Ten years ago, riding a tremendous wave of popularity, Andrew Cuomo made a singular declaration: “I am the government.”
Cuomo was emboldened, having just engineered the passage of same-sex marriage in New York. It was a great achievement, done over the opposition of the Republicans who controlled the State Senate, and enough of a victory, Cuomo hoped, to quell restive progressives. He was an executive in the mode of an old mentor, Bill Clinton, triangulating on fiscal issues and breaking with old Democratic allies like organized labor. Cuomo promised to shrink government and clean it up, all the while slashing taxes and spurning liberal interest groups.
Though circumstances would force Cuomo left, he largely stayed true to this original vision whenever he could. Once the pandemic struck, this centrist Cuomo returned, threatening and enacting devastating budget cuts to public universities, schools, and social services, and blaming falling revenues on the pandemic. To most members of the media and the many Democrats consuming the news, none of it really mattered—Cuomo was a star, the man who gave comfort to a nation with his televised press conferences in the earliest months of the lockdown. Opposition to Cuomo had melted away. He was, once more, the government.
Yesterday marked, perhaps, the greatest reversal of fortune for any politician in modern times. In two weeks, Cuomo said, he would resign from office. Defiant until the end, he lacerated the state attorney general’s report that detailed, exhaustively, how he sexually harassed and intimidated current and former staffers. All the fury, though, was impotent: He had nowhere else to go. His fate was long sealed.
Cuomo resigned because the state legislature was ready to drag him from office. The votes existed to impeach and convict him. Democrats control both chambers and they are largely sick of him. They do not want tyrannical governance anymore. And if the sexual harassment allegations weren’t enough, they could have impeached him for hiding the true coronavirus death toll in nursing homes. A federal investigation into the matter is ongoing.
In Cuomo, the wealthiest and most retrograde interests in the state always had an ally. Real estate developers and landlords could count on Cuomo to block laws that would empower struggling tenants. Wall Street tycoons could rely on Cuomo to oppose higher taxes on their incomes. Thanks to exceedingly lax campaign laws Cuomo would never bother to fix, they could pump millions into his campaign coffers, guaranteeing easy re-elections.
Cuomo thwarted liberal New York City whenever he could because he hated the mayor, Bill de Blasio. He allowed the subways to deteriorate. He underfunded public housing. He forced the city, unlike every other locality in America, to pay the rent of privately run charter schools. And he undertook foolish, wasteful vanity projects, like the AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport.
New Yorkers should expect the return of ordinary governance. In most states, a governor who belongs to a certain party tries to help that party gain power. Cuomo was a Democrat who enabled Republican control of the State Senate for almost a decade, all so he could frustrate progressive legislative ambitions. He even neglected the census efforts in his own state, possibly costing New York a House seat. In Kathy Hochul, the next governor, we will witness a migration toward what residents in New Jersey and Connecticut have experienced for a little while now. Phil Murphy and Ned Lamont do not write pandemic memoirs or serially harass the people in their orbit. They are not merely thirsty for vengeance or power. Murphy, without being forced to, raised taxes on the wealthy to make up for pandemic shortfalls.
Cuomo could not match his father, Mario, who served as governor for 12 years. He could not surpass Nelson Rockefeller, the longest-tenured governor in modern New York history. His legacy, and his family’s, are forever marred. In retirement, he may contemplate this often.
Poised to become New York’s first female governor, Hochul will inherit many challenges. The coronavirus is not vanquished. New York City, the economic engine of the state, is still missing tourism dollars. The economy, flush with stimulus cash, may grow wobbly if the Delta variant persists deep into the fall.
For the progressives and socialists stymied by Cuomo, now will be the time to think big. Hochul is a moderate, but she will lack Cuomo’s clout and combativeness. She will seek to make allies, even with those she disagrees with—with an election looming in 2022, she can’t afford to alienate too many interest groups. The Democrats who long for greater funding for public schools, universities, and social services may get it in the next budget. Tenant protections could be strengthened further. A real push could be underway to make statewide single-payer healthcare a reality.
Anticipate more political chaos next spring. Hochul, a western New York native, does not have the downstate base to easily swat away a primary challenge. She will need to aggressively fundraise to avoid the fate of another accidental governor, David Paterson, who Cuomo would easily push aside. But unlike Paterson, she is a former congresswoman who has been in tough political fights before. As one of the rare governors to reside north of Westchester County, she will have intriguing, if smaller, constituencies to draw upon.
Many Democrats, however, are hungering for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to win the most powerful office in the state. James, the state attorney general, could be one such contender. A national figure in her own right, she would be only the second Black governor in state history. So would another Brooklynite and progressive favorite, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Suburbanites, including State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Congressman Tom Suozzi, could launch well-funded bids. Mayor Bill de Blasio, about to be out of a job, seems to hunger for another campaign.
More candidates could emerge. A billionaire in the mold of Michael Bloomberg might decide the Governor’s Mansion is a good place to pass four or eight or twelve years. Expect every labor union, prominent politician, and macher of some standing to want to pick a winner. The competition could be unprecedented—all of it thanks to the vacuum that Cuomo, slinking off into the shadows, opened up for the state. ❖
Ross Barkan is the author of The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York