The news, when it arrived, was too stunning to quite believe: New York State had fallen 89 people short, in the U.S. Census count, of keeping all of its congressional seats.
Recriminations, both online and in person, immediately spread across the state: laments about how one apartment building, a schoolyard, or a trendy bar on a good night would pack in at least that many people. Rage built against those who fled the city throughout the pandemic, beginning in March 2020 — the Hamptons and Hudson Valley dwellers who inevitably, while sipping white wine on their patios, didn’t bother to fill out their census forms.
Within the world of politics, where blame flies easily but courage can be in short supply, many began to say out loud what they had uttered, in quiet, for months — that scandal-scarred Andrew Cuomo should be blamed.
“Put simply, the governor did not prioritize the census,” said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who was highly outspoken about getting a proper count last year. “This was something, if the Cuomo administration took seriously, there’s little doubt in my mind we would not have lost a member of Congress.”
Every 10 years, the census is a notable, if rote, affair, with cheery canvassers knocking on doors and exhortations coming from mayors, governors, and even the president to get everyone counted. The stakes are incredibly high, because population counts determine federal funding for county governments, cities, and states. And the allocation of 435 congressional seats is decided by the census numbers: States that gain in population win seats at the expense of those that stagnate or shrink.
More congressional seats mean more elected officials to represent towns and cities, advocating for funding on their behalf in Washington. On a local level, having additional representatives can make it easier for constituent complaints to be heard in a timely manner. In the 1940s, New York had as many as 45 members in its House delegation, with a large number concentrated in the five boroughs. There was a time when a member of Congress could represent a district not much larger than what was drawn for a state legislator.
Soon, New York will have just 26 members of Congress.
The 2020 census was the most tumultuous of any in modern history. There was a global pandemic that halted all in-person canvassing for months. President Donald Trump, obsessed with adding an unprecedented citizenship question to the census, erected tremendous roadblocks for immigrant-heavy, Democrat-dominated cities.
To make matters even more challenging, the Trump administration wrapped up the census early, in October. All the chaos had helped undermine the census count, which still showed New York posting a surprising population gain overall but losing seats to states that gained more. Had 89 more people been counted, New York would have kept all of its seats, as Minnesota did.
But according to advocates and census observers, New York City, which allocated $40 million to census operations, ran a robust canvassing and advertising campaign around getting residents counted. At the beginning of 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio named Julie Menin, who had helmed a couple of city agencies, to direct the city’s census program. Starting so early allowed the city to determine which community-based organizations would receive funding for conducting outreach to neighborhoods where residents — because of immigration status or lower likelihood of being at home — could be more difficult to count.
Meanwhile, city officials hoped to coordinate with Cuomo, who has a notoriously testy relationship with de Blasio. In 2019, Menin traveled to Albany to meet with the Cuomo loyalist charged with overseeing the statewide census operation, Richard Tobe.
According to Menin, Tobe and other officials involved in the census lacked the power to do what was needed: Release the money that state legislators had already allocated to ensure that community-based organizations across the city and state could begin work on the census as soon as possible.
Cuomo, for reasons never made clear, refused to release any new state aid for the census in 2019, although de Blasio had already distributed the funds under his control. More curiously, an announcement in late 2019 from Cuomo’s office that touted $60 million in funding for the census was largely illusionary: only $20 million was explicitly new state money, with the rest drawn from already existing state agency resources. The $20 million paled in comparison to what some other states spent on the census. California, for example, allocated $100 million in new funding.
At the minimum, advocates and organizations involved in the census hoped to see that $20 million in new funding in 2019 or early 2020, when the groundwork for a massive counting operation had to be laid.
“It was a highly frustrating time,” said Meeta Anand, the Census 2020 Senior Fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition. “Compare it to New York City, where the money went out pre-pandemic and allowed groups the time to hire staff, to get their educational materials together, and to start forming inroads into communities.”
Phone calls, letters, and complaints from elected officials and advocates did not move Cuomo, who said very little about the census publicly. As 2019 turned to 2020, even the paltry $20 million Cuomo had dedicated to the census would remain in the hands of his administration. Menin, who assumed Cuomo did not want to work with de Blasio, was still hoping for a coordinated effort of some kind. If state aid wouldn’t directly flow to City Hall, she said, the Cuomo-controlled Empire State Development Corporation could enter into an agreement with City Hall to manage census outreach.
“The city has a rather protracted procurement and grant process — you can’t just snap your fingers and give money out. It takes a tremendous amount of time to put it into effect,” said Menin, who left the de Blasio administration recently to run for City Council. “The state needed to be doing it around the same time we did it. I can count on one hand the number of conversations I was able to have with the state on the census.”
The census would then face a catastrophic new challenge that few saw coming: the coronavirus. The first COVID-19 case, confirmed in March, came just as the census operation was ramping up for person-to-person contact. Canvassers had planned to walk the streets and climb up and down the stairwells of large apartment buildings; all of that, in the emerging crisis, had to be put on hold.
Few New Yorkers, fearing the mass death to come, were thinking about the census. But organizers thought they had a new weapon in their arsenal: Cuomo’s enormously popular televised press briefings.
Each day for 111 consecutive days, Cuomo spoke to a spellbound local and national audience about the coronavirus, soothing them as tens of thousands of people died across the state. The briefings helped cover up Cuomo’s profound policy failures, but they at least gave him a remarkable pulpit from which to speak about important issues.
“The governor was commanding historic television ratings and the entire country was glued to his daily press briefings. He had the opportunity, every single day, to say, ‘here’s what the deal is, go fill out the census’ and tie it directly to what it means to our political future,” said Amit Bagga, who served as the deputy director of New York City’s census outreach. “He failed to do it. It was a dereliction of duty.”
Indeed, Cuomo spent months discussing his daughter’s boyfriend, the meatballs at dinner, his rivalry with his CNN host brother, and a variety of other offbeat topics in his briefings — in addition to crucial updates on hospitalizations, deaths, and ongoing restrictions. Virtually absent was any talk about the census.
No one beyond Cuomo’s inner circle is quite sure why. Richard Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo, refused to answer questions about why Cuomo did not talk extensively about the census on television, and why he decided to withhold $20 million in census funding until well into 2020.
“New York did better than the experts predicted and our population count went up,” he said in a statement to the Voice. “It’s unbelievable that some politicians are willing to forget how many obstacles the Trump administration put in place — during a pandemic no less — in order to score cheap political points.”
In late summer, with the census count entering its final stages — and with barely any prior warning to officials across New York State — Cuomo decided to release the $20 million. Beyond New York City, funding was sent to the offices of the county executives, who are the highest-ranking politicians in their jurisdictions.
In New York City, where power is consolidated in the mayor’s office, the Cuomo administration decided to funnel the city’s share to the five borough presidents’ offices. Census organizers were perplexed. The relatively powerless BP offices were not set up to administer a census count — City Hall, which had placed Menin in charge at the start of 2019, had a full-fledged operation in place.
With the money disbursed this way in August 2020, just two months before counting would end, it was of little use to organizers. They were left to fume over what could have been.
John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, praised the city’s counting efforts, though he noted that whatever state funding went out did not get to city organizations. “Some groups that did a lot of work got no funds,” he said.
No advocate, staffer, or Democratic elected official could offer a single theory explaining Cuomo’s lack of interest in the census. He was not yet distracted by his myriad scandals — the investigations into his alleged predatory sexual behavior and cover-up of nursing home data didn’t come until 2021 — and COVID-19 wasn’t spreading rapidly in New York until 2020, long after the New York City efforts were established and funded.
Cuomo has a long history of undermining Democrats — he went back on his very first campaign pledge and allowed Republicans to gerrymander districts a decade ago — and his disinterest in the census, which theoretically could have allowed for gains in deep-blue New York City, fits this pattern.
But even Cuomo’s most aggressive critics aren’t sure why his administration did so little, since any kind of undercount would damage the entire state. Stanching the decades-long bleeding of House seats was a goal that virtually all in the political establishment shared.
“It’s not a sexy topic until something goes wrong and here we are on the other side of it,” said Myrie, the state senator. “We could’ve been in a better position. Cuomo didn’t care.” ❖