Andrew Cuomo is, or was, one of the most immovable objects in American politics. He began his career as an adviser to his father, three-term New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, then became a member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet. He succeeded Eliot Spitzer as New York’s attorney general, and has since won three straight gubernatorial races himself—the last of which involved a landslide victory over high-profile progressive primary challenger Cynthia Nixon.
This has all been achieved in spite of a reputation for behind-the-scenes unpleasantness so extreme that New York magazine described it as “staggering” in 2006, before he’d ever even won an election of his own. Since then, without having become any more beloved on a personal basis, Cuomo has also developed a reputation among reporters and activists for protecting and perpetuating a corrupt “pay to play” political system, resisting changes to the state’s arcane and anti-democratic electoral process, and vastly exaggerating the extent of his commitment to attacking wealth and racial inequality.
He’s continued to get reelected because of name recognition and enormous campaign spending advantages, but also because Democratic voters give solid-blue-state politicians, particularly those who are good at theatrically playing the role of the tough guy hero, a pass. To be generous about it, the 21st-century Republican Party has raised the relative appeal of governing agendas that aren’t intentionally disastrous, and of leaders who can be counted on to mostly defend the civil rights of nonwhite and nonstraight individuals. To be less generous about it, many rank-and-file Democrats (this writer and former Cuomo voter included!) spent a long time letting mediocre candidates win noncompetitive local elections.
But now Cuomo finds himself at the overlapping center of multiple reckonings. A self-inflicted COVID-statistics cover-up scandal loosened the jar, confronting Democrats with the question of what good the “bastard who gets results” archetype is if you find out later that the results involved thousands of potentially needless deaths among the elderly. (Cuomo has made misleading claims about his effectiveness before, but none that have been exposed on a subject of such unavoidably central news interest. Having already published a book about how good he was at managing the pandemic probably isn’t helping, in that respect.) Apparent efforts to intimidate New York legislators out of investigating the issue backfired, provoking others into giving their own accounts of having been threatened by the governor and his staffers, or of having helped hide information from the public while working for him. The criticism has been coming in especially hot from the New York elected officials who won office in the post-2016 grassroots wave and have media profiles and voter-donor bases that make them less vulnerable to intraparty retaliation.
Finally, three allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Cuomo have been made public in the past week, all supported with contemporary correspondence and even photographs. These accounts depict the governor as the kind of figure, familiar to anyone who’s followed the news in recent years or is a woman, who likes to “compliment” female colleagues on their appearance while others are listening, make “jokes” about how they look like one of his ex-girlfriends and should take their clothes off, and muse about his loneliness and the phenomenon of dating older men in a way that stretches the concept of plausible deniability to microscopic thinness. (Cuomo said Sunday in a statement that he “never inappropriately touched anybody” and “never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” arguing that his attempts “to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business” may have been “misinterpreted” as flirtation.)
For the moment, the governor’s poll numbers look wobbly but not disastrously low, and there is support for affording him the “due process” of an investigation. Cuomo has a history of controlling purportedly independent inquiries, but this time New York state Attorney General Letitia James rejected multiple attempts by his office to name its own investigator, insisting successfully that the matter be referred to her without any conditions. Political momentum is an inscrutable thing, but Andrew Cuomo is clearly staggering backward. Is there anyone who wants to catch him?