Just over two years ago, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid a cloud of scandal that resulted from sexual harassment allegations. While it seemed for a while that he’d quietly disappear from public life, the once-popular state executive seems to be eyeing a splashy return. What should voters make of it?
In hindsight, his resignation seemed inevitable, yet the toppling of the juggernaut Cuomo was an incredible shock, the lightning-fast sinking of a figure that had months earlier seemed like a nigh perennial and omnipresent force in New York politics. He’d been around since 1982, when, at age 25, he served as his father Mario’s campaign manager and — after the latter had secured the governorship — his policy advisor and enforcer.
By the time of his resignation, he’d served two-and-a-half full terms as governor, during which his notoriously bruising style had him undercutting and bullying opponents, often to a breaking point. Most notable was his neverending feud with Bill de Blasio, but it also included figures like former NYC Transit President Andy Byford, who’d been brought in to help turn the subways around and instead left his job after being repeatedly sabotaged by Cuomo. An understanding with the New York GOP and the conservative Democrats who caucused with them gave the governor a practical stranglehold on policy, broken only when the Independent Democratic Conference was roundly defeated in the 2018 elections.
In 2014, Cuomo shut down the Moreland Commission, a state investigative body meant to root out corruption that he himself had established the previous year, after it began investigating him and his associates. He then tried to get the White House to interfere with a federal investigation into the disbanding of the commission and his own interference. This not only rolled off, he was reelected by a 14-point margin later that same year. Towards the end of 2020, he was at the height of his popularity not just in the state but nationally, off the back of what many saw then as a reassuring and competent response to the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. People were urging him to run for president.
All this is to say, Cuomo seemed untouchable until, very suddenly, he wasn’t. The narrative of this descent began when former aide Lindsey Boylan’s accused him of sexual harassment on December 13 of 2020, followed by a critical mass of women who came forward with allegations that Cuomo had made suggestive comments about their or his sex and dating life,and sometimes touched them in ways that were inappropriate, leading to an investigation by Attorney General Letitia James. That investigation, completed August 3, 2021, asserted that Cuomo had harassed 11 women during his time as governor, and led to overwhelming calls for resignation, including from President Joe Biden. Rather than face the potential embarrassment of removal by impeachment, Cuomo announced his resignation days later.
In the period since, Cuomo has kept occasionally resurfacing, and it’s no secret he’s maintained ties with the New York political establishment. He’s continued to insist that he made some missteps but that the James investigation was a political gotcha and he was essentially railroaded, and seems eager to jump back into the political arena. This week, Brooklyn Democratic political boss Frank Seddio announced Cuomo will make his first “public political appearance” at a Democratic club later this month.
As he charts a return, aspects of the investigation and the accusations against him have frayed or been called into question. None of the five counties that launched criminal investigations into him ultimately proceeded with charges; Boylan may have made key misstatements, according to some of the memos and statements that have been publicly released; and this week, the Washington Post pointed out that one of the primary on-the-record sources during the drip-drip coverage of the scandal has admitted under oath that she really was not in a position to have known about much of what she told reporters, and at minimum exaggerated several incidents. None of it means that Cuomo is faultless or didn’t harass his subordinates — it’s pretty clear at this stage that he was at least unprofessional and disrespected female staff — but it gives him plenty of ammunition to hand-wave this all away as political persecution. Some in political and media circles already seem primed for his comeback.
Except, that’s not the whole story. The sexual harassment scandal sucked up all the oxygen and, in its absence, Cuomo likely would not have been toppled, but it wasn’t the only scandal that the governor was facing at the time. By the time he resigned, Cuomo was under FBI investigation not for the sexual harassment claims, but for his handling of nursing home deaths during the early pandemic, after initial directives barred staff from turning residents away or even requiring the testing of potential residents. Ultimately, as detailed in a separate report by James’ office, the administration undercounted nursing home Covid-19 deaths by as much as 50% The administration would later reveal that some 15,000 long-term-care residents had died of the disease by early 2021, and top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in private conversations that the executive office had obscured the totality of the deaths out of fear that then-President Trump would use the information politically.
In all this talk about the strength of the harassment allegations and the muddiness of the investigation, a lot of observers are losing sight of the fact that Cuomo’s administration, by its own admission, tried to hide thousands of deaths from the public following a bungled approach that probably led to many unnecessary infections and deaths among vulnerable nursing home residents. There are no vagaries about that, and while Cuomo’s personal conduct as a boss is certainly relevant when evaluating his fitness for office, his conduct as a state executive during the state’s most acute emergency in at least a generation is very relevant, especially when this conduct undercuts one of his preeminent selling points and personal mythologies: that he was a steady and capable hand at the state’s helm while New Yorkers’ lives were at risk.
Perhaps the above doesn’t get mentioned so much in contemporary stories about Cuomo because the sexual harassment scandal was so inextricably linked to his resignation; it’s the thing that he’s continued fighting over for the last couple years, including in court, against a lawsuit by “Trooper 1,” a state police investigator who served on his security detail and accused him of harassment. The nursing home deaths are in the rearview, out of sight and out of mind. It’s a consequence in part of journalism’s tendency towards novelty, but we should resist that urge and be clear about what Cuomo was facing in addition to the scandal that toppled him.
Will Cuomo run for governor again, against his former lieutenant governor? Or will he run for Senate in 2024, against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand? At this point, it’s almost certain that he will run for something, and that he will do so by loudly declaring that he was drummed out of office by politically motivated opportunists who railroaded him without evidence despite his stellar record. As he pushes this narrative, the public should keep in mind just where that record fell dramatically short, sometimes to tragic results.