It’s a testament to the cult of power and fear Governor Andrew Cuomo has cultivated in New York that few politicians have spoken openly about the most egregious failings of his administration. Whereas mere investigations allow Democrats and Republicans to take numerous potshots at Mayor Bill de Blasio, the more upstanding, if hapless, political actor, Cuomo remains relatively unscathed as his closest aide faces federal corruption charges and a former New Jersey power broker alleges that Cuomo helped New Jersey governor Chris Christie cover up Bridgegate.
Both are remarkably explosive allegations that would immediately cripple any ordinary elected official. Testifying under oath, David Wildstein, the admitted mastermind of the scheme, said Cuomo and Christie personally discussed how to manage the scandal surrounding the George Washington Bridge lane closures, even agreeing to release a report covering up the incident.
Cuomo and Christie, a Republican, considered claiming that the lane closures were the result of a traffic study commissioned by officials on the New Jersey side of the agency, Wildstein testified. The report never dropped and Christie implausibly maintains he somehow knew nothing of the lane closings. Today, Cuomo denied ever having such conversations with Christie.
While Bridegate is ultimately Christie’s problem, and one reason of many that he is a failed presidential candidate and current Trump handmaiden, Cuomo’s apparent complicity can’t be understated. Any typical Democrat would not have hesitated to call out his Republican counterpart for mismanaging a bi-state agency that is responsible for the infrastructure and transportation of millions.
But Cuomo and Christie had a neat little non-aggression pact: Silence on Bridgegate meant Christie, the chair of the Republican Governors Association in more halcyon days, wouldn’t target Cuomo as he glided to re-election in 2014. The two also have plenty in common, as former prosecutors with a disdain for liberalism and a reverence for the inside game.
Like Christie, Cuomo has been admired for the way he can bring others to heel. Politicos and journalists can find this mode of existence, divorced from any earnest and easily mocked aspirations, attractive. Cuomo is like Lyndon Johnson or Robert Moses without any grander designs: Oftentimes the backroom backstabbing is the end in itself, power moves made to consolidate further power. You end up with bigness for the sake of bigness: a planned AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport that, on closer scrutiny, makes little sense, or a second Tappan Zee Bridge with limited public transit. Now he’s taking another shot at revamping Penn Station.
Since 2011, Cuomo has effectively cowed New York’s Democrats. Few are actually fans of the governor’s — get any off the record, and they’ll cattily badmouth him. Democrats in the assembly and senate, unlike de Blasio, haven’t made any legitimate attempt to hold Cuomo accountable. City elected officials, fearing the governor’s might, steer clear. Our two senators are blissfully enmeshed in D.C. affairs.
Cuomo indeed holds plenty of leverage over the legislature and New York City, but the often spineless political class should remember he is not invulnerable. He is not a dictator who can lock up your family or burn your house down. He is still an elected official, set to face his own test in two years, and progressives should remember that while he won his fair share of liberal accomplishments (same-sex marriage, minimum-wage hikes, stringent if flawed gun control laws), he stomped on the neck of any long-term hope they have for New York. Senate Republicans will be a significant force until at least 2022, when district lines are redrawn, because Cuomo allowed them to gerrymander an extra decade in power. He has bullied and delegitimized New York City’s Democratic mayor to the ultimate detriment of its people: Feuds over the MTA’s capital plan and clashing responses to Ebola and Legionnaire’s outbreaks only sowed counterproductive confusion.
Christie long ago faced his reckoning in New Jersey. Whether Cuomo endures the same will be up to the politicians he’s schooled for so long.