For weeks, Andrew Cuomo believed that all the chatter about the nursing-home scandal, and the creeping doubts about his management of the pandemic, was mere noise. He would get past it, and a glorious spring of vaccinations and school reopenings would give way to a summer of carnivals and crowded beaches and bars. Attention would then turn to his reelection bid, and he would be The Man Who Brought New York Back from its year of COVID-induced death and misery.
Forgotten by then would be the directive his administration issued that forced nursing homes to accept COVID patients from hospitals, causing, his critics claim, the disease to rip through them like a match in dry grass. Forgotten, too, would be the allegation that the administration covered up the death toll when communicating with the State Legislature and perhaps the federal government.
The Cuomo team has tried to tell its side of the story. The plan was for the governor to calmly work through the facts at one of his famed PowerPoint press conferences: The elderly were moved back into nursing homes only when they were cured of COVID. No one, they argue, considers how many people would have died if a hospital bed were taken up by a person who had already recovered. He would remind people what March and April were like: the refrigerated trucks holding the dead, city officials scrambling to figure out where to bury all the bodies, newspapers running front-page stories about whether or not the Rapture was real.
In Cuomoland, this was a scandal manufactured by the right-wing press and its enablers in the Republican Party that was given oxygen by a mainstream media desperate for clicks. It didn’t go unnoticed in the governor’s office that when Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told Democratic lawmakers that the administration “froze” in response to nursing-home-records requests, the story soon appeared in the New York Post. And yet none of it mattered. Even in the midst of the fallout, he had a 57 percent approval rating.
Still, Cuomo wouldn’t say he was sorry or express genuine regret about the way things had been handled. That would give away too much, and if there is one thing Andrew Cuomo never does, it is give anything away: not to the legislature, not to reporters, not to a government bureaucracy that moves along too slowly for an administration that once said its two modes were “get along and kill.”
He simply said at a press conference that there was a “void,” and out of that void disinformation sprang up. It seemed to work. Two days later, the cover of the Daily News had a photo of Cuomo as a weed-delivery guy, complete with a bong and pot nuggets, in reference to a story about recreational-marijuana delivery coming to New York. The nursing-home scandal looked set to fade.
But then the void turned into a gaping maw. Cuomo, ever in need of control, spent six minutes at his next press conference ripping into Ron Kim, a previously obscure state lawmaker. It was confounding until the press conference ended, when it was clear that Kim had gone to CNN with a story that the governor had chewed him out on the phone, threatening to “destroy” him.
Here was Cuomo, elevating Kim before the story had even broken, and soon it was everywhere. (Kim was even on The View by the end of the week.)
At his next press conference, Cuomo vowed that he would no longer put up with any more shit from anyone, that he hadn’t pushed back aggressively enough on the lies and mean tweets from his opponents. “It was him saying, ‘You think you smell blood in the water, motherfucker?’ ” said one adviser. “ ‘Well, I am going to fill the whole goddamn pool up with guts and blood. If you think I am weak, fucking try me.’ ”
It looked, for most of the past two weeks, like no matter Cuomo’s unpopularity among the woke set or its MAGA counterpart, he was going to preside over New York State for as long as he pleased. He had twice beaten his lefty primary rivals by 30 points. No Republican had gotten above 40 percent against him. He had too much money, a name that was still remembered with fondness. He would best his father and win a fourth term and then, who knows? Would our grandchildren be governed by a Cuomo hologram, patiently detailing how the state was responding to the zombie apocalypse?
But every day, it seems there are new stories like Kim’s. “He made me feel as if I were no good at my job and thus totally dependent on him to keep it,” a former aide wrote in the Daily News. In the Post, a journalist wrote that DeRosa had once called him at 4 a.m. and threatened to “destroy” him.
And then a bomb landed: Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, said that Cuomo sexually harassed her, kissing her without consent and telling an aide to tell her she looked like a prettier version of Lisa Shields, his rumored ex-girlfriend. Another former aide, Alessandra Biaggi, currently a Democratic state senator, said that she’d “witnessed similar behavior” and, of Boylan’s allegation, “I have no doubt that this is true.” (A Cuomo spokesperson responded by saying that Biaggi “has chronically misrepresented her role during her brief time in the governor’s office,” and another spokesperson said that “Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false.”)
“He is the most damaged he has ever been,” said one senior capitol aide. The Legislature is threatening to claw back the emergency powers Cuomo was granted to deal with the pandemic, something that the governor has likened to extortion. Progressives and Republicans have teamed up to call for his impeachment.
One Democratic senator told me that their conference is divided between those who hate the governor and those who are willing to tolerate him. None, though, supports him. They have a supermajority in both chambers now, one Cuomo did little to help them achieve. It is time, many feel, to bring the Big Dog back on the porch to, at least, restore normal checks and balances, if not reengineer the way Albany works so that the governor responds to their initiatives, not the other way around.
At minimum, lawmakers are ready to unload a decade’s worth of resentments. “We are heading into budget negotiations,” said one progressive trying to get a tax on the rich passed in Albany. “A weakened Andrew Cuomo is very good for us.”
There is currently an idea floating around the capitol that if lawmakers can just make Cuomo’s life unpleasant for the next year, with investigations and hearings and by blocking his initiatives, he will just go away, declining to run for a fourth term. People who know him say that is ridiculous. “This guy is 63 years old, and he is driven to eclipse his dad. He realizes there is nothing else he can really do other than be governor of New York,” said one adviser.
And so the plan now is the plan before: Push back on the allegations. Turn the page on the scandals. Talk vaccines, reopenings, a return to life. His enemies are shooting their shot, but Cuomo has been through it all before (this is his fourth federal investigation) and comes, as one senior state official put it, from the Bill Clinton school: “Never resign, never admit defeat, never admit wrongdoing, keep moving forward.”
If he won’t go, and if he can’t be defeated, there remains for his opponents on the left a nuclear option: to run someone on the third-party Working Families line (which Cuomo has tried to destroy), hoping that it splits the vote and allows a moderate Republican to squeak through. A mainstream suburban Republican would be able to do limited damage in the face of a Democratic supermajority and would rid the state of the Cuomos once and for all.
“I don’t think we are there yet,” said one lawmaker. “But I think we are all waiting for one more shoe to drop.”
*This article appears in the March 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!