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Zohran Mamdani: So Much Is Possible Without Andrew Cuomo as Governor

Zohran Mamdani

Andrew Cuomo is on his way out. Socialist New York assemblyman Zohran Mamdani talks about Cuomo’s history of bullying and blocking progressive bills, the role of the Democratic Socialists of America in Cuomo’s ouster, and new opportunities for left policy in New York.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media at a news conference in New York, 2021. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Interview by
Hadas Thier

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation Tuesday after a report overseen by Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James found that Cuomo harassed and abused close to a dozen female staffers, lobbyists, journalists, and politicians.

Zohran Mamdani is the assemblymember for New York’s 36th District in Astoria, one of six socialist legislators in Albany. He spoke to Jacobin’s Hadas Thier about how to assess the governor’s resignation, and what his departure means for the Left in New York.


HT

Andrew Cuomo, New York’s three-term governor of eleven years, seemed virtually impregnable. Until suddenly he wasn’t. The pandemic further entrenched his political powers, as well as his popularity. The toxic, abusive, misogynistic culture in his office, and more broadly in Albany, was met with no accountability for years.

What are your initial reactions to how the seemingly impossible became possible? Why now?

ZM

My initial reaction was shock, relief, and frustration. Shock, because I never thought it would happen. Relief because of what it means for New Yorkers across the state. And frustration because of how it allows him to escape real accountability through the impeachment process.

The reason it happened now is because Cuomo saw no political path forward. And he saw no path forward in which he could continue to write his own narrative.

His greatest public success happened alongside his greatest failure. While thousands of New Yorkers were dying, he was at his most popular, when any other executive would be at their lowest moment. That is because of his ability to create, control, and disseminate artificial narratives, which benefited him and him alone. He repurposed what was a statewide tragedy into an individual triumph.

But the longer this scandal went on, the longer others would start to write the narrative about it. And even in his resignation announcement, he was trying to write the final chapter of his story from his perspective: That he was doing this for our benefit. Not because it was right — in fact, it was wrong. But it would be selfish of him to show that it was wrong. And therefore, the true thing to do as the man of the people would be to step aside, even though he had done nothing wrong.

HT

Behind his resignation, there was the threat of impeachment, which would make it harder to write his own final chapter. What did organizing for his impeachment look like? How did momentum take off?

ZM

The organizing has been ongoing for many, many months. I came out in favor of impeachment in February. Our slate of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–elected officials was the first collective to come out in favor of impeachment in March. We’ve been organizing behind the scenes since those days to increase the numbers of elected officials in favor of impeachment, to get people to call for resignation, and then from resignation to impeachment.

We should be proud of the fact that we are socialists, and that our political ideology allowed us to see very clearly what had to be done months before the political class came to that conclusion. What separates us from other politicians and other political organizations is not simply our ideals, but our relationship to power and our willingness to pursue those ideals, regardless of what power will do to us [in response].

To call for the impeachment of the governor, one of the most powerful governors your state has ever seen, three months into your first term, is only possible when you belong to a political organization [DSA] that has clarity of our political vision and what we need to do to achieve it.

When we have made our convictions as public as possible, we have been successful. That is why we are in office — because we do not shy away from the truth, no matter what it may mean for our political careers or anything else.

What we saw over the past few weeks was the fruit of that organizing, as well as of the immense caliber of work of Attorney General Tish James’s investigation. That investigation provided the foundation for people to choose to be in support of impeachment.

Cuomo backed himself into a corner in March and April, when he said, “Do the independent investigation. A lot of my colleagues who opposed our call for impeachment said, ‘Let the investigation continue, I believe in due process.’” Nevermind the fact that impeachment is itself a trial and an investigation!

But having said all of that, Cuomo laid the groundwork for the credibility of the investigation’s findings. I’m sure that the attorney general’s team was put under immense pressure from the executive regarding the way in which that investigation was conducted. The final report is a testament to the fact that they did not fold to that pressure.

HT

Now Cuomo is going down as a repeat sexual harasser. His resignation also comes on the heels of another major scandal which exposed his cover up of COVID deaths in New York nursing homes. But throughout the pandemic he was enjoying high popularity ratings, despite a disastrous state response, and despite a long-standing record of devastating budget cuts.

How was he able to maintain the image of a competent liberal governor? And what is the real legacy of Andrew Cuomo?

ZM

He was able to maintain this image because one of his true skills is that of messaging, and the creation and dissemination of a narrative. His ability to do so is obviously assisted by the network that he has and the family that he comes from. It’s always easier to share a message with people when your brother is a primetime host of one of the top-watched shows on American television.

Alex Pareene wrote an article about how the American public knows Andrew Cuomo. There are two Andrew Cuomos: there’s the Andrew Cuomo of television, and there’s the Andrew Cuomo of the written word. Scandals were attached to the Cuomo of the written word. While on television, Andrew Cuomo was a character of American heroism.

The Left knows about the written word, and liberals know about the television character. A lot of the scandals, you only really cared about or understood if you were already predisposed to care about state politics at that level of minutiae. So Cuomo was able to segment his scandals to a particular population and not have it bred into mass outrage.

Cuomo ruled with an iron fist and with a culture of harassment that was not limited to those who were in his office. The stories of colleagues, of journalists, of state officials at different levels, who are subjected to this kind of harassment — those stories will only continue to come out. We have not seen the end of them.

The real Andrew Cuomo legacy is a legacy of injustice, and of austerity, and of being able to evade accountability for almost the entirety of his time in office. This man was built from an individual into an institution, by many other people beyond himself. The only way to ensure that we never find ourselves in a situation like this again, is to ensure that accountability and responsibility is put at the feet of more than just Andrew Cuomo.

And I don’t just mean Melissa DeRosa, I don’t just mean Rich Azzopardi, or Chris Cuomo, or Robert Mujica. I think we have to really ask deeper questions about what the political is class doing in New York, and what has it allowed over the last decades? We cannot tell ourselves that this is just the story of an individual who will never come back again. Whether or not Andrew Cuomo runs again, the environment that allowed him to succeed continues to exist, and it’s up to us to tear that environment apart and create a new one.

HT

How was Cuomo able to build this institution around himself to effectively block any left and pro-worker policies?

ZM

Cuomo was able to consolidate the powers of capital and labor union leadership into one coalition. This robbed his opposition of the teeth that were needed to really challenge him. And he mixed that coalition with a style of governing that prioritized loyalty over competence.

Andrew Cuomo after being called to resign from his position as governor. (Seth Wenig-Pool / Getty Images)

As socialists, we need to be clear that we care about good, actually effective governance. Cuomo’s government has been completely ineffective, because its number one pursuit has been the retention of power, as opposed to the use of governance for the benefit of the working class.

There was an absolute lack of willingness to go against him because people could not envisage a future without Andrew Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo, and the Cuomo family are so tied up within modern New York political history. Of course, he also has millions of dollars. He was able to use both his political and financial capital to further his goals, whether it meant keeping Republicans in power in the State Senate, disbanding the Moreland Commission [which was set up to root out corruption in state government], or pouring millions of dollars into a gubernatorial race.

What separates Cuomo from other politicians of the same political ideology is the vindictive lengths that he would go to crush his opposition.

People have asked me how Kathy Hochul will be different from Andrew Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo was distinct. You felt his brutality in his bureaucracy, not just in his political policies. For instance, we would pass a more than $2 billion rent relief program. And then he would ensure that it was as burdensome as possible to access relief, and award a contract to an Illinois-based company that had no connection to New York housing dispensation.

We can now expect a certain level of opposition, but it will not be throughout the entirety of the state apparatus. That is how much power Cuomo had. He took what was already an extremely powerful executive position and increased its power through the force of who he was as a politician and the amount of resources that he had amassed outside of his office.

HT

What’s your prognosis for what is possible for the Left in the coming years? To what extent will Cuomo’s political machine and the centrist status quo remain a fixture and an obstacle to a left agenda, or will there be concrete differences in terms of what we’re up against?

ZM

So much more is possible now that we have a New York without Andrew Cuomo as its governor. It gives the legislature a chance to actually use the power that it has, as opposed to continuing to relinquish it to the governor. We’ve been up against not only the real opposition of the governor, but also the specter of his opposition and the specter of his vetoing of the bill. We have [Democratic] supermajorities in both chambers, but to use them to overturn a veto is a different matter entirely. So now we don’t have to govern and legislate in such a way that we always expect opposition from the executive chamber.

HT

We’ve increased the socialist and progressive blocs within Albany. In all likelihood, we’ll have a socialist mayor in Buffalo this winter. On the ground, we have a growing and thriving grassroots socialist infrastructure. And we have one less Andrew Cuomo in office. Where do you think our priorities should be in the coming year to press our advantage?

ZM

So many aspects of our political project are immensely popular. They should be what we are first pushing, and putting our energy and resources behind. Specifically, the New York Health Act, as well as public power, and more broadly tackling the climate crisis.

In the past, Cuomo would oppose your policy. And then if he had to sign your policy into law, he would then undercut it through every possible avenue to ensure that it was meaningless. So for instance, he signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) into law in 2019. He took credit for it. But it calls for a zero emission grid by 2040, and there’s no way you can get there if you build more fossil fuel infrastructure.

We’re in the midst of a huge organizing effort in Astoria to oppose a proposed fracked gas peaker plant in the neighborhood that would not in any way fit with the climate mandates of the CLCPA, but the governor doesn’t care, and he has let this entire approval process go on. He has undercut at every level what’s needed at this moment.

We have an opportunity to press on these issues that we know people care about and that are firmly aligned with the socialist movement. We can use those issues, not only to win specific gains, but to also introduce additional people to the ideology that underpins them.

We have an opportunity as a political organization to provide muscle to fights that have previously not been fought by organized forces. Part of the reason that people feel despair in politics is because they don’t see a lot of hope and organizing around the issues that they care about. We can reverse that despair by taking something that has been a popular idea and making it into an organizing force.

We did that with the tax the rich campaign. We took something where there was a general idea and good slogans, but where there was no concrete political operation with knocking on doors, with calling elected officials. And we took concrete action and turned this into an issue of political consequences.

We need to do that now with both health care and eco-socialism. Those issues happen to be the public priorities of New York City DSA.

HT

How do we, in a more long-term way, ensure that there is accountability in the executive, that there is accountability in Albany? How can we use this opportunity to shake up the structures of the status quo that held Cuomo’s abuses of power in place?

ZM

By continuing to contest for power. The only way we can ensure that there is accountability in Albany is if we are there to demand it, and there to extract it. We cannot trust those that brought us to this place to lead us out of it. That’s why we need to continually push and contest any position of power that is in dispute. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of those who currently hold those positions.

The state, and the machinations of the legislature, are not orchestrated purely by elected officials. They are also orchestrated by a vast array of appointed officials. People whose names you may not know, but who are working within the legislature in administrative roles and have immense influence in terms of what is considered politically possible and palatable.

We need to create a bureaucracy that does not view socialist ideas as anathema to the state agenda. We do that by continuing to expand the political project and creating a socialist professional class that is able to understand and work within state government, and to push back against many decades of really wrong policies that have advanced the interests of the capitalist class.