It’s now clear that Andrew Cuomo never intended to live by the same standards to which he held others.
The Democratic governor of New York spent the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic criticizing Donald Trump’s deadly incompetence in televised briefings, spinning his own allegedly proficient performance into a book deal and a cable-news celebration of his leadership heroics. In truth, Cuomo’s administration was slow to confront the threat and oversaw a botched nursing-home policy that made vulnerable facilities accept coronavirus patients from hospitals. As of Monday, New York had the second-highest COVID death rate in the country.
In 2019, Cuomo signed changes to New York’s sexual-harassment law that purportedly showed his commitment to eradicating an “ongoing, persistent culture” of abuse against women. “Let’s honor the women who have had the courage to come forward and tell their story,” he said. Two years later, when the governor was asked to address multiple accusations of sexual harassment against him, he was permissive of his own conduct. “If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment, that is you feeling uncomfortable,” he said at a press conference in May.
The pattern is hard to miss. Cuomo has firm opinions about what constitutes misconduct and criminal behavior — and they don’t apply to him. Now that he has resigned, in response to New York Attorney General Letitia James’s report last week supporting the harassment claims, the broader implications are clearer. There’s no subject where the governor’s willingness to extend grace to himself but not others is starker than criminal justice. The gap reveals the kind of thinking that goes into the punitive policies that Cuomo and others champion and how divorced that thinking is from how most people want to be treated when accused of bad behavior — including Cuomo himself.
The governor’s bail policy is a good example. The concept of bail is simple: If you are accused of a crime and jailed, you can buy your freedom pending the resolution of your case, and if you can’t afford it, you’re stuck. It is, in effect, a poverty tax. The New York legislature got rid of most cash bail in 2019 because, whether you’re rich or poor, the mechanisms that determine criminal guilt or innocence should work the same. Cuomo didn’t agree. In his 2020 state budget, negotiated largely behind closed doors and passed as New York residents were reeling from the effects of COVID lockdowns, the governor pushed for and secured rollbacks to the previous year’s changes. He expanded by more than a dozen the number of misdemeanors and felonies for which judges could demand bail, resuscitating a tiered system of punishment that put more people behind bars.
This is a policy aimed at punishing people who have yet to be convicted of any crime. Cuomo declined to have this same standard applied to himself, claiming in his resignation announcement that the accusations in James’s report, some of which could result in criminal charges, were an example of a “bias” and “lack of fairness.”
Let’s recognize Cuomo’s approach to crime for what it is: a vision of criminality not as legal wrongdoing but as the aberrant behavior of the poor and socially undesirable. It’s consistent with the governor’s sense that his behavior is nuanced and excusable where other people’s comparable conduct isn’t. And he understands that his power is what deters, and promises to thwart, anyone who might challenge that notion.
Until now, of course. Still, his approach is indicative of how American lawmakers and voters have tackled criminal justice policy for decades. Our hunger to see people punished often seems boundless, and Cuomo knows how to take advantage of this: The most politically beneficial approach to criminality identifies scapegoats and singles them out for zero tolerance, all for public consumption. The person makes the crime as much as the act does.
That hunger tends to abate when the person on the receiving end is you, which should rightly influence the amount of grace we’re willing to extend to others. Cuomo better hope his constituents are more forgiving than he is.