Last spring, Andrew Cuomo, the domineering 63-year-old governor of New York currently serving his third term, was hailed as one of the heroes of the pandemic, as “America’s governor”, he was inspiring people to declare themselves “Cuomosexuals”. True, he did delay a shelter-in-place order when news of the virus in New York first hit; his political foe, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, wanted to impose one in mid-March, but Cuomo said that fear and panic were bigger problems than the virus. Cuomo is ultimately responsible for executing the state’s laws (not to mention implementing executive orders and setting up the state budget), and so New York stayed open longer than it should have.
But people forgot about that, and Cuomo, son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, began taking the virus seriously, soon becoming the competent foil to the feckless Donald Trump. “Andrew Cuomo is an incredibly industrious person, and I do think he’s doing a good job,” the author and New York fixture Fran Lebowitz told the New Yorker last spring, adding: “He’s doing a job, which Trump is not.” “Andrew Cuomo is the Control Freak We Need Right Now,” a New York Times headline read.
His authoritative daily press briefings about the pandemic became must-see television. CNN allowed his brother, journalist Chris Cuomo, to interview his governor brother on air; they argued about who their mother loved best. The journalist Rebecca Fishbein wrote for the website Jezebel that she had, in a twist she likened to Stockholm Syndrome, developed a crush on Cuomo. “Cuomo isn’t holding me hostage so much as coronavirus is, but he is the only one telling me what to do… Each day, he reinforces those rules, and though at first I chafed at isolation, now I know it’s good for me. I’m being kept safe! He really cares!” (Cuomo responded by personally calling Fishbein.) He feuded with Trump. He flattened the curve. He even wrote a book last autumn on leadership lessons from the pandemic.
But Cuomo has now come under fire from multiple directions: seven women, five of whom are former employees, have accused him of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. The allegations range from groping to asking a 25-year-old employee if she had ever been with an older man. Letitia James, the state attorney general and former Cuomo ally, has appointed a team to investigate the governor. James has also released a damning report accusing the Cuomo administration of understating the number of Covid-19-related deaths in state nursing homes by approximately 50 per cent. Last spring, Cuomo had ordered nursing homes to take back residents who had been in the hospital with the virus, which the report suggests may have put residents at risk. Cuomo’s team has admitted under-counting care home resident deaths (by excluding those residents who died away from the care home premises), saying they did so in order to prevent the Trump administration from using the data against New York state at a time when the president was trying to refuse provision of protective equipment and relief to certain states.
Progressives in the state’s Democratic Congressional delegation, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, have called for Cuomo’s resignation. So, too, has the most senior Democrat, the New York senator and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, as has the other New York senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. A group of Long Island Democrats serving in the New York state senate, a coalition previously seen as loyal to Cuomo, has also joined the ranks of his critics.
It is almost unbelievable that this is happening to Cuomo – but only almost. Despite his remarkable popularity over the past year, the misconduct of which he is accused would hardly be out of character. It isn’t just that Cuomo has been known for years as a bully, or that his staff has a reputation for yelling and bullying, too, or that he was the “enforcer” during his father’s political campaigns, or that he allegedly has no real friends in politics. It’s that if one looks more closely at the sequence of events that has shaken Cuomo’s governorship, one sees that the very same things that helped Cuomo on his way up have brought him to the brink of a dramatic downfall.
The traits that propelled him to national prominence last spring are on display now, too, for the wrong reasons: bravado, defiance, authoritative declarations, ego; the call to a young woman journalist who wrote something (ambiguously) nice about him; the love of the spotlight, of taking credit. “Trump now criticises me b/c I speak the truth. He can’t handle it,” Cuomo tweeted last September. “He said my Covid leadership was ‘great,’ I was ‘working hard’ & ‘applauded’ me for my ‘bold’ response.”
His response to the allegations has also been pure Cuomo. He has said he will not resign, which is unsurprising in the context of contemporary American politics, particularly since 50 per cent of New York voters don’t think he should, according to a Siena College Research Institute poll conducted last week (8-12 March). But Cuomo has not only said that he’s not resigning: in a press conference last Friday (12 March), he said that stepping down would be akin to “bowing to cancel culture”.
The issue here, of course, is not “cancel culture”. The women who have come forward forward are not “cancelling” the governor, but alleging specific instances of sexual harassment or professional misconduct. Cuomo also alluded to the many possible “motivations” for making an allegation and said he was being punished because he is not part of the “political club”, a fact of which he is “proud”. This populist posturing by the son of a three-term governor of New York made Cuomo sound not unlike Trump, an anti-establishment figure with a gilded Manhattan apartment.
But in a certain way, the Icarus analogy has things in reverse, for Cuomo is not in trouble for soaring too high, but for flying perilously low – with his alleged bullying and lying and peacocking. Cuomo’s fall may come not from getting carried away, but from the depths to which he was willing to sink.