It’s Never Andrew Cuomo’s Fault

New York’s governor has mastered the fine art of pretending he’s not in charge.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images.

On Friday, Andrew Cuomo celebrated the opening of a new bridge named for his father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, by driving Franklin Roosevelt’s black Packard east over the Hudson. This bit of primary-season fanfare was short-lived; later that night, the new span was closed over fears that the old bridge being disassembled next door might fall on it. “It is not our bridge. We are not responsible for it,” the governor of New York state said of the bridge that had for 60 years carried the New York State Thruway.

It’s fitting that Cuomo has compared himself to Robert Moses, the powerful and controversial midcentury planner who built many of the New York City region’s parks, highways, and bridges. Like Moses, Cuomo is ruthless with his enemies, a master of backroom deals, and rarely powwows with New Yorkers themselves. “It’s sometimes said of certain politicians that they love humanity but hate people,” went Jeffrey Toobin’s bon mot in a 2015 profile, “Andrew Cuomo does not appear especially fond of either.”

But what Cuomo means is that, like Moses, he gets things done. One of the keys to Moses’ success was working quickly: Just get the stakes in the ground, and we’ll figure the rest out later. Cuomo would agree. One of his signature projects, a new train line to LaGuardia Airport, is being funded without study of alternate routes. The chosen corridor is the path of least political resistance (it runs along a highway), but it’s been widely criticized by transportation planners: The train goes east from LaGuardia, even though Manhattan lies to the west. In 2016, Cuomo applied heavy pressure to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in an effort to open three stations of the Second Avenue Subway “on time” (the last in a series of missed due dates). On New Year’s Eve, Cuomo drank champagne underground. When the stations opened to the public the next day, it was later revealed, the fire-alarm system was still being tested and more than 17,000 defects identified during inspections had not been fixed.

The opening and closing of the Mario Cuomo Bridge’s second span (n.b. this is not a drawbridge) is an illustration of Cuomo’s shortcomings as a master builder but also of a more maddening tendency to shirk responsibility. If there’s one thing Cuomo loves more than taking charge, it’s pretending he’s not in charge. He has, on occasion, strong-armed the state’s other major executive, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, over issues as trivial as the rescue of a deer found in Harlem. But his distinguishing quality, as governor, has been his recurring game of power peekaboo. Now he has it; now he doesn’t.

Well, political-appointee Moses never needed public approval. Cuomo, however, to his evident disdain, has to make the case for re-election in a primary race against actress-turned-activist Cynthia Nixon. He does not seem to be getting better at it with age.

He is almost certain to win a third term on Thursday—the latest polling shows him up by an almost 3-to-1 margin—but he has nevertheless managed to make it feel competitive. On the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Cuomo-adjacent New York State Democratic Committee sent out a mailer accusing Nixon of being “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism” and (falsely) of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel. The outcry was immediate; Cuomo has criticized the mailer and the party’s executive director said it was a “mistake.”

Unscripted, Cuomo is something of an anti-Trump, a lugubrious speaker whose tin-eared one-liners rarely impress. He took flak for telling a crowd recently that America “was never that great,” regurgitating a popular left-wing line. It got him, for the first time in years, the attention of that other well-known politician from Queens: “Andrew Cuomo, having a total meltdown,” the president tweeted. The governor’s team walked it back. In another speech, he joked to a Harlem crowd that Jews couldn’t dance. In his debate with Nixon, he delivered the following sleepy-headed comeback:

Cuomo: “Can you stop interrupting?”

Nixon: “Can you stop lying?”

Cuomo: “As soon as you do.”

In private, the effect is apparently different. A former Democratic leader recalled a cajoling phone call with Cuomo to the New York Daily News like this: “He’s smart. He has that sing-songy voice … He’s a seductor. I hung up and thought, that was like having phone sex.” And indeed, his old-school blend of New York politics—as a Dem hack put it to New York’s Chris Smith, “the unions and the blacks and Israel and Puerto Rico”—still carries the day. Especially since he is running against Nixon, whose political inexperience has shown over the course of her campaign.

The Cuomo team likes to remind voters that Nixon starred in HBO’s Sex and the City, that document of frivolous yuppie culture. Meanwhile, he’s a guy from Queens who listens to Billy Joel, loves cars (the license plate of his Jaguar once read AMC ESQ), and works the same job his old man did.

That job is governor of New York, of course, but you won’t hear Andrew Cuomo compared much to his father, a beloved progressive who led the state from 1983 through 1994. He did get his start in politics working for his dad—the only way he could spend time with him. But he didn’t coast off the association. Rather, Cuomo quickly made a name for himself as a sharp, skilled housing expert and rose to become, as the 39-year-old head of Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, the youngest Cabinet administrator since Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.

It’s more from Clinton that Cuomo learned his political instincts: compromise, triangulation, deal-making. That seemed like a nice, pragmatic cocktail when he ran for governor in 2010 in the election that followed the scandalous resignation of Eliot Spitzer. Tea Party fever was sweeping the nation. Democrats would suffer the biggest swing in the U.S. House since 1938. But Cuomo won easily. As governor, he worked so closely with Albany’s House and Senate leaders (Democrat Sheldon Silver and Republican Dean Skelos, respectively), that they were known as the three amigos. (Two of the amigos are now serving time on corruption-related charges.)

Cuomo did get things done: In 2011 he delivered a balanced, on-time budget for the first time in five years. He convinced Republicans (who later lost their seats) to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011. He set the standard for Democrats on gun control and fracking. More recently, he’s made himself an advocate for Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. For the type of Washington politico who believes that left-wing ideas are unpopular medicine, Cuomo seemed to have a hell of a bedside manner. He was, Third Way president Jonathan Cowan put it to Politico, “a model for what it means to be a 21st-century Democrat.”

But the 21st century was just getting started, and voters in New York (already two-thirds Democratic) were moving left. As New York City elected a mayor who’d honeymooned in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Cuomo was still talking about high taxes and balanced budgets like a Republican. In 2013, he scuttled what might have become a landmark corruption inquiry in Albany, and his 2014 memoir, All Things Possible, was purchased by fewer people than live in some New York apartment complexes. During his first re-election campaign, a primary challenge from little-known law professor Zephyr Teachout was closer than expected. Cuomo finished with about 60 percent of the vote, a woeful total for an incumbent governor.

Yet Cuomo was determined to keep his role as the Great Albany Mediator, even if it meant undermining the left-wing organizers who once supported him. In 2014, the Dems would have gained full control of the state if not for a breakaway group that had rebranded in 2011 as the Independent Democratic Caucus and allowed the GOP to keep hold of the state Senate. It is widely thought that Cuomo condoned the IDC. He certainly hasn’t done much to help Democrats take back the statehouse; just last year he told reporters, “We’ve had a unified Democratic government in Albany … It wasn’t extraordinarily successful.”

In these matters, too, tracking Cuomo’s uses and denials of power will give you whiplash. Could he have put the Senate Democrats back together again? In 2017, he said, “If they don’t want to marry, I have no power or role in forcing the marriage.” But in April, as Nixon called him a fake Democrat on the campaign trail, he appeared to bring the IDC back into the fold with a snap of his fingers. (Several of those senators face primary challenges on Thursday.)

But no subject illustrates this recurring sleight of hand more than the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the creaking engine of New York’s economy. When it came time to press for the completion of the Second Avenue Subway, Cuomo threatened the contractors, and the extension opened. When it came time to talk about a third track for the Long Island Rail Road mainline, or a tunnel under the Long Island Sound, Cuomo was Robert Moses again. Slide after slide of what could be.

From this, you might think Cuomo is the unequivocal owner of the state’s transportation infrastructure. Indeed, in 2015, as a blizzard bore down on New York City, Cuomo called a press conference in which he announced that the subway would be, for the first time in history, completely closed because of snow. De Blasio learned about it 15 minutes before Cuomo made the announcement. But as anger simmered last summer over a level of service that would shock commuters in any other world city, Cuomo said that de Blasio was responsible for the subways. Not my bridge; not my trains.

“Who’s in charge?” the governor mused in an aside last June about the MTA. “Who knows! Maybe the county executive, maybe the president, maybe the governor, maybe the mayor.” (“Maybe Curious George,” quipped the Gothamist.)

The correct answer, whether he likes it or not, is Andrew Cuomo. He’s always been more comfortable as a leader making the most of a stalemate, and the narrative that he has achieved much atop a fractured state is part of his potential pitch for the White House in 2020. But the state might not be fractured for long. November may bring a fully blue Albany that would demand more of him. He has worked with Republicans. Could he work with Democrats?