, Letitia James, characterises Cuomo’s behaviour as having created a “toxic work environment” for the women in his official circle. There are the possibilities of criminal charges in some cases.
It seems Cuomo had, at first, believed he could brazen it all out, given his actual political heroism in the early days of the pandemic, or from the largely positive reputation his governorship had achieved from efforts at pushing a sometimes-recalcitrant state legislature to legalise same-sex marriage and to fund major infrastructure projects.
Perhaps, too, he even daydreamed that the lingering, broad halo of the Cuomo name would be just enough to carry him to safety. Or maybe even he had banked on the popularity of his CNN talk show host brother, Chris Cuomo, a star on CNN, to help see it all through to the finish line. Perhaps he just didn’t take these real and growing dangers to his political circumstances seriously enough to believe such supposedly minor things like these could bring him down. At this moment, we cue up the ancient Greek term, “hubris,” the word describing a heroic protagonist’s mental state before he is brought low.
In the end, there was simply no protective political shield for him from anywhere. This came about partly from the nature of the charges themselves, as well as his reputation for playing hardball politics in his career, with the consequent bruises and scars left around afterwards. As a result, the state’s entire Democratic contingent in the US Congress told him to go; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told him to begone; the New York State Assembly offered him nary a shred of support and threatened an impeachment process; the leading papers in the country editorialised it was past time for him to quit; President Joe Biden refused to support him; and his lieutenant-governor, Katy Huchel, didn’t either. (She, of course, stands to gain enormously from this, since in two weeks’ time she will become New York’s first female governor.)