Rulers fall when powerful actors around them conclude that those actors’ interests will fare worse if the ruler stays in power than if the ruler leaves.
In recent days, New York governor Andrew Cuomo lost a critical pillar of his elite support. A growing chorus of state legislators previously called on Cuomo to resign or be impeached, including the majority leader of the State Senate. Now they have been joined by a dozen Democratic members of Congress, and, critically, by a bloc of Democratic moderates from Long Island who have been Cuomo’s bulwark against an ascendant left.
Andrew Cuomo’s narcissism suggests that it is quite possible that he won’t resign. And he may not be impeached. But make no mistake: Andrew Cuomo’s rule is finished. The post-Cuomo era of New York politics has begun.
There will be time in the coming months for a more thorough accounting of how we arrived at this point. But we can point to some key moments that brought about this sea change in Cuomo’s fortunes.
Taking Him On
In 2018, at the peak of his power, the Working Families Party (WFP) and a coalition of grassroots organizations took on Cuomo frontally by recruiting and endorsing a primary challenger, the actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. That same coalition also recruited challengers to all eight of the turncoat Democrats in the State Senate, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) — who, with Cuomo’s blessing, caucused with Republicans to deny Democrats unified control of state government and block popular measures like rent reform that the governor opposed.
In that same year, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) recruited one of us, Julia Salazar, to run against a Senate Democrat who did not caucus with the IDC but received campaign funds from the IDC’s slush fund. While Cuomo comfortably defeated Nixon, his running mate Kathy Hochul only narrowly secured a victory over progressive favorite Jumaane Williams. Nervous, Cuomo unloaded $26 million in campaign spending.
With support also from Make the Road Action and the WFP, Salazar won her race, as did six of the eight IDC challengers, including Alessandra Biaggi in the Bronx and Jessica Ramos in Queens. Thus while Cuomo remained comfortably ensconced, his absolute control of the political agenda in Albany was curtailed.
A whole raft of progressive legislation — including sweeping rent law reform, a landmark climate bill, and important protections for the undocumented — passed the legislature. Longtime political observers experienced the previously unimaginable when the New York Times reported that Cuomo had been forced to tell his backers at the pinnacle of New York’s real estate industry that he was powerless to stop the rent measures they categorically opposed.
Going into the 2020 budget cycle, Cuomo was determined to regain the initiative. He moved aggressively to make sweeping, multibillion-dollar cuts to the state’s Medicaid program and insisted on obscene tax cuts for the richest New Yorkers. When the pandemic struck, he did not back down from these measures — and went further to claim the sorts of near-dictatorial powers that many feared Trump would assert but conspicuously did not.
Cuomo used his new powers to pass an austerity budget and promised that he would make rolling, unilateral cuts to the state budget if pandemic-induced revenue declines continued. He also, as Queens assembly member Ron Kim has now informed the world, enacted sweeping liability protection for nursing home executives, using language written by their trade association, whose members were major financial backers of Cuomo’s.
At the same time, Cuomo employed the tactic he had used to virtuoso effect in 2018: grab hold of New Yorkers’ gut-level hatred for Donald Trump and position himself as the anti-Trump. Even as he sent nine thousand COVID-19 patients into unprepared and understaffed nursing homes, with his daily press conferences and slick PowerPoints, Cuomo presented himself as a model of managerial competence. His approval numbers shot through the roof.
Cuomo’s new popularity, however, did not dampen the Left’s electoral ambitions. With backing from WFP, DSA, Make the Road Action, Citizen Action of NY, New York Communities for Change, Sunrise, Justice Democrats, and more, in the midst of the June Black Lives Matter uprisings, dozens of progressives and socialists were elected to the State Senate and the State Assembly, and Jamaal Bowman showed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning 2018 primary victory was not a fluke.
The Walls Close In
Meanwhile, the governor had worked since 2018 to exact retribution against the WFP for having the temerity to challenge him. In 2019, a sham commission run by the chairman of the State Democratic Party, whose loyalty to Cuomo is legendary, rammed through changes to the state’s election laws whose true purpose was to destroy the WFP.
While some observers were writing obituaries, WFP organized a formidable effort to persuade progressive voters in New York to vote for Biden and Harris on the WFP line. When the votes were counted, WFP had nearly four hundred thousand votes — more than twice the new threshold and an unmistakable blow to Cuomo.
Coming off of that cycle, many of the same groups came together to launch the Invest in Our New York (IONY) coalition, pushing a sweeping set of new taxes on high earners and the wealthy. The coalition has successfully linked the governor’s history of tax cuts for the rich to the incredible suffering that working New Yorkers endured during the pandemic. And through grassroots and legislative organizing, IONY has built impressive support within the State Legislature to pressure legislative leadership to aggressively negotiate with the governor for more revenue.
It is in this context that Attorney General Letitia James, who began her political career in 2003 as the first candidate elected to office solely on the Working Families Party line, issued a devastating report documenting that roughly twice as many people had died from COVID in nursing homes than the administration had admitted. Then Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s chief aide, made the startling admission to a group of legislators that Cuomo’s administration had deliberately withheld information about the nursing home debacle from federal investigators and the legislature itself.
Assembly member Ron Kim, whose uncle died in a nursing home, presumably from COVID-19, affirmed DeRosa’s admission to a reporter for the New York Post. The governor himself called Kim and, in his inimitable fashion, threatened to end Kim’s career if he did not publicly retract what he had told the Post reporter.
Then something incredible happened.
This sort of browbeating has been Cuomo’s stock-in-trade for his entire career. But Kim, believing that others would stand behind him, went public about Cuomo’s threats. The New York political press, having heard stories like this about Cuomo for years but rarely finding people willing to talk about it on the record, instinctively knew that Kim’s story was true and ran it.
Then a whole new dimension of the story appeared. Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to the governor, had publicly accused the governor of sexual harassment last year but was almost universally ignored. Now she brought forward her charges again, this time in considerable detail. Within days, another former aide to the governor told a gut-wrenching story of textbook sexual harassment, which included potentially illegal actions by the governor’s closest aides to sweep the issue under the rug.
Then the walls started closing in.
Cuomo Is Spent
Over the last two weeks, a steady stream of new accusations has emerged alongside a growing chorus of calls from progressive organizations and elected officials for Cuomo to resign or be impeached. Cuomo’s poll numbers are collapsing, and with it the support Cuomo counts on to continue his reign.
Today the chorus is at critical mass. Cuomo may or may not resign, but he is now a spent political force. What comes next?
In New York, the broad left has an unprecedented opportunity to determine what New York will look like in the post-Cuomo era. Our opponents are disorganized: they never expected Cuomo to fall, and don’t have a plan in place for what happens when he does.
Luckily, those of us on the Left do.