Andrew Cuomo’s White-Knuckle Ride
Amid scandals, accusations and calls for his resignation, the New York governor seems determined to prove that the instincts that have gotten him into trouble can get him out of it too.,
Credit…Photo illustration by Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times
Andrew Cuomo lives, still, in a 40-room Victorian mansion on Eagle Street in downtown Albany, despite the television correspondents descending to narrate his demise. When his father, Mario Cuomo, was New York’s governor, the executive residence was a place for gathering, the estate where a once-middle-class Queens family announced its new lot: grand wedding receptions; afternoons by the pool; misadventures with a homemade go-kart that Andrew, 25 when his dad was inaugurated, once drove into a tree on the backyard putting green. The grounds are quieter now. Single and empty-nested, Cuomo shares the space with a Northern Inuit named Captain, a blood relation to the dogs cast as viciously loyal “direwolves” on “Game of Thrones.” But a small circle of aides and advisers have been known to crash in spare beds, even before they were plotting the third-term governor’s path to political survival.
Once liable to be spotted about town, flashing a thumbs-up from a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a “1” license plate, Cuomo has ventured out recently under only the most prescribed of circumstances. Amid his overlapping crises, which include allegations that he was responsible for and then covered up the Covid deaths of nursing-home residents, aggressively groped an aide at the mansion and sexually harassed a half-dozen others, his news briefings proceed via conference call now, with staff members carefully screening the questions. In-person public appearances have been closed to reporters under the implausible pretense of virus protocols, even at cavernous vaccination sites where Cuomo has invited dozens of guests to salute his continued leadership.
His bet appears to be that the public performance of gubernatorial activities, from negotiating the state budget to expanding vaccine eligibility to all New Yorkers 16 and up, will overwhelm the multi-scandal pileup in the minds of those who still find him basically competent. A Siena College poll in mid-March found that half of voters did not want him to resign; 35 percent thought he should. As lawmakers press him to step down anyway, Cuomo has betrayed no sense of irony while lamenting “cancel culture” and the supposed groupthink of the “political club” to which he, the son of a three-term governor with four decades in politics, insists he has no membership. “They don’t even understand the nature of the job, right?” he said of his many critics during a recent virus briefing. “The nature of being governor is: There are always multiple situations to deal with.”
For more than a decade, Cuomo, 63, has won and kept power on the premise that he is uniquely suited, by breeding and bearing, to the nature of being governor, regardless of the multiple situations his style might spawn. He has held himself up as New York’s doer, its tinkerer, its bully-for-good, a leader who disdains fussy process and complaints from “the advocates” but loves ribbon-cuttings and bill-signing ceremonies. Same-sex marriage, paid family leave, tighter gun laws — essentially all of it, according to Cuomo and his admirers, owed to the governor’s personal relentlessness, his refusal to give an inch.
“Can I tell you my favorite thing about the governor?” Joe Biden, then the vice president, once told a Cuomo aide privately before a 2015 jobs event in Rochester, according to the aide. “He’s got tremendous balls. Absolutely enormous balls.” The future commander in chief cupped his hands as if cradling melons. (A White House official said, “This does not sound like something President Biden would say.”)
Biden is among the many political veterans now reassessing a man who has never particularly changed, even if the way he packaged himself has at times. The president has said that Cuomo should resign if an investigation overseen by the state attorney general’s office substantiates accusations of sexual misconduct. Federal authorities are separately reviewing the Cuomo administration’s accounting of nursing home deaths. And the State Assembly has set off on a kind of omnibus impeachment inquiry, broad enough to include claims of retaliation against accusers and reports that the governor’s office supplied friends and family with special access to Covid testing. At minimum, Cuomo’s once-presumed glide path to a fourth term has given way to doubts about whether he will complete his third, the swiftest reversal of Albany fortunes since the toppling of the state’s last elected governor, who seemed to sense the capital stirring against Cuomo before most. “Pendulums,” Eliot Spitzer told me in February, “swing faster than you think.”
Cuomo’s fate now, whatever it becomes, has assumed the weight of referendum — of what will be tolerated going forward, in his state and his party. He has never seemed more like the last of a kind, a triangulating, dynasty-extending Democrat who defends the rich, flirts insistently and threatens disfavored legislators. He has also never seemed more like the man many believed he was all along.
In recent months, the governor and his defenders have clung to form, ham-handed and unbowed. Allies circulated a letter attacking the credibility of Lindsey Boylan, the first former aide to accuse him of sexual harassment. Larry Schwartz, a former senior aide who is helping to oversee state vaccination efforts, discomfited some county executives — all of whom were eager to secure vaccine supply — by inquiring about their loyalty to the boss. (Beth Garvey, Cuomo’s acting counsel, later said Schwartz “would never link political support to public-health decisions.”)
People who have spoken to Cuomo describe him as calm, almost reserved, his condition best captured in a viral photograph taken in March outside the mansion: He stood with a blanket over his shoulders and a phone to his ear — not regal; not defeated, either — looking like an evacuee from a hurricane that affected only beleaguered governors. There is a daredevil aspect to it all, charging ahead when so many lawmakers have demanded his ouster. It is not hard to envision Cuomo achieving a new kind of executive high, telling himself that lesser men would flee, that the final word would still be his. (The governor’s office did not make him available for an interview. A spokesman praised him as “arguably the most-accomplished attorney general and governor in modern history” and as a “national hero during Covid.”)
Over the last two months, I’ve spoken to more than 80 people about what it has meant to subsist in Andrew Cuomo’s New York and how that phrase was allowed to happen in the first place: allies, antagonists, current and former aides, elected officials who have stomached the ritual humiliation of working with him. They questioned how a figure of such calculation and tactical care could conduct himself so recklessly in what he has said is the only job he wants. They wondered what they didn’t see and what they chose not to. They cautioned, even now, never to underestimate him.
Susan Del Percio, a former aide who now works as a crisis-communications consultant, has found herself lingering recently on a common Cuomo-ism from staff meetings. He has always had a nose for weakness in an argument, she told me, delighting in cutting down subordinates in front of their peers. And one admonishment could cut deeper than the rest. “If he didn’t feel like you played all the scenarios out, he’d be like, ‘Didn’t you watch the movie?'” Del Percio said. “‘Didn’t you watch it all the way through to see where this would end?”‘
The first and only time that Cuomo conceded unambiguous political failure was in 2002, when his first campaign for governor, his maiden run for office, ended in humiliation the week before Primary Day. He marked the occasion by congratulating himself on his fine form. “I will not close a gap in an election by opening one in the body politic,” Cuomo told supporters inside an overstuffed Midtown ballroom, insisting, improbably, that with a more negative campaign against an opponent who was trouncing him, the race still could have been won. “While it is harder for me to step back than to fight forward, today I step back.” Whether Cuomo knew it then, the forced utterance of those words — being rejected, made to yield — would inform everything that came after.
His self-image in the race had been by turns contradictory and entirely consistent with the man the state would come to know: He was the 44-year-old son of a governor and husband of a Kennedy raising three young girls in Bedford, N.Y., after a stint in Washington as Bill Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development. He was also, in this paradoxical telling, a crusading outsider, a soon-to-be made man destined for a greatness who would not be denied by the party establishment that wanted to see him lose. This was partly because his Democratic rival, H. Carl McCall, was a well-liked state comptroller who would have been New York’s first Black governor. And it was partly because Andrew Cuomo is Andrew Cuomo.
“Young, brash, arrogant,” he said at the time, summarizing perceptions of himself for a Times reporter while puffing a cigar in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. He believed he would defeat McCall and then George Pataki, the Republican incumbent who had denied his father a fourth term eight years earlier, by presenting himself as a kind of unpretentious blue blood equally comfortable at Hyannis Port or in Queens, futzing with car engines in his off-hours and using his talents to pound bureaucracy into submission. He assured fellow politicos that he would appeal to Black voters in particular, according to three people who heard his pitch, because “Blacks have three pictures on their walls”: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the Kennedy brothers. And Bobby’s daughter Kerry was his wife. (“That is an old rumor, and it’s untrue,” the spokesman wrote in an email.)
“At the end of the campaign, they are going to know me,” Cuomo said of the state’s residents. “And what am I going to be? I am going to be a quintessential New Yorker. I’m going to be young. I’m going to be a high achiever. I’m going to be aggressive. I’m going to be a fast talker. I’m going to be, critics say, blunt. And this is going to be me: He did a lot of great stuff — national superstar; Clinton; 22 he did this; 28 he did that; young kids, young family, lives in Westchester; wants to do things.”
At the end of that campaign, it can be said, New Yorkers did know Cuomo. That was the problem. He had led most early polls, aided no doubt by his surname, until voters came to see him up close. In focus groups, McCall’s advisers marveled at the kneejerk antipathy their opponent could generate — the pique, the entitlement, the smile that could slide into a kind of maniacal leer when it became too toothy. Caricatures of Cuomo seemed to harden after he belittled Pataki’s post-9/11 performance, saying the governor had effectively held the coat of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. “You’d sit and you’d watch a dozen people from behind the two-way mirrors, and people just didn’t like him,” Allen Cappelli, the McCall campaign manager who had been a Mario Cuomo aide, told me. “There was something about him that bothered them.”
Bracing for a loss just before the primary, Cuomo considered his leverage points and determined he had some, whether or not anyone agreed. Privately, representatives of his campaign — including a bearded Brooklyn city councilman named Bill de Blasio, a Cuomo acolyte who had worked for him at H.U.D. — communicated with McCall’s team about possible terms for a graceful exit. These included a prominent role for Cuomo in the fall campaign; an agreement to say publicly that Clinton had brokered Cuomo’s departure; and a pledge to support Cuomo in future races. McCall’s side was unmoved. “He had nothing to offer,” Cappelli told me. “I thought it was ridiculous.”
Rather than risk likely embarrassment on Primary Day, Cuomo left the race anyway, gathering family and friends, including Clinton, in the hotel ballroom for an event he later likened to his own funeral. It is jarring to watch now — the same projected belief in “a political movement that has force” but none of the power to guide one. “This is not to say that I don’t want to win,” Cuomo assured the crowd. “I do want to win, very badly.” He implied that his problem had been “too many good ideas” and an electorate overwhelmed by them. He suggested that he was following the example of 9/11 survivors, urging unity at a personal cost. “I believe the banner we carry,” Cuomo said grandly, “is more important than the person who carries the banner.”
Some nettlesome facts were already well known that day — Cuomo had by then forced McCall to spend millions he had hoped to use in the fall against Pataki, who would easily secure re-election — and others were not: Cuomo’s marriage was disintegrating, delivering him to what he has since described as the lowest period of his life. But in his defeat, Cuomo did appear to learn a valuable lesson. He had shown himself, perhaps too much of himself, and he had lost for it. “Everything he does politically is based on that 2002 loss,” Hank Sheinkopf, a chief strategist to McCall who would later become a Cuomo adviser, told me, “to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.”
Stephanie Miner, a former Mario Cuomo aide who was later the mayor of Syracuse, had heard about what some in state politics had labeled “Andrew 2.0,” a kind of rolling reputational repair tour that Cuomo was undertaking in the years after his loss. But she had not expected to be a stop on it until he called her, sometime around 2006. “He acted like we were old friends and apologized to me for anything he had done that had offended me,” Miner told me. “And I remember thinking, This is weird because I don’t think he could pick me out of a lineup. It was just a blanket apology.” (The spokesman denied that this happened.)
More than two decades earlier, Cuomo had introduced himself to the state’s political class as his father’s ranking enforcer and paranoiac, his $1-a-year government salary belying his peerless influence as an all-purpose adviser to “Mario,” as he, too, called him. The younger Cuomo was at once the heavy and the kid — volatile enough that he once hurled a phone past a colleague’s head and took out a chunk of the wall at his father’s 1982 campaign headquarters, according to that colleague. (The spokesman denied the incident.)
Miner recalls many Mario Cuomo aides referring to Andrew privately as “the prince of darkness,” a spectral presence in the administration even after he moved to Washington. Now the rebranded, post-2002 Cuomo was trying something different: humility, or at least the appearance of it. One favorite bit of shtick in those wilderness years, according to a 2015 biography by Michael Shnayerson, had Cuomo opening phone calls with: “Hi there, this is Andrew Cuomo. C-U-O-M-O.”
When Cuomo announced a run for attorney general in 2006, allies gave interviews gushing about his bridled ego and heightened listening skills. Cuomo curbed his own freewheeling press strategy — no more cigar interviews in the park — and controlled his daily political surroundings to the point of obsession. Sometimes, according to an aide who worked on the campaign, he refused to enter an event venue until he had been briefed on such details as the room temperature and the length of the walk to the microphone. (The spokesman denied this.)
The transformation had its limits. Some who worked on that campaign detected an essential shallowness that could lurch privately into conspicuous indecency. Another aide said that Cuomo once accused him of failing to head off aggressive reporting from a female journalist for personal reasons, asking, “You banging her?” He could also bridle at the indignity of voter courtship, growing especially irritated about an event celebrating Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday when the faithful gather outdoors beneath temporary shelters of branches and greenery. “These people and their fucking tree houses,” Cuomo vented to his team, according to a person who witnessed it and another who was briefed on his comments at the time. (The spokesman denied both incidents, adding: “His two sisters married Jewish men, and he has the highest respect for Jewish traditions.”)
Cuomo’s election as attorney general — over the Republican nominee, Jeanine Pirro, the future Trump-defending Fox News personality — at last conferred upon him a power commensurate to his political appetites. One former associate recalled Cuomo’s describing an advantage of the job after taking office: When visitors sat for investigative interviews, Cuomo enthused, he could make them nervous with physicality alone, leaning forward in his chair as they studied his every twitch. “I loom over that table,” Cuomo said, according to the associate. “In their minds, I’m Sonny Corleone” — the violently impulsive eldest son in “The Godfather” — “and I’m capable of anything.” (The spokesman wrote that Cuomo “never uses ‘Godfather’ references,” adding, “This is an anti-Italian, bigoted, false, defamatory statement.”)
Cuomo’s prime antagonist in Albany happened to be another rampaging alpha. And Eliot Spitzer, the new governor known as the “sheriff of Wall Street” when he had Cuomo’s job, was not going to be browbeaten by anyone. In any capital, the two offices can come into natural conflict; no governor wants an attorney general nosing around the executive chamber, and few attorneys general have failed to consider how nicely a promotion might suit them.
But these two made a particularly combustible pair. Spitzer, a self-described “steamroller,” pledged an ethical reckoning in a capital long tarnished by official misconduct. Cuomo was disinclined to cede that turf, making public corruption a signature focus of his new post. The governor’s office earned his attention early. Less than a year into Spitzer’s term, Cuomo issued a damaging report accusing Spitzer aides of using the state police to acquire information about a rival, Joseph L. Bruno, the State Senate majority leader. A scrambling of reputations seemed afoot. “If anyone thought six months ago which one would be incompetent, they thought Cuomo would be the jerk and Spitzer would be the cool guy,” Henry J. Stern, a longtime New York City parks commissioner and good-government advocate, said at the time. “But that appears not to be the case.”
As it happened, Spitzer’s ultimate downfall in 2008, in a prostitution scandal, required no assistance from the attorney general. And as the suddenly elevated lieutenant governor, David Paterson, flailed through the rest of the term, Cuomo emerged as a de facto governor in waiting. Paterson, whose early fund-raising had been dwarfed by Cuomo’s, was discouraged from pursuing a full term by Barack Obama; the White House feared that Paterson’s unpopularity could be a drag on down-ballot New York Democrats.
After initially resisting, Paterson agreed to stand down. Asked recently when he first sensed that Cuomo might be interested in his job, Paterson allowed himself a laugh. “I’d say when he ran for A.G. in 2006,” he told me.
Within four short years, Cuomo had become the most powerful man in New York, his ascent sustained by luck, timing and the exercise of relative self-control. The 2010 race was a formality after Cuomo officially announced his intentions less than six months before Election Day, in front of the former Manhattan courthouse named for Boss Tweed, the famously corrupt chief of the Tammany Hall political machine. “Albany’s antics today could make Boss Tweed blush,” Cuomo declared. He spent the rest of the year talking up a “citizens’ campaign” to take back Albany. He vowed to “make New York great again.”
“The people of the state of New York want a government that they can trust, a government that they can be proud of once again,” the governor-elect told supporters at his victory party. “The government that they deserve.”
Cuomo has always recognized opportunity in emergency. “Never let a crisis pass you by,” he has told staff members — words he has lived by, from the highways on which he has assisted stranded drivers (deeds helpfully photographed and shared by his aides) to an inundated Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “We were walking around here with flashlights in the dark, with water coming from every direction,” Cuomo told Diane Sawyer during a televised tour the next day. He promised, from the edge of the 9/11 memorial, that New York would once again “build back better.”
Since his time at H.U.D., Cuomo had held close to his public identity as the change agent, the last honest broker. “Don’t defend the indefensible,” he would tell aides then. Andrew Cuomo would name the failure and fix it. Or at least say he had. After Sandy, the indefensible included extensive failures in the electrical grid. On Long Island — critical political real estate for the governor — nearly one million customers lost power. Cuomo seemed to sense he had a useful villain in the Long Island Power Authority, a state-run utility with a dismal history of mismanagement and underperformance. He established a panel, known as a Moreland Commission, to review the authority’s failures, empowering it with ostensible free rein to recommend course corrections.
In fact, such sovereignty was minimal. When it came time to prepare a report, Cuomo’s allies on and off the commission blocked references to the governor’s own responsibility for the authority’s troubles, including the administration’s ignoring requests from the authority to let it fill critical staff vacancies. One commission member, Peter Bradford, said the governor’s office also edited the document to bolster a recommendation Cuomo’s team had signaled it wanted all along: privatizing the utility and ridding the state of a headache. A preliminary copy of the report conveyed that some commissioners did not support this conclusion. A version released publicly removed this fact, giving the impression of unanimity. “I really couldn’t believe, despite 40 years in government, that somebody would just take a task-force report and rewrite perhaps its most important conclusion,” Bradford told me. “It never occurred to me anyone would think that was either the right thing to do or something that would go undiscovered.”
Mark Green, a former Cuomo opponent for attorney general and another commission member, said the episode reinforced his view of Cuomo across the decades. “There’s a continuity to him,” Green told me. “He’s a political thoroughbred with many skills. But honesty is not one of them.”
Cuomo would soon traffic in more egregious meddling. He created a second Moreland Commission in 2013 intended to root out public corruption, encouraging investigators with great fanfare to take on all prospective offenders, including his own office. But when the commission focused on groups with connections to Cuomo, aides and allies intervened to squash the work. “This is wrong,” Larry Schwartz, a top aide, told a commission co-chairman after a subpoena was sent to a media-buying firm that counted Cuomo as a client. “Pull it back.” Then Cuomo abruptly disbanded the commission altogether. Janos Marton, who served as a special counsel to the commission, found the instinct telling: The administration’s abiding belief, he told me, is that “they can kind of power through any situation because the broader public would not care.” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, investigated the interference and publicly criticized the governor for shutting down the commission, seemingly tarnishing Cuomo’s intended image as a corruption-buster ahead of his first re-election in 2014. He won easily anyway, and though Bharara had looked into allegations including obstruction of justice and witness tampering, Cuomo was never charged with a crime.
That early boundary-pushing seemed to lend an air of inevitability to the governor, a sense that he had only been strengthened and emboldened by committing unmistakable good-government sins and facing no lasting consequences. Left to his own devices, Cuomo could be not just petty and cynical but inventively so: In that year’s election, he went to the trouble of creating a minor political party, the Women’s Equality Party, whose main purposes appeared to be siphoning women’s votes from a female primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout, and damaging another minor political party, the progressive Working Families Party, with which Cuomo has long warred. Working Families officials remain convinced that the similarity in initials, W.E.P. and W.F.P., was intended to confuse voters and reduce the W.F.P.’s influence. “He’s got a hammer, he knows how to use it, and there aren’t a lot of people who like being beaten up,” Sid Davidoff, a friend of Cuomo’s and a longtime New York City lobbyist, told me. “I’ve got a lot of friends who always say: ‘Jesus, how can you be with Andrew? He’ll turn on you in a minute.’ There is that side of him. And I give him credit for that side in a lot of ways. But if he’s your friend, he’s a staunch friend.”
He is also a strategic one. He has stacked the ranks of the state party with allies, rewarded unions that would stand with him come campaign season and showered attention on Black leaders who could act as ambassadors to his political base. (The most durable coalition for a statewide Democrat involves runaway margins in New York City, especially its nonwhite ZIP codes, which can more than offset deficits in redder areas of the state.) It is no accident that Cuomo has not faced a competitive re-election to date, scaring off any rival who might be strong enough to truly test him.
But some who have tried did notice something curious. Rebecca Katz, a top adviser to the actress Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 progressive primary challenge to Cuomo, told me that people who had previously worked with the governor often relayed, discreetly, that they were with Nixon. And that Cuomo must never know. “We may not have won,” Katz said, “but I feel confident that we won the majority of votes from people who knew Andrew Cuomo personally.”
Hoping to harness the political momentum of the #MeToo movement, Cuomo announced a raft of workplace-harassment proposals ahead of that 2018 election. “2017 brought a long-overdue reckoning where the secret and pervasive poison of workplace sexual harassment was exposed by brave women and men who said, ‘This ends now,'” Cuomo proclaimed. “Our challenge in government is to turn society’s revulsion into reform.” He was, even then, a complicated messenger.
Staff members have long said that Cuomo revels in making others feel uncomfortable, pushing limits for the sport of it. Often enough, he has directed his curdling machismo at men. In 2019 Cuomo stunned a male official with an apparent attempt at a joke: “You’d be a good-looking tranny,” he said, according to a person with direct knowledge of the episode, “if you get a good set of tits.” (“No one has done more to advance the rights of transgender New Yorkers than Governor Cuomo,” the spokesman wrote, “and he would never make a comment so vile.”)
During his first term, Cuomo was leading a strategy session about Occupy Wall Street at the mansion, fearing that such gate-storming populism would imperil his agenda, when he interrupted himself, according to a person present. “If I have one gift,” he told his team — besides, he said, being told he was excellent at oral sex — “it’s being able to see around the corners of politics.” (The spokesman called this “a disgusting and defamatory lie.”)
Cuomo’s behavior with women could be more unnerving, even if New York officials did not always know what to make of it or how seriously to take it. He seemed intent on surrounding himself with attractive young aides. He did not hesitate to touch arms, backs, faces, though members of both sexes were likely to receive kisses on the cheek. “By the way, it was my father’s way of greeting people,” he would say later, in self-defense. “You’re the governor of the state, you want people to feel comfortable.”
Cuomo plainly saw no tension between his management record — a demanding boss, in his telling, and a demeaning one in some aides’ — and his policy agenda. In either interpretation, his expressions of dominance, sexualized or otherwise, registered as constant reminders about who was in charge. In one meeting with Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials, an attendee told me, the governor allowed himself a digression on lion behavior: When a new lion assumes the prime position in a group, the governor said, he must find and slaughter the cubs sired by the last leader “because they might rise up against him someday.” This person interpreted the remarks as a message about making change quickly and ensuring governmentwide devotion to his direction. (The spokesman denied that Cuomo said this.)
Cuomo was never the public orator his father was, but he could inspire fierce loyalty, fusing his unsparing political Darwinism with hokey paeans to government service. At swearing-in ceremonies, he presented new hires with pins featuring the words he described as his three guiding principles: “Performance. Integrity. Pride.” He invoked the state motto — “Excelsior,” often translated from Latin as “Ever Upward.” Less than halfway through his first term, he commissioned a poster, based on one used in 1900 by the Gilded Age Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, depicting Cuomo’s triumph over a three-headed sea monster of “corruption,” “bureaucracy” and “apathy,” to be given to donors and aides. Anyone in state politics who disagreed publicly with this self-evaluation could expect a pointed call from the governor’s staff. Deeply media-conscious, Cuomo has said privately that his communications team operates “with baseball bats.” They have been known to harangue lawmakers over any criticism in the press and reporters for offenses as unforgivable as not placing quotes from the governor high enough in their stories.
It has helped that his main foil in New York’s daily news wars has been Bill de Blasio, the friend and 2002 supporter against whom Cuomo turned almost immediately after de Blasio became mayor seven years ago. Cuomo seemed to recognize in de Blasio’s progressive platform a kind of existential threat to his preferred political positioning, growing particularly furious over the mayor’s early push to fund his prekindergarten program with tax hikes on the wealthy. (New York’s convoluted political structure required de Blasio to seek permission from Albany; the state eventually approved prekindergarten funding without a tax increase.)
The governor had long profited from a byzantine power-sharing agreement that kept Republicans in control of the State Senate, allowing him to present himself as Albany’s sensible middle. But since the mayor’s election, which portended a leftward shift among New York Democrats, Cuomo has adjusted accordingly. He embraced a $15 minimum wage in 2015 just months after calling that number “too high” and appeared in 2017 with Bernie Sanders to talk up an “Excelsior Scholarship” program for college-tuition relief, the sort of Democrat-meets-democratic-socialist photo-op that would have once been unimaginable for him.
Cuomo would never credit the mayor with his own ideological recalibration, and many New Yorkers do share the governor’s view of de Blasio as a hollow ideologue and bumbling manager. De Blasio, in turn, has complained about what he sees as inequities in their respective news coverage, according to former aides: “How does he get away with this stuff?” he has said of Cuomo to his staff. The mayor accused the governor in 2015 of carrying out a “vendetta” against him, despite de Blasio’s past fealty, surmising correctly that the word carried sufficient Mafia connotations to especially enrage Cuomo. “He knows what that means,” the governor simmered privately.
That these men are essentially right about each other has made the proceedings no less exasperating for their constituents. But Cuomo, by far the more powerful and vindictive of the pair, is most responsible for sustaining hostilities, bedeviling City Hall with such nontrivial slights as failing to give notice that the state planned to shut down transit service during a 2015 snowstorm. “He doesn’t want other people to win, even if it doesn’t affect him — that is uniquely Cuomo in a lot of ways,” Eric Phillips, a former press secretary to de Blasio, told me. “In his world, two people can’t win. He must be the only one who wins.”
He has won, more often than not, even measuring himself against his heroes. Cuomo has always seemed to believe that he was different from and tougher than his father — the blunt-force son of a ponderous liberal — straining to resist the executive atrophy that he sensed late in the last Cuomo administration. The younger Cuomo has told confidantes in recent years that he advised his father against pursuing a fourth term in 1994. Andrew Cuomo cited the challenges of attracting and retaining top talent across so many years as an argument against another campaign. He encouraged his father to embrace an offer that Clinton had dangled: a nomination to the Supreme Court. Instead, Mario Cuomo ran again and lost.
Andrew Cuomo’s prophecy about staff churn seems to have caught up to him, too, at an equivalent point in his tenure. Joseph Percoco, a former top aide whom Cuomo had referred to as his father’s “third son,” sits in federal prison after being convicted in 2018 of soliciting and accepting bribes. Other advisers have left the administration or his circle altogether, ground down by the punishing hours and slashing insults that have at times reduced state officials to tears. Some who remain, including Melissa DeRosa, his top aide, have seen their own reputations ravaged by allegations of dishonesty and belligerence, even as most in state politics assume that the tone is set by the governor. “Andrew Cuomo demands loyalty under all circumstances,” Sheinkopf, the former adviser, told me. “The question is, what do people get in return?”
To Paterson, who struggled himself to corral the machinery of government, the better question is what Cuomo is missing out on. The former governor told me that he admired his successor’s ability to leave no doubt about who controlled the state. But he did wonder what Cuomo wasn’t hearing. “I think he has people he’s very close to,” Paterson said. “I think they’ll tell him what they really think if he’s going after someone. But if it’s something they’re not doing, or something he’s doing, I don’t think they tell him. I don’t think they tell him.”
In “American Crisis” — Cuomo’s book last year about “leadership lessons” from his time as the determined public face of Covid’s initial U.S. epicenter — the governor steered his prose to the subject of his own daring when at sea. “Some of my adventures have been quite foolhardy,” he wrote, with more thrill than regret, recalling treacherous outings off the Eastern Seaboard. “There is nothing quite as intimidating as being in a storm at night in a small boat and looking at a wave you know could crush you in an instant.”
The governor’s confidence seems to multiply in such conditions, whether or not it should, overpowering a risk aversion often ascribed to a man who prefers fights he knows he can win. And the coronavirus represented something of an executive Super Bowl for Cuomo, a chance to showcase the twin pillars of his self-perception: solving impossible problems — intractable bureaucracy, the reputation of Albany, long-delayed infrastructure like the Second Avenue Subway — and projecting authority during emergencies. The appeal was only enhanced when his principal counterparts at the White House and City Hall did not seem up to the task.
Even those who despised Cuomo have allowed that he provided a service in his early briefings. He wasn’t Donald Trump. He cited the science and acknowledged the unknowns. He was clearly working himself to exhaustion. After being name-checked for years as a potential presidential candidate, Cuomo was suddenly in the spotlight on his terms, without all the fuss of poorly concealed ambition. He did not have to sell himself — or anything, really, beyond baseline aptitude and command during sober recitations of virus statistics and hospital capacity from the Capitol’s Red Room. Being Andrew Cuomo was enough.
So he embraced a strategy of maximum Cuomo, a kind of weatherized version of Cuomo 2002: showing a little more of himself, and then a little more, curated as it was. He spoke of his three daughters, who came to stay with him in the mansion, and made “the boyfriend” of one of them a recurring character. He honored his father, who died in 2015, with inspirational quotations from “A.J. Parkinson,” a fictional philosopher whom Mario Cuomo had often invoked. He has said he wore his dad’s shoes on especially trying days. “Shakespeare, Oedipus, Freud,” Liz Krueger, a Manhattan state senator, who has known the family for decades, told me. “They all need to be in the room.”
The response among those who were less familiar with him, nationally and internationally, seems to have delighted and confounded Cuomo in equal measure. There were Cuomo prayer candles, “Cuomosexual” T-shirts, “Cuomo for President” cashmere sweaters, available for $285. One aide told me the attention seemed to initially keep the governor on his best behavior, or at least suppress some of his worst. After briefings, Cuomo would ask staff which stations had carried his remarks live and when they had cut away, evoking the ratings-minded president bungling the federal response.
The armor of Cuomo’s Covid celebrity, assembled across those months, has now become his best defense against conduct that dates to the very same period. The Siena College survey in mid-March showed that 60 percent of voters approved of how he had handled the virus, despite — or, if Cuomo made his case persuasively enough, perhaps because of — a premature victory tour that feels especially off-key in hindsight. Cuomo agreed to write the Covid book, mid-Covid, expending time and state staff resources in service of a seven-figure advance before many thousands more New Yorkers would die of the virus. He held a news conference unveiling a state-commissioned poster depicting New York’s pandemic journey to date, complete with a mountain meant to convey the peak of hospitalizations and a run of inside jokes and phrases (“Love Wins,”‘ “Boyfriend Cliff,” an A.J. Parkinson quote) from his time as a television star. “They will be talking about what we did,” Cuomo said of the state’s curve-flattening, “for decades to come.”
‘Shakespeare, Oedipus, Freud. They all need to be in the room.’
Much seems clearer with some distance: Those who called for a lockdown earlier than Cuomo, including de Blasio, were correct. (The governor appeared to spend critical days in March 2020 on a semantic disagreement over the mayor’s use of the phrase “shelter in place.”) Cuomo, celebrated initially as a man of science, has been far more skeptical of expertise than his “get the facts” messaging let on, eventually all but declaring war on members of his own Health Department. (State health officials have said they often found out about major pandemic policy directives from the governor’s news conferences, before being asked to match their health guidance to his words.) And the state’s nursing-home requirements, which forced facilities to readmit those who had been hospitalized with Covid but recovered, would become perhaps the most controversial policy flare-up of Cuomo’s tenure. Last June, as Cuomo was pursuing the book deal, senior Cuomo aides rewrote a report by state health officials to remove the total number of deaths of nursing-home residents, an early indication of what lawmakers now call a monthslong bid to conceal data from the public.
When Letitia James, the state attorney general, published a finding in January that the administration had undercounted those nursing-home deaths, the rebuke caught Cuomo off guard as little has during his time as governor. James, the first Black person and first woman elected to her post, won in 2018 with the help of an endorsement from Cuomo, who called her “a powerful advocate” prepared to meet the moment. In return, the governor seemed to expect a measure of deference. James has told people that Cuomo’s circle pressed her to stop associating with the Working Families Party, which helped James win her first election to the New York City Council. (Cuomo denied pressuring James at the time.) He relied on her as a high-profile defender after getting himself into trouble at a Women for Cuomo 2018 campaign event — “One of the few men in a room full of women,” Cuomo had said. “Could be worse, could be worse” — and she delivered: “What did he say that was offensive?” James asked at the time. “Everyone in the room enjoyed his comments.”
A similar alliance in 2022 seems unlikely. James is now considered a leading potential successor, whenever the state’s top job becomes available, and her present position has complicated both Cuomo’s life and her own. In addition to the nursing-home report, her office’s sexual-harassment review is being conducted by outside investigators whom James chose. And if there is some political risk in being seen as the tormentor of a governor — especially a vengeful governor — before potentially offering herself up as his replacement, there is a template for that, too. “You presume that there is a necessity to the current political alignment,” Spitzer told me. “And suddenly you wake up the next day, and it’s gone.”
It is difficult at last to imagine Cuomo’s remaining governor in perpetuity. It is more difficult to imagine his doing anything else. Since announcing his split in 2019 with Sandra Lee, the television chef with whom he had shared a home in Westchester, Cuomo has ignored the counsel of some close to him that spending so much time in the capital was unwise. He used to mock his younger brother, Chris Cuomo of CNN, as “mansion boy” because Chris lived at the estate full time in his adolescence. Today the governor possesses no property of his own. He rents no apartment that anyone in his orbit seems to know about. He is a man of considerable-enough means — the Covid book, now another focus of the Assembly’s impeachment inquiry, fetched an offer of more than $4 million. But the national acclaim that earned him that check has evaporated. Even online shoppers have been offered discounts if they wish to have their Cuomo pullovers restitched. “Cuomosexualharassment doesn’t quite fit on a cashmere sweater,” Amy Spitalnick, a former official at City Hall and the attorney general’s office, told me.
The most serious allegations against Cuomo to date come from the unnamed aide who says the governor reached under her blouse and groped one of her breasts over her bra late last year. The woman, who says Cuomo engaged in a two-year flirtation that began with overly tight hugs and kisses on the cheek, had been summoned to the mansion to assist the governor with a cellphone problem. In an anonymous interview she gave to The Times Union in Albany in early April, the woman, who still works as an executive aide, says she told Cuomo, “You’re going to get us in trouble” and “You’re crazy” before leaving the mansion. She says Cuomo later told her to “never tell anyone” about “anything” because he “could get in big trouble.”
Cuomo has denied touching anyone “inappropriately.” He has acknowledged that he has “acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” observing that he spends so much time working that he considers colleagues to be personal friends. But the allegations of predatory work-life line-blurring have unsettled even some who know him well. His most sustained display of public contrition came in early March, days after a former aide, Charlotte Bennett, an executive assistant less than half his age, accused the governor of grooming her for sex: asking if she slept with older men, telling her that he was lonely and seeking a girlfriend in Albany and assuring her that he was open to dating women in their 20s.
Cuomo addressed her account at the end of a virus briefing in the Capitol’s Red Room, the space where he had become Covid-famous, making a show of saying that he was speaking from the heart and against legal counsel. “It was unintentional,” he said of any behavior that had caused offense, vaguely enough to concede almost nothing. His voice broke a bit over the next sentence: “And I truly and deeply apologize for it.” For decades, he had watched a procession of jokers and criminals at microphones like this, explaining away this report or that investigation. But a groveling Cuomo? He had seen the movie and remade it anyway.
‘You presume that there is a necessity to the current political alignment. And suddenly you wake up the next day, and it’s gone.’
Current and former lawmakers have not hesitated to make the connection between the governor’s bellowing tenure and allegations of personal misconduct. “It is an outgrowth of his obsession with power for power’s sake,” Miner, the former Syracuse mayor, told me. “What happens when somebody has that level of power and there are no checks? It’s corrupting in all ways.” Sitting legislators have begun to speak more freely about him, calculating either that it was finally the time for fuller candor, come what may, or that his menace was not so menacing anymore. When Ron Kim, a Queens assemblyman, told reporters in February that Cuomo had threatened to “destroy” him over his nursing-home criticisms, he seemed largely undestroyed thereafter, even making an appearance on “The View.” (Cuomo denied making the threat, but then seemed to follow through on camera afterward, suggesting that Kim was guilty of an elaborate “pay to play” scheme.)
In a signal of the relative dam-breaking, an employee of the governor’s office, Alyssa McGrath, recently became the first current aide to publicly accuse him of sexual harassment. While the Assembly could have the votes to impeach Cuomo already if Republican legislators are included, the prevailing assumption in Albany is that Democratic leaders would not proceed if bipartisan support for such a measure is required. The impeachment math could still turn decisively if the harassment inquiry (or others) can corroborate existing allegations or surface new ones.
For a state hoping to end a health crisis, manage an economic crisis and reanimate New York City amid a combustible mayor’s race whose current front-runner is Andrew Yang, the turmoil in Albany has only perpetuated a sense of wider chaos. Kathryn Wylde, the longtime president of the Partnership for New York City, the city’s leading business association, told me the present circumstances represented “the most political instability I have seen in 50 years working in New York,” drawing unfavorable comparisons to the 1970s. “There’s no chain of command,” Wylde said. “It’s complete anarchy.”
In the interim, the governor has held closest to his allies in the Black community, some of whom have been explicit about placing him in the company of wrongly accused African-Americans through history. Hazel Dukes, the leader of the state’s chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., has referred to Cuomo as her son, joking affectionately that “he ain’t white.” Charles Rangel, the former Harlem congressman, told me he has “more often been referred to as his godfather.” Both appeared with Cuomo in March at a Harlem church for a vaccination event that doubled as a publicly funded political rally, urging patience and allegiance.
“All politicians have problems,” Dukes told me later. Cuomo has helped his own cause over the years by enacting some key policies, like paid family leave and a higher minimum wage, that are especially popular with Black voters. The list grew late last month when he signed legislation to legalize the use of recreational marijuana and expunge the records of people convicted of marijuana offenses that are no longer criminalized, laws that have disproportionately affected people of color. Lawmakers and lobbyists were surprised to find Cuomo, who called marijuana a “gateway drug” as recently as 2017 but had expressed openness to the shift more recently, largely amenable to concessions.
The state budget produced an even surer marker of his weakened position: He reached an agreement in April with legislative leaders to make New York City’s millionaires pay the highest personal income taxes in the United States after forcefully resisting such a move for years. It was at once a disorienting reversal and a reminder of Cuomo’s situational pliability, especially under duress. He is capable of change — even rapid change — politically, just not constitutionally. There can be compromises on taxes and spending, transit and law enforcement, so long as he gets to remain the hero of his own poster. He will defend the indefensible, if he must, to stay there. “Profilers have ultimately described the good Andrew and then the bad Andrew,” Green, his former campaign rival, told me. “And everyone was wondering how he’d go out.”
Whether or not Cuomo survives, the future of Albany can feel as if it is drifting already to the generation behind him. Democrats have now built supermajorities in both chambers, stocked with younger progressives who think little of (and owe little to) the governor. Many have cited his imperiousness and throwback centrism as significant factors in their runs. “I don’t know what he stands for,” Jessica Ramos, a 35-year-old state senator from Queens, elected in 2018, told me. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him talk passionately about anything but himself.” In a halting bid to establish a rapport, Ramos recalled, Cuomo once presented her with another of his novelty posters, this one showing the “ship of state” navigating an octopus-strewn “sea of division.” “He autographed it for me,” she added dryly. “I never knew I wanted one.”
And yet visitors to the Albany quarters where Ramos hopes to undo much of the Cuomo legacy might be surprised to find the souvenir on her wall. She had the poster framed and hung in “the darkest place in my office,” she said, to remind herself of ego’s perils. Printed near the bottom are lyrics from Leonard Cohen: “O mighty ship of state! To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate, sail on, sail on.” The top, where a beaming Cuomo looms above the sea, has a note scribbled by the creator: “We are sent by the people to calm the waters and fight for justice,” he wrote. “Excelsior! Andrew.”
Devin Oktar Yalkin is a photographer based in New York who has covered a diverse range of subjects for the magazine including Joe Biden, dirt-track racing, live music and basketball on Montana’s Flathead Indian reservation.
Source photographs: New York Governor’s Office (mountain); Drew Angerer/Getty Images (de Blasio); Peter Foley/EPA, via Shutterstock (profile); Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images (wedding); Associated Press (Mario Cuomo).