The difference between doing the job and just appearing to do the job is rarely absolute. In the more than eight months since COVID-19 manifested in the United States, our public officials have demonstrated pretty much every gradation. Recently, President Donald Trump was ailing at Walter Reed hospital, both a victim and a symbol of his Administration’s lassitude and arrogance in the face of the pandemic. He’d failed to protect the country, and now he’d failed to protect himself—not to mention his staff, his supporters, and perhaps his opponent. Even after he returned to the White House, persistent obfuscations about how long he’d had symptoms and how serious they were called only more attention to the Administration’s negligence and bad faith. He continued to do nothing, and to urge the country, and Congress, to do nothing. Photographs released by the White House on October 3rd, of Trump supposedly working, depicted him using a Sharpie to sign his name on a blank sheet of paper. A boy practicing his autograph.
“It’s all been exposed,” Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, told me recently. “Trump was exposed. The lies are exposed. The incompetence is exposed. It’s like low tide in the ocean. Now the whole shoreline is exposed. There’s no question as to what was under the water.” Cuomo was busy contending with some other new COVID clusters—a dozen or so, many in predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in and around New York City. The onset of autumn had brought a surge in viral transmissions and had complicated the delicate task of opening up while keeping numbers down. Last week, Hasidim were out in the streets, angrily protesting the Governor’s abrupt restrictions on religious gatherings in certain communities. In their eyes, he was doing too much, at least to them. Still, most New Yorkers felt that Cuomo had done a commendable and by some measures miraculous job bringing New York back from the brink. The image they’d formed of him, at the height of the pandemic, still pertained.
One can forget the terror of those weeks in the spring, and the devastation of the numbers. A Saturday in April: the confirmed death count, statewide, was five hundred and seven. The days had all started to seem the same, at least to those people fortunate enough to be able to say so. From a distance, what set one morning apart from another was its place on the curve—the tally of new COVID-19 fatalities. On Sunday, from a medical-research center in Manhasset, on Long Island, Cuomo shared this information with the media and the many citizens watching on their screens. For seven weeks, he had been delivering daily briefings, to widespread and in some circles ardent acclaim. The repetitiveness of these performances, the almost liturgical demonstrations of what seemed like good sense, was itself calming, especially in contrast with whatever fresh craziness came out of the White House each night. Cuomo, by leaning on data, brandishing logic, speaking in paragraphs, and expressing something like human feeling, had stepped into the void left by the federal government’s cynical and capricious response. In the land of the incoherent, the silver-tongued man is king.
For the first time, the death rate was at an ebb. “We are on the other side of the plateau, and the numbers are coming down,” Cuomo said. While Joe Biden played possum in his bunker and Trump, in spite of the carnage, maintained some viable wedge of support in the polls, Cuomo was all over TV, with his crisis-time white polo shirt and furrowed brow. He had running themes, which he enunciated with relish: the preference for facts over opinions (his elongation of “facts” giving the word almost another syllable), the idea that the virus had come to New York from Europe rather than from China (his pronunciation of “China” either eerily or mockingly similar to Trump’s), and this concept of “New York tough,” which, as he kept explaining, with the assistance of PowerPoint slides, meant tough not just in the hard-ass way that people might associate with the city (and with him) but also “smart, disciplined, unified, loving.”
Loving! Here was a politician known as a man who doesn’t much like people and whom most people don’t like, at least in the way you might, say, a colleague or a friend. “He was born for social distancing,” a former aide told me. When people thought of him, they pictured a calculating, very capable, somewhat grim tactician, a man of relentless and ill-concealed ambition and intrigue—a mechanic of government, it was usually said, in a nod both to his understanding of the levers of power and to his talent for tinkering with muscle cars. But now the Prince of Darkness (a tag he’d always resisted) was a self-proclaimed “cool dude in a loose mood,” or, as his younger brother, Chris, the CNN correspondent, kidded him during their regular mock interviews, the Love Gov. The comedian Randy Rainbow came out as a “Cuomosexual,” and a new orientation was born. The public snickered about his nipples—or even speculated about nipple rings—visible beneath his white polo, just below the state seal.
“If it were up to the women,” my friend Anna wrote me, “G❤️v Cu❤️m❤️ wld be on all the time. He is, among most of my friends, 🔥.” It could be the voice, which has the timbre and phrasing of his father’s, the way it alights softly on certain plosives, on the letters “P” or “D,” the “S”s becoming “Z”s. The way he intones “LaGuardia” as he claims credit, deservedly, for building its new terminals. Among the fans of the sound of his voice, you’d probably have to include Cuomo himself. “This is a guy who knows he has a moment, and he’s not going to waste it,” a former city official told me.
Throughout the crisis, the Governor, who is sixty-two, had talked a lot about his mother, Matilda, unable to see her grandchildren; about Chris, afflicted by COVID and quarantined, sort of, in his basement in the Hamptons; about his three daughters, Cara, Mariah, and Michaela, who had come to live with him during the quarantine, something he noted so often that anyone who’d been through a divorce might have wondered if he was doing it to nettle the ex-wife. The ex was Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Bobby and Ethel. “Part of the reason women are going wild for him,” a woman who was going wild for him wrote me one day, “it’s the daughters. They adore him. And he seems to have saved them from the Kennedy curse. He put the iron in their souls.”
On this Sunday, the day after the confirmed deaths of five hundred and seven people, Cuomo eased into one of his familial tangents: “I come from an Italian-American household where we had a great tradition on Sundays—the family had to come together at the table. . . . They called it dinner, but it started at two o’clock in the afternoon—I don’t really know why they called it dinner. But everybody was at the table. Spaghetti and meatballs every Sunday.” Now his daughters were home; he’d already started cooking the sauce. Can you imagine Trump stirring a sauce? Cuomo then summoned the sitcom-dad persona he’d been trying out. “Mariah brought her boyfriend,” he said. “The boyfriend is very nice, and we like the boyfriend. Advice to fathers: the answer of what you think of the boyfriend is always ‘I like the boyfriend.’ Always.”
At this point, Cuomo was, as one longtime antagonist described it to me in the spring, “the boyfriend of all America.” Whether you liked the boyfriend or not, you said you liked the boyfriend. He seemed better than the other guys—the President a maniac, the Mayor a buffoon. But what would happen when people got to know the boyfriend a little better?
Six weeks later, on the final day of May, Cuomo devoted most of his daily briefing to a different subject. COVID deaths in the state had reached a new low of fifty-six, he said, “which is, in this absurd reality we live in, actually very, very good news.” It was. The city was scheduled to begin opening up in a week. But augmenting the absurdity of our reality was the chaos that had broken out the previous nights in cities across the country, including New York, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Police had beaten, maced, and mowed down demonstrators and journalists; rioters had looted stores and torched police vehicles. Another night of mayhem loomed. The day before, Cuomo had named some Black victims of police violence in the past three decades, and bemoaned the fact that nothing had changed, that our political leaders had done little to address what he agreed (“Of course!”) was a crisis of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence against people of color. “I’m with the protesters,” he said.
Now Cuomo had specific fixes in mind: independent investigations of police-abuse charges, transparency with police disciplinary records. His voice had attained that higher, singsong pitch it sometimes does when he is strenuously insisting on something, in this case the failure of the political establishment to fix the relationship between the community and the police and, more broadly, the long-standing inequities between white and Black, rich and poor, in education, housing, and health services. It was an impassioned call from a mainstream Democrat for a new progressivism, which he depicted as long overdue.
These were stirring words, but, to people who’d been paying attention to Cuomo, they came with some dissonance. And not just because the next day he announced, with Mayor Bill de Blasio, a curfew for New York City, the first in seventy-five years, and a surge in the deployment of police, or because, in the nights ahead, the police went on a spree of violence against peaceful protesters. It was almost as if he were calling himself out. If Cuomo wasn’t the political establishment, who was? He was approaching the midpoint of his third term; he’d been governor for almost ten years. Before that, he’d been the New York attorney general, and, well before that, in the eighties, a top adviser to his father, Mario, during his three terms as governor, and, in the nineties, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Though Cuomo lamented that many of his progressive efforts had been undone by politics—“I am perpetually frustrated about how hard it is to get that political machine, that governmental machine, to turn. It’s like a big freighter coming down the river”—he seemed to be describing an agenda that he, for most of his time as governor, had often quietly done his best to thwart. Frequently, it was he who kept the freighter steaming straight ahead.
The latest crisis drew new attention to the quandary of Cuomo: the Cuomo people see on TV and the Cuomo people contend with behind closed doors. Such incongruities are almost universal in politics and government, but there’s something particularly fraught about Cuomo’s contradictions—the promise that comes with such power and political skill versus the bitter fruit it can bear.
Even before the death of George Floyd (Mr. Floyd, as Cuomo almost always refers to him), the public perception of the Governor’s handling of the pandemic, in many quarters, had started to adjust. As eloquent as he was, as competent as he’d seemed, his state had suffered arguably the world’s worst outbreak, with a staggering number of deaths and hospitalizations. Much of this could be ascribed to the density and inequity of New York City, along with its airports, which served as the main ports of entry for flights arriving from the most infected regions of Europe. Cuomo reminded everyone that the virus had ambushed us precisely because the federal government had paid it such scant attention. But even if one allowed for the fog of war, and the pieties of hindsight, many of the moves Cuomo made in the earliest days of the pandemic were indicative of a governing style often hampered by political calculation and personal pique.
People came after him either for overreacting or for underreacting. The overreaction critique came mostly from the right, from the open-it-up-ers, who felt that a statewide shutdown, and the Governor’s dire requests for forty thousand ventilators, had been excessive, a product of hysteria and a desire to undermine Trump. This was easy to parry. Cuomo credibly made the case that the ventilator and I.C.U. predictions had been based on worst-case models issued or endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and other public-health authorities. He’d deferred to the scientists, as the Trump Administration kept failing to do. And the shutdown did flatten the curve, greatly diminishing fatalities and hospital overload. In a pandemic, you hope to be accused, afterward, of having overreacted.
The underreaction critique was harder to shake. Had Cuomo’s shutdown order come too late? Had his policies led to the needless deaths of thousands of nursing-home residents? At the peak of the pandemic, hospitals—especially the public ones—had been in chaos. The city was a hellscape of ambulance sirens and mobile morgues. How much of this could be left at the feet of the Governor and his health department, as opposed to the Mayor, or an inept White House, or a decrepit, jerry-rigged, money-sucking health system that was decades in the unmaking? Until something like the 9/11 Commission takes up the American response to COVID, these arguments will proceed along the lines of political allegiance and self-interest.
As much as Cuomo kept saying that his COVID response wasn’t about politics, it became abundantly clear that it had to be. Declaring victory became a full-time job; admitting error was impossible. The war, as articulated by Cuomo and his staff, was one of ideas, between people who believe government can be a force for good and those who think otherwise. If you asked them why they persisted with such aggressive messaging, they talked about Cuomo’s commitment to demonstrating competence, so that more people might demand it. “We were reinforcing the idea that government matters,” Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the Governor, told me.
And yet, for Homo politicus, especially perhaps the subspecies Cuomo, what is life but a campaign? He insisted that he wasn’t running for anything, saying over and over that his lack of any such ambition freed him up to do his job. His third term expires at the end of 2022, at which point he’d be vying—probably with a sturdy challenge from the left—for one more than his father had, a feat of one-upmanship that would gratify the son, according to people who know him. If he remained in office, it would be the longest tenure since that of the first governor, George Clinton, more than two centuries ago. Cuomo reads deeply and calls in historians for discussions about his predecessors, even if he usually does most of the talking. And what about the White House? At one point, people were suggesting, impractically, that he be drafted to replace Biden on the ticket. By 2024, perhaps many of the particulars of the COVID months will have faded from memory and one will be left with a binary judgment of Cuomo’s performance, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
One night early in the spring, on CNN, Chris Cuomo, enacting journalism, asked his brother if, in light of his recent acclaim, he’d given any thought to the Presidency.
“No, no,” the Governor said.
“No, you won’t answer?”
“No, I answered. The answer’s no.”
“No, you’re not thinking about it?”
“Sometimes it’s one word. I said no.”
“Have you thought about it?”
“Are you open to thinking about it?”
“Might you think about it at some point?”
One can safely surmise that the Governor wasn’t levelling with his brother or the audience, or even himself. Surely he’d gamed it out. He hardly slept these days—a few hours a night, mostly lying there, staring at the ceiling. What if Biden wins, what if he loses? This running mate, that one. He might have concluded that four more years of Trump, whatever the pitfalls, would enhance his chances in 2024. People who have worked with Cuomo say that he has at least considered this. Who among us, were we wired to win political races, wouldn’t, however idly, do the same?
“How can you know what you might think about at some point right now?” the younger brother asked.
The older brother replied, “Because I know what I might think about and what I won’t think about.”
Cuomo often speaks of government as “an art form.” By reputation, he’s an ace—an exemplar of aptitude, thoroughness, hard work. But he’s also a master of the art of politics. “He doesn’t make many political mistakes,” the former city official said. It is hard to think of a contemporary of Cuomo’s stature who is as deeply schooled. He was thrown into it young, first as a teen-age volunteer in his father’s down-ballot bids and later as his de-facto campaign manager, aged twenty-four. This was 1982, when Mario Cuomo stormed back from a distant second in the polls to upset New York’s mayor, Ed Koch, in the Democratic primary for governor. Andrew had a knack for the pulleys and trapdoors, the mirrors and smoke. On the day of the state convention, in Syracuse, as Cuomo’s campaign tried to bluff its way into having enough delegates to stay in the race, Andrew had a staffer charter a pleasure boat (and then have it conk out in the middle of Onondaga Lake) to sequester a bunch of Cuomo-leaning delegates, so that Koch’s campaign couldn’t court them.
Earlier, Koch had soundly defeated Cuomo in the 1977 mayoral race, during which signs had reportedly sprouted in the boroughs reading “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Even on his deathbed, Koch blamed the Cuomo campaign for this, Andrew in particular, who was then a muscular teen who worked nights clambering lampposts to put up his father’s posters and tear down Koch’s. Andrew has always denied any involvement, and even the existence of the homophobic posters remains in dispute; no one has ever produced a smoking staple gun. Decades later, Andrew would become something of a gay-rights hero, for his success, as Governor, in passing a marriage-equality law—a legislative equivalent of the upset in 1982. Still, the taint of that old slogan has followed him; Cynthia Nixon, his opponent in the 2018 primary, tried the slogan “Vote for the Homo, Not the Cuomo.”
Michael Shnayerson’s unauthorized 2015 biography of Andrew, called “The Contender” and conceived as a portrait of a potential 2016 Presidential candidate, presents him as a restless conniver and a seductive antihero: some combination of the Thomas Cromwell of “Wolf Hall,” without the delicacy or the taste, and maybe Jimmy McGill, from “Better Call Saul,” without the vulnerability or the lovable charm. In spite of—and sometimes because of—his maneuverings, you want to root for him. You’d watch all six seasons. “I don’t think he has any political ideology, other than to crunch his enemies and make the wheels of government turn,” Shnayerson told me. “But there is something useful in that.”
Here he is at his father’s kitchen table appraising the Queens political bosses, or pumping out curls in his bedroom while reviewing torts at Albany Law School, or working nights driving a tow truck for AAA, or rebuilding a Corvette in his parents’ driveway, or sitting stiffly on the Kennedy sailboat off Cape Cod, in fresh-bought neon swimming trunks, while the Kennedy boys snicker. In profiles through the years, his almost unsociable fastidiousness has come up again and again, even as he chain-smoked Parliaments. The furniture in his apartment was covered in clear plastic. He used Fantastik to buff his leather couch.
Cuomo has always had a chip on his shoulder, as a child of Queens and of Mario. The neighborhood was not Hollis, which was predominantly Black, or Hollis Hills, which was wealthy and white, but Holliswood, more middle class. His mother came from a Brooklyn family that owned real estate in the borough and in New Jersey. Mario, as Andrew called his boss, was the son of Italian immigrants who had a corner grocery store. Mario graduated from St. John’s Law, top of the class, and, when no Manhattan firm would hire him, started out in Brooklyn; one of his clients was Fred Trump. Mario was a largely absent but highly demanding patriarch. Much has been made through the years, with little comment by Andrew himself, of Andrew’s desire to please or, as time has gone by, surpass his father. “Mario was fucking brutal,” a former aide told me. “Andrew was scarred.” Their one-on-one basketball games, in the state-police gym in Albany, were notorious. As people can sense from watching the Cuomo brothers chirp each other, even the most lighthearted Cuomo-family trash talk comes with a tincture of grievance. Joe Klein, in “Primary Colors,” depicts the Cuomos, padre e figlio, as Orlando and Jimmy Ozio, the latter a crafty political pro, “handsome in a lurky kind of way.” The father-son pathology is always cited but never really spelled out; one gets the feeling that the Cuomos aren’t big on therapy.
The son logged some private-sector years, as a lawyer at a firm that did work for many of the big New York real-estate families, including the Trumps, and then started a nonprofit, called HELP, that built housing for the homeless. On his first date with Kerry Kennedy, he took her to one of these facilities. Later, he asked reporters how his marriage proposal would play in the press. Before the wedding, Shnayerson writes, he decreed that there be no toasts at the reception and, in another break from Kennedy-family tradition, that no exes be allowed at Hickory Hill, the family compound in Virginia, where he and Kerry later took up residence. (Cuomo denies all this.) By then, he was at HUD, doggedly protecting an ossified agency (what Jack Kemp, a former Secretary, called “ten floors of basement”) from a Republican Congress while waging war for years with HUD’s inspector general, Susan Gaffney, whose public profile, huge staff, and subpoena powers he came to resent. As Shnayerson writes, Cuomo sought to rein her in, “first by wooing her, and then when that didn’t work, doing his best to destroy her.” He basically created an investigative unit of his own, and used it to render her redundant. He was perhaps at his best, and his worst, when he had an enemy.
In 2000, after Al Gore lost to George W. Bush (there had been talk of Cuomo becoming Gore’s chief of staff), Cuomo decided to run for governor of New York, in part, people assumed, to avenge his father’s loss, six years earlier, to the Republican George Pataki. The putative Democratic nominee, popular with the Party establishment, was a courtly apparatchik named H. Carl McCall. It was McCall’s turn, as Party etiquette would have it, and he was poised to be the state’s first Black major-party candidate for governor. Various people, none of them exactly his allies, quoted Cuomo as having said, at the time, regarding his presumptive hold on the African-American vote, “Every Black home has three pictures: one of Jesus Christ, one of Martin Luther King, and one of either Bobby Kennedy or J.F.K.”—the implication being that Cuomo’s marriage to Bobby’s daughter made him a Kennedy, too. (Cuomo has denied saying this.) The transitive property didn’t apply. In the Times, Bob Herbert called him “arrogant, abrasive, controlling.” The oft-cited self-infliction was a put-down of Pataki, after September 11th. “He stood behind the leader. He held the leader’s coat,” Cuomo said, meaning that all Pataki had done, as Rudy Giuliani played the hero of Ground Zero, was act as the Mayor’s valet. It’s difficult, amid the debased discourse of the Trump era, to imagine that such a remark could be deemed suicidally indecorous, but it was, partly because it wasn’t really true, and we were all, for a while there, patriots and allies. As it happens, Bill de Blasio, a city councilman at the time who had worked under Cuomo at HUD, was one of the few Democrats who stood by him. “You could have gotten all of his supporters into a phone booth,” de Blasio said some years later. After Cuomo dropped out of the race, Kerry Kennedy told him that she wanted a divorce. Cuomo foundered in the doldrums of an apparent political and personal dead end. Some friends even reported glimpses of introspection. He vowed never to let such a thing happen again.
Cuomo started over, and in 2006 he won the attorney-general seat that Eliot Spitzer was vacating to be governor. Spitzer, before doing himself in, amid a prostitution scandal, was bedevilled, from within his own party, by Cuomo, who as A.G. skillfully undermined him in his battles with the Albany establishment. Spitzer’s replacement as governor, David Paterson, once said that he always felt as if Cuomo were sawing the floor out from under his feet. Soon the stage was set for Cuomo to run again—to take his father’s old job, and to move back into the governor’s mansion, the state’s most powerful perch.
In early March, as the coronavirus took hold, Cuomo got the Legislature to grant him sweeping emergency powers, which enabled him to unilaterally make or suspend laws. The effort had started innocently, weeks before, as a request for forty million dollars, to help the state prepare for the new virus. By the time the bill came to the floor, it was also, incidentally, an authorization of absolute power. In the coming months, he issued seventy executive orders and signed some two hundred and twenty-five laws, including one granting him the right to make budget cuts. “Now is not the time for politics,” he said.
In some ways, the occasion was perfect for Cuomo. “He’s inclined toward tyranny,” a Democratic legislator told me. “But in a crisis that’s what people want. Someone who can exert command and control. This situation is tailor-made for a tactician of his abilities.” An advocate for government could deploy its considerable capabilities without having to put up with its usual difficulties, which we sometimes call politics. But you can no more repress politics than you can feelings.
Later, as the state began to open up, various advocates argued that Cuomo should cede those powers. Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, told public radio, “What we’re arguing for is a return to the American form of democracy, a system of checks and balances. If the Governor doesn’t like that, of course he’s entitled to his opinion, but it’d be a debate he’d have to have with Thomas Jefferson, not with us.”
Monica Klein, a progressive strategist, told me that shortly before Richard Brodsky, the fourteen-term Westchester County assemblyman known as “Albany’s conscience,” died, in April, “the last thing he yelled at me was ‘You need to tell everyone that Andrew Cuomo is an authoritarian!’ ”
It may be hard for someone outside the hothouse of New York politics to understand how much Cuomo is resented by the more progressive wing of his party, which his staffers disdainfully call “the professional left”—to whom he, in turn, is Quid Pro Cuomo. Members of the Cuomo team relish the resentment.
Cuomo has said, and his people insist, that he is a great progressive. They cite the accomplishments: gay marriage, marijuana decriminalization, gun control, a minimum-wage increase, paid family leave. “Every time you set up the government for failure, you’re aiding and abetting the conservatives,” Cuomo told me. “I’m looking at an original poster: ‘Re-elect F.D.R. for Progressive Government.’ It’s not a new word, a new concept. It was F.D.R. and Al Smith. They were the progressives. F.D.R. was all about you get done what you can get done.” Cuomo likes to say that, under his watch, New York has the most progressive record of any state in America, and believes that history will say so. “The right decision ultimately outs,” he continued. “If you don’t believe that the truth wins, you can’t do the job. You have to believe that the right thing gets appreciated in the long run. Only the long run matters.”
As a so-called Clinton Democrat, Cuomo came into office, in the wake of the financial crisis, determined to cut spending and to bring public-sector unions to heel. At the time, Republicans controlled the State Senate, a situation that had the perverse effect of helping Cuomo neutralize his left flank, which consisted mainly of New York City liberals. The city has almost half the people, and more than half the money, but the state is vast and diverse, and a governor has to triangulate.
In 2012, the G.O.P. lost its majority. A handful of mostly conservative-leaning Democrats, by many accounts at Cuomo’s urging and with his strategic advice, had established the Independent Democratic Conference, which formed a coalition with the Republicans and therefore effectively negated the new Democratic majority. Democrats called it a “coup.” Cuomo’s office called it an “internal legislative matter” and disavowed any involvement.
In the next electoral cycle, the Working Families Party, a left-wing movement that started in New York in the late nineties, grudgingly agreed to endorse Cuomo, over his challenger, Zephyr Teachout, if he promised, among other things, to end the I.D.C. His less than enthusiastic on-camera accession to the Party’s demands, in exchange for its backing (the deal was brokered by de Blasio, an early supporter of the Party), became known as the “hostage video” and was initially greeted with jeers at the W.F.P. convention. Sure enough, once Cuomo was reëlected, he failed to deliver on his promise.
In the fall of 2018, primary challengers beat six of the eight I.D.C. defectors. After Cuomo trounced the Republican candidate, Marc Molinaro, in the gubernatorial race, he started his third term having to contend for the first time with a truly liberal Democratic majority. Last year, the Legislature had its most progressive session ever: new laws were passed addressing rent control, climate change, bail reform, and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Cuomo, who has in private conversations expressed concern over the leftward lurch of his party, did his best to ride the wave rather than let it wash over him. Now he drove the left nuts in a new way—with, as a Democratic legislator put it recently, “his proclamation of positions that he’s working hard to sabotage.”
“He’s still doing a good job of keeping the crazies at bay,” a prominent Manhattan Democrat told me. He happened to be the kind of Davos Man constituent who Cuomo feared would abandon the city if he were subjected to a new wealth tax, which many progressives have endorsed.
“Cuomo decided years ago, partly by watching his father, that Democrats can’t govern effectively, that they are a tax-and-spend juggernaut, and that any power they have in the Legislature is bad for him,” Bill Lipton, a former political director of the W.F.P., told me. “The ease and consistency with which he does one thing in practice while arguing in public he’s doing the exact opposite—and saying anyone who suggests he’s doing this is crazy—should worry anybody who believes that executives should be transparent and accountable.”
“These are institutional advocates who by their job can never say, ‘It’s enough,’ ” Cuomo told me. “A sitting governor can never satiate advocates. Otherwise, they’re not advocates, by definition. I can’t. My father couldn’t.” Cuomo and his staff, buoyed by their own internal polling and the results of his two primary challenges, contend that he is actually more popular among Democratic voters who consider themselves to be very liberal than he is among those who are closer to the center. They dismiss the W.F.P. as being representative of no one. “They’re not the left,” one of them said. “They don’t represent anybody. They’re a piece of stationery.”
After winning a third term, Cuomo got to work getting back at the Working Families Party. In each of the past two years, he has sneaked a provision into his budget that would more than double the number of votes a party would need to remain on ballots. The new threshold would be a high hurdle for the W.F.P. On NY1, Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, called Cuomo’s tactics “Trumpian.” Lipton told reporters that the maneuver was “a power grab.” Cuomo, a master of the “Who, me?” defense, dismissed such talk as “conspiracies.”
In his own party, his detractors often speak of him (almost always without attribution, because they are afraid of him) as a brutal boss, a friendless bully, and a paranoid control freak. “It’s not enough for him to win. Other people have to lose,” one said, having lost. Yet there are often caveats. “And by the way,” another told me, after carpet-bombing my notebook with slurs, “he may go down as, if not the greatest, then the most accomplished governor New York has ever had.”
With the press, Cuomo has a reputation for being both exacting and adept. He makes late-night or early-morning calls to reporters—usually off the record, often genial and confiding, sometimes foulmouthed and scathing—which can seem like a gambit to seduce and cow the cadre of regulars assigned to the statehouse beat. He prefers bending an ear to pressing the flesh; the biggest impediment to any designs on the Presidency is the thought of him having to spend weeks in Iowa. Prior to the pandemic briefings, his press conferences were infrequent, his stagecraft tightly controlled. He has a small and loyal team. He is known to have, as one reporter wrote, “an elephant’s long memory for slights.”
I first approached Cuomo’s office in the spring about spending some time with him. Various members of his staff took up the request and then let it drop. By midsummer, I’d all but given up. Rich Azzopardi, his senior adviser, laughed at my suggestion that I spend a night in the governor’s mansion. In a pandemic? Then, one day in August, my phone rang: Hold for the Governor. He asked to speak off the record, and did so for more than an hour and a half. There was a strange intimacy to the conversation; his timbre was like a pheromone. It didn’t sound as though he were multitasking or pulling faces with his aides. It wasn’t a man just talking to himself, like Nixon at night. He seemed to have all the time in the world. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the Cuomoisms (“We created the we!”), the rhetorical repetitions and Rumsfeldian logic pretzels. I wondered, as I had before, if he was aware of his own peculiarities. For a New Yorker, shtick can be self.
A few weeks ago, there was another call, this time on background, with quotes to be used only with his later approval. He explained his rationale. “I did four hundred hours of briefings,” he said. “The people can come up with their own opinions of me. They do and they did. They know me better than you know me. And, by the way, they do. They literally do. You bring baggage. They have no baggage. They know me. They know my kids. They know my mother. They know my dog. They came to their own conclusions about me. They don’t need your opinion.”
The first time I met Cuomo was in 2014, at Billy Joel’s house in Oyster Bay. I was writing about Joel, and he’d invited me to hang around on a morning when he and Cuomo were going out on Joel’s boat for a photo op having to do with cleaning up the bay. The two are good friends. They share an interest in motorcycles and boats, and a pride in being rough-hewn street-smart outsiders vaulted, by talent and luck, into a world of high-class swells. Cuomo presided at Joel’s fourth wedding and is the godfather to his young daughters.
The two men were alone in the kitchen, not-eating breakfast. Cuomo had on his in-the-field uniform: khakis, white polo shirt with state insignia, tucked in, windbreaker with insignia. They talked about wives and houses. Out on the bay, on the Argos, Joel’s refitted lobster boat, Joel and Cuomo scooped up some plastic for photographers in smaller boats; then they took turns awkwardly scattering panels of oyster seed into the water, to demonstrate support for the oyster-farming operations in the bay and the clean water that they both enable and require.
Sometime later, I found myself at Joel’s house, on Independence Day. Cuomo was there. Emboldened by a taste of Billy Joel’s gin, I sat down next to the Governor and began to make an argument against an infrastructure project that he’d been promoting, a bridge or a tunnel across Long Island Sound, from Rye to Syosset—a very long and expensive connector between the mainland and the island, to divert traffic from the metropolitan area, that could devastate the region’s shellfishery, which Cuomo and Joel had celebrated a few years earlier. I began to state the case against the project, and Cuomo interrupted and dismissed the premise that there was any oyster fishery worth considering. “They get, what, five oysters a year?” he said. (I’m quoting from memory.) He held forth, in a playfully caustic tone, about NIMBYism, the future of John F. Kennedy Airport as an e-commerce hub, and the virtues of thinking big, in a world of small-minded people, of whom I was presumably one.
What thrills Cuomo most, to go by his reputation and the evidence, is building things—the kind of big infrastructure projects that might vex more deferential executives. The Second Avenue subway, a new LaGuardia Airport, an expansion of Pennsylvania Station, a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge, which he named for his father. Each summoned up a disregard for bureaucratic niceties which some might find refreshing, and a hands-on obsessiveness that is extremely expensive and, for bureaucrats and other hands, crazy-making. As one of those bureaucrats told me, referring to the Cuomo team, “They will slam a bureaucracy for taking too long but then spend an inordinate amount of money to rush it. He is adept at throwing money at a problem. That is a luxury that the bureaucrats don’t have.”
Still, the travails of the city’s transit system, and of the finances of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have beset him throughout his tenure. In 2017, soon after celebrating the opening of the Second Avenue subway, a costly project that had been delayed for decades, Cuomo was confronted by the so-called Summer of Hell—an epochal rise in delays, overcrowding, derailments, and signal malfunctions brought on by years of underinvestment and neglect. Unsuccessfully trying to deflect some of the blame and the cost onto Mayor de Blasio, Cuomo, who controls the M.T.A., declared a state of emergency and hired Andy Byford, a respected transit expert who had most recently remade Toronto’s subways, to run the system. Acclaim in the press (including this magazine) for “Train Daddy” reportedly irked the Governor. After two years, Byford quit, complaining that Cuomo had undermined him, hounded his staff, and in general made it impossible for him to do his job.
Byford told Marcia Kramer, of WCBS-TV, during his only on-the-record debriefing, “I just would not accept the fact that my people were being yelled at, they were being given direction, and I was deliberately excluded from those meetings.” He added, “To me, it’s actually dangerous, also, that people who are not professionally qualified should give direction on operational matters.” Byford, who read “The Contender,” has compared his ordeal to that of the inspector general at HUD and has accused the Governor of “steamrolling” him. Now, with the M.T.A.’s finances further wrecked by an unprecedented collapse in ridership as a result of the pandemic, the prospects for the transit system, and with it the viability of the entire region, are gloomier than they were even in the dark days of the city’s last major financial crisis, in the seventies. In June, Byford took over the transit system in London.
It can be instructive to go back and chart, day by day, the encroachment of COVID consciousness, its mutation in the public’s mind from “just another swine flu” to an invisible menace that forever altered our lives. March 1st saw the first confirmed case in New York State, a doctor returning from Iran, and then there was a flareup in New Rochelle, outside the city—Patient Zero hadn’t travelled anywhere, so COVID was here. At that point, people who went out in public wearing gloves and masks were generally considered to be paranoid. Cuomo said, on March 2nd, “Avian flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS, measles—right? So we have gone through this before.”
On March 13th, Cuomo indicated that the state would defer decisions about school closures to local governments. Two days later, de Blasio, after dithering, decided to close the city’s public schools. The following Tuesday, March 17th, after a weekend in which patrons unadvisedly packed the city’s restaurants and bars, de Blasio, to the surprise of his own staff, floated the prospect of an order to “shelter in place.” (First, though, he sneaked in one last workout at his gym in Brooklyn, to which he’d been driven by S.U.V., from Gracie Mansion, in Manhattan, most mornings throughout his mayoralty, amid almost universal derision.)
Cuomo, objecting to the language and the spirit of such a measure, overruled the Mayor. “For New York City or any city or any county to take an emergency action, the state has to approve it,” he said. “And I wouldn’t approve shelter in place.” He added, “The fear, the panic, is a bigger problem than the virus.” Freddi Goldstein, who was de Blasio’s press secretary at the time, told me, “It was very, very clear we had hit a nerve and in their eyes had gone too far.” According to the Wall Street Journal, a dozen public officials held a conference call with the attorney general, Letitia James, to figure out how best to get Cuomo to announce some kind of shutdown, without seeming as if he were following the Mayor.
It wasn’t until March 22nd, when New York had almost six thousand confirmed cases, that Cuomo’s “pause”—shelter in place by another name—went into effect. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, had ordered a shutdown on March 19th, when the state had less than a third of the number of confirmed cases that New York had. Days mattered. Columbia University epidemiologists later estimated that a week’s delay in March quintupled the number of deaths in the New York metro area in the pandemic’s first two months.
Cuomo, to be fair, had already closed universities, schools, theatres, barbershops, gyms, restaurants, and bars. Maybe the people weren’t quite ready for quarantine, by any name. “You had to fundamentally change the behavior of nineteen million people and get a buy-in from a cynical populace,” DeRosa, a top aide, told me.
Still, it’s hard to find anyone who knows the two men who doesn’t conclude that one of the reasons Cuomo lagged some of his peers was that he was just doing what he has often done: begrudging de Blasio any political oxygen. Cuomo didn’t want to be the one holding the coat. New Yorkers have come to think of these spats as a feud, but for the most part they have been sustained by Cuomo. De Blasio has done himself few favors, however; he is a master of the unforced error. After New York’s first confirmed case, de Blasio tweeted that people should get on with their lives. Cuomo had been cavalier, too, but de Blasio did it with a certain kind of flair: suggesting that New Yorkers “get out on the town despite Coronavirus,” he threw in a recommendation for an Italian Mafia movie called “The Traitor.”
As conditions in the state and the city deteriorated, Cuomo kept pressing de Blasio. On April 11th, de Blasio announced that the city’s schools would remain shut down for the rest of the year. But he’d failed to consult with Cuomo; he alerted the Governor by text message just before his announcement. Legally speaking, the decision was Cuomo’s to make. “That’s his opinion,” Cuomo told the press. “He didn’t close them. And he can’t open them.”
Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, tweeted, “Cut the crap.” But the crap was not cut: similar episodes of rank-pulling and wrong-footing, whether about gyms or restaurants, cops or schools, cropped up again and again in the coming months. The day after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, de Blasio tweeted that he was looking into building a memorial for her. Twenty minutes later, Cuomo announced that the state had a plan for one already.
Last week, the crap kicked up again, when the Mayor, without consulting the state, announced some measures to contain new COVID hot spots in certain neighborhoods. The next day, the Governor nixed those plans, in favor of some of his own. The schools would close on Tuesday, not Wednesday. Closures would be determined by cluster zones, not Zip Codes. And so on. Whatever the merits of each approach, the petulance and the lack of coördination confused New Yorkers, and sent a portion of them into a rage. By Tuesday night, mobs of Hasidic men were running amok in the streets. “To the extent there are communities that are upset,” Cuomo said on Wednesday, it is “because they weren’t following the rules and the rules weren’t being enforced.”
In New York, through the decades, the relationship between the governor and the mayor has often been strained, especially when they have been members of the same political party. Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay, both moderate (and blue-blooded) Republicans, could hardly talk to each other. Mario Cuomo regularly undermined David Dinkins. George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani were chilly at best. Some of the tension is structural. At least where the city is concerned, the governor has the power, the mayor the responsibility. The mayor oversees a huge budget, controls the nation’s biggest police department, and lives and works in the country’s media capital, while the governor, stuck up in Albany, has a diffuse political base, an unruly legislature, and a state police force much smaller than the city’s. Yet the mayor needs state approval for almost everything. The inevitable thumb wrestling between the two executives and their staffs requires political acumen, message discipline, and the cultivation of powerful constituencies and alliances. In these departments, Cuomo, by most accounts, is a samurai, whereas de Blasio is a schlimazel. Even members of de Blasio’s administration, past and present, say that his political ineptitude is surpassed only by his self-regard.
When de Blasio was elected, in 2013, he set out to make good on a campaign promise to introduce public pre-kindergarten citywide. Though Cuomo outwardly supported the idea, he didn’t like how de Blasio wanted to pay for it, with a tax on people earning more than five hundred thousand dollars a year. Cuomo was running for reëlection, and was trying to cut taxes, not raise them. De Blasio, who had won in a landslide, felt that his victory gave him the political capital not only to impose a wealth tax but also to force Cuomo’s hand. “The people in the city have given me a mission,” he said at City Hall.
“Pre-K drove Cuomo’s people crazy,” a former de Blasio aide recalled, adding that one of them told him, “We’re gonna bury you, you just wait.” Cuomo believed that it would be a bad idea to drive away the rich, both from the state and from the tax rolls, and maybe, as his critics would have it, from his fund-raising Rolodex. Amid the pre-K battles, he told the Times, echoing his father’s famous formulation, “The way we campaign is in poetry, aspirational generalizations. We govern in prose, which is in compromise and programs. The millionaires tax is a great political theme; it’s a great proposal politically. It is governmentally, currently, an impossibility.” He has compared his commitment to not raising taxes with his father’s steadfast opposition to capital punishment.
De Blasio began targeting charter schools, diverting funds and rescinding space. Supporters of the charter-school movement include some of Cuomo’s big donors, such as the fund managers Paul Tudor Jones, Daniel Loeb, and Bruce Kovner. With Cuomo’s approval, some of them launched harshly critical, multimillion-dollar ad campaigns against de Blasio—an aggressive tactic so early in a new mayor’s term. Then Cuomo teamed up with the Republicans in the State Senate to kill the tax proposal and pass stronger protections for the charter schools. “Our tax package is not an advocacy statement,” Cuomo said, announcing his budget. “It’s not a package that has been put together to provoke. It’s a package that has been put together to pass.” Still, in the end, the Governor, having marked his territory, set aside money for universal pre-K. It would prove to be both one of the Mayor’s signature achievements and the catalyst for ongoing rancor that would wind up being costly for de Blasio, and for the city.
The half decade since has given New Yorkers a running serial of de Blasio-Cuomo pissing contests, some almost comically trivial (a spat over euthanizing a deer in Harlem) and some not funny at all (their posturing over the pitiable state of the housing projects under the jurisdiction of the New York City Housing Authority). In 2015, de Blasio complained about Cuomo, on NY1, “If someone disagrees with him openly, some kind of revenge or vendetta follows.” The V-word, as it became known, seemed to trigger Cuomo, its Mafia associations suggesting an Italian-American slur, of a kind that his family had been on guard against for decades. Rumors that Mario’s father-in-law might have had connections to organized crime were never substantiated. Bill Clinton had to apologize in 1992 for his remarks, captured on a secret recording by Gennifer Flowers, that Mario Cuomo often acted like a mafioso. Then there was Chris Cuomo last summer threatening to throw a heckler down the stairs of a Shelter Island bar after the man called him Fredo, referring to the weakling Corleone in “The Godfather,” which, Chris said, was “like the N-word” to Italian-Americans. Andrew, the Michael in this formulation, has said that he has seen only parts of the film, and finds it offensive.
People have described the Cuomo-de Blasio shenanigans as a beef between two Italian-American men. But their backgrounds are vastly different. De Blasio, who is from Cambridge, Massachusetts, adopted his mother’s surname. His father was a Wasp and a Yale graduate who lost a leg at Okinawa. He later abandoned the family and, stricken with lung cancer, killed himself. De Blasio molded himself into a hardworking Brooklyn man of the people. “It’s sort of a false identity, like the shit-kicking version of George W. Bush, whereas Andrew is who he is,” the former city official said.
It was never clear if de Blasio understood how much the V-word would anger Cuomo. To govern effectively, the Mayor, whatever his share of the popular vote and his opinion of himself, needed the Governor. Cuomo avoided even mentioning de Blasio’s name. Moments of détente came and went. Distractions—among them a series of federal corruption investigations into both administrations—forced the combatants to guard other fronts. De Blasio had to contend with the convictions of two financial backers for bribery. Meanwhile, Joe Percoco, Cuomo’s right-hand man (whom Cuomo had referred to as “my father’s third son, who I sometimes think he loved the most”), was sentenced, two years ago, to six years in prison for accepting bribes, which he and his co-conspirators had referred to, in code borrowed from “The Sopranos,” as “ziti.” A separate probe led to the conviction of another Cuomo ally, Alain Kaloyeros, a former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, for rigging bids in Cuomo’s troubled upstate development push known as the Buffalo Billion. Cuomo, like so many before him, had come to the governor’s mansion with vows to clean up Albany—only to shut down the anti-corruption commission he’d appointed after it became inconvenient.
When de Blasio sought reëlection, Cuomo, unable to get anyone to run against him, had to defer to the logic, as one Democratic operative said, of “Shit, this guy’s not going anywhere.” The Mayor took his subsequent reëlection to be a refreshment of his mandate: the illogic of “Fuck this guy, I won.”
They fell back into their designated roles: Cuomo the bully, de Blasio the bleeder. As one adviser put it, “The Mayor recognizes he can’t win, that Andrew Cuomo is a shark, and that fighting with him doesn’t help the city. He knows the Governor only respects political violence. But de Blasio is his own worst enemy.”
Sometimes it’s hard to decipher whether Cuomo is benefitting from luck or playing the long game. He allowed de Blasio to twist in the wind during the first significant crisis of his mayoralty, after Eric Garner was choked to death by a policeman, on Staten Island. A grand jury’s failure to indict the officer led to protests, in the city and across the country, and then to the murder of two cops, by a man from out of town. During the protests, de Blasio, who had campaigned on police reform and who had curtailed the stop-and-frisk tactics of the previous regime, criticized the department and talked frankly about having spoken to his son, who is biracial, about the dangers of coming of age in a city where the cops routinely mistreat young Black men. Pat Lynch, the head of the Police Benevolent Association, considering these remarks to be an attack on his members, accused de Blasio of having blood on his hands, and advised him not to attend officers’ funerals. The Mayor showed up to the two cops’ burials anyway, and hundreds of uniformed police turned their backs on him.
De Blasio had asked Cuomo for help in calming relations with the police unions, but the Governor demurred. (The Governor’s aides deny this.) At the funeral, union leaders were seen huddling with members of Cuomo’s staff. That year, Lynch’s union (which recently endorsed Trump for President) named Cuomo its Man of the Year.
Soon after the death of George Floyd, and a night of looting, the police began roughing up peaceful protesters. On June 4th, Cuomo seemed unaware of all the video evidence of their tactics, and he not only defended the police but chided a reporter for asking about the incidents. “You see, it’s that kind of incendiary rhetoric that is not a fact,” he said. “It’s not even an opinion. That is a hyper-partisan rhetorical attack.” Later, perhaps having seen and been shocked by the videos and recognizing the irrefutability of the evidence, he condemned the police, while the Mayor, who needed the police on his side, stayed quiet. Five years on, the P.B.A.’s Man of the Year had outflanked the Mayor with blood on his hands.
“Why does Bill look like an idiot?” the former city official told me. “Because Bill always looks like an idiot. When shit flies around, it’s gonna stick to him.”
In mid-June, after a hundred and ten days, Cuomo ended his daily briefings. Deaths had dropped, from around a thousand a day to twenty-five. Hospitalizations were down more than ninety per cent. His approval rating for his handling of COVID was in the seventies. He took his place at the dais, flanked by his supporting characters, and removed his mask. Though he repeated many themes and phrases of the previous few weeks and months, his remarks had a valedictory heft that might have been keyed to a national audience. In the coming days, Cuomo still seemed to show up on TV every day, but now mostly as a talk-show guest. Clearly, it was hard to stay away.
One night, he revived the Chris-and-the-Love-Gov act with his brother, who said, “I hope you are able to appreciate what you did in your state and what it means for the rest of the country now and what it will always mean to those who love and care about you the most,” adding, “I’m wowed by what you did, and, more importantly, I’m wowed by how you did it.” The deployment of the past tense, this grammatical suggestion that the job was done, had sneaked into the Governor’s speech as well. In terms of self-congratulation, it wasn’t quite “Mission Accomplished” aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, but this rearview mirroring of the pandemic—the surge and decline, the crisis and its containment—suggested a victory lap. Cuomo had started writing a book (“American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which comes out this week). One day, near the end of June, he unveiled a foam sculpture of a mountain. Its contours matched the graph of the upward and downward death-rate slope he’d been displaying at his briefings. (The mountain was his long-running metaphor for the ordeal. “We don’t want a mountain range,” he’d kept saying.) People compared his mountain, painted Army green, to Jabba the Hutt or Richard Dreyfuss’s towers of mud in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the miniature Stonehenge in “Spinal Tap.”
A couple of weeks later, Cuomo produced another work of gubernatorial folk art, this one a poster, an illustration composed of images and text in the style of political posters of the Gilded Age. It depicted a mountain—may we call it the mountain?—with various COVID milestones along the way. An image of a white-water torrent was labelled “Economy Falls.” (“Get it?” Cuomo said, at the press conference. “Like Niagara Falls.”) Beneath this was an image of flames (“New Rochelle Hot Spot”) and one of a nose with a swab in it (“Testing, Tracing”), which brought to mind both the day the Governor, on camera, submitted to a COVID test and the ensuing bit, on CNN, with Chris, who, while joking about the size of his older brother’s nose, brandished a makeshift swab the size of a toilet plunger. (If there were a Cuomo-bros poster, that big-nose gag would be the pinnacle: peak Cuomo.) In the poster, on the far side of the mountain, a young man dangled from a crag—“Boyfriend Cliff”—in such a way that it looked as if he’d been forced off the ledge by the Governor, depicted in his Pontiac GTO. Beneath the car, and above the words “111 Days of Hell,” was a quote from A. J. Parkinson: “Tell the People the Truth and They Will Do the Right Thing.”
The news had generally got so surreal—one day after another of things you didn’t have on your 2020 bingo card—that sometimes one could lose sight of how odd Cuomo’s performance was. At some point in April, he began attributing bits of wisdom to this fellow A. J. Parkinson. At first, just a few old Cuomo hands knew what was going on. Mario Cuomo had invented Parkinson almost forty years ago, as a vessel for manufactured adages. The elder Cuomo possessed, to quote his aide Tim Russert, “the world’s only complete collection of Parkinson.” When reporters, trying to get in on the joke, unearthed some Parkinsonisms of their own, such as “When in doubt, mull” or “Let them eat polenta,” Mario chided them, “A. J. Parkinson never said those things.” (The latter remark he attributed to his mother, Immaculata, one of whose actual quotes he had, in turn, attributed to Aristotle.) Now Andrew was reviving the practice, and the ghost of A. J. Parkinson: another character in the multigenerational menagerie, here to see us through the plague.
With the victory lap, and some of the goofiness that surrounded it, came renewed scrutiny of Cuomo’s pandemic performance. The most stinging critique had to do with the death rate in New York’s nursing homes, which are privately operated but state regulated. The Cuomo administration had issued an advisory, on March 25th, that seniors who tested positive for the coronavirus or who reported symptoms couldn’t be turned away from being readmitted to nursing homes from hospitals. The rationale, as Cuomo and his health commissioner, Howard Zucker, later tried to explain, was that they needed to make hospital beds available for the predicted surge in COVID cases—which never quite materialized. Nursing-home staff were to be allowed to keep working if they tested positive but were symptom-free. In the end, the virus passed through the nursing homes like “fire through dry grass,” as Cuomo himself put it. By mid-June, more than six thousand elderly nursing-home residents had died, constituting about a quarter of the state’s COVID fatalities. (This number includes both confirmed and probable deaths, but does not include residents who died in hospitals.)
Nursing-home operators complained of being overwhelmed and under-provisioned, of lacking adequate access to testing. (Cuomo’s office blamed the shortage on the federal government.) Critics held that the health department had focussed on the hospital system and all but ignored the nursing homes. The Cuomo administration launched inspections of the nursing homes, which some took to be an attempt to silence them, under the perceived threat of the state’s decertification power.
Cuomo pointed out repeatedly that, by the metric of nursing-home deaths as a percentage of all COVID deaths, New York State ranked among the lowest nationwide, and that the original advisory had been in accordance with guidelines from the C.D.C, which were intended to protect seniors from discrimination and keep medical staff on the job. If anyone had been negligent, he said, it was the federal government. “Blame Mr. Trump,” he said.
But many Democrats who blamed Trump were capable of blaming Cuomo, too. When Zucker appeared before the Legislature, State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said, “It seems, sir, that you are choosing the information so that you can look better.”
In July, Cuomo’s health department released a report saying that, according to Zucker’s analysis of the data, the virus had infiltrated nursing homes well before the March 25th directive—that, therefore, it was the health workers, and not readmitted residents, who’d sparked the dry grass. But, by then, the sides in the debate had hardened, and Zucker was accused by the policy’s critics of taking part in a political stunt, and of scapegoating health-care workers, to cover for his own department’s supposed mistakes, as well as his boss’s. Meanwhile, Cuomo, at his press conferences, dismissed questions about an independent nursing-home inquiry as being politically motivated, a crusade concocted by the Post and Fox News. But even Democrats in the Legislature were now pushing for an investigation. “I don’t think the health-department report was adequate or thorough,” Liz Krueger, a state senator from Manhattan, said.
Bill Hammond, a senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center, in Albany (dismissed by the Governor’s staff as a “shady right-wing think tank”), drawing on reporting in the Wall Street Journal, noted that a powerful industry group called the Greater New York Hospital Association had pushed for the nursing-home policy. The Association had also contributed a million dollars to the state Democratic Party in 2018, at Cuomo’s request, and had lobbied the administration successfully for an increase in Medicaid reimbursements, at a time when the state was already running a multibillion-dollar deficit in its Medicaid payouts. “I get skeptical of quid-pro-quo narratives,” Hammond told me. “This stuff is built into the system, and you can never prove there’s a specific trade. But this one was so unusual, it felt like a specific swap.”
He went on, “I’m also not in the #CuomoKilledGrandma school. But the nursing-home policy was awful, and the fact that Cuomo is unwilling to admit that it was a mistake is one of the worst things he’s done.” A spokesperson for the Governor said, “No contribution of any size has any influence on any government decision, period.”
In August, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice was launching an investigation into nursing-home cases in four states, all of them with Democratic governors. Cuomo again dismissed the inquiry as a political sham. “Mr. Barr cannot spell the word ‘justice,’ ” he said. “He doesn’t even feign to be impartial.” Partisan hostilities could be either amplifying blunders into sins or disguising sins as blunders.
Early in the pandemic, Cuomo, who has known Trump for almost four decades, tried the chummy approach, in appealing to the White House for supplies and aid. He knew very well that, with Trump, flattery gets you everywhere. But this time it didn’t. And, as New York beat back its mortality rate, the Governor’s needs shifted, from supplies to money—and from help to blame. For funds, he needed Congress. For blame, he had Trump.
The pandemic cratered New York’s already fragile finances. Cuomo is now contending with a budget deficit, over two years, of thirty billion dollars. A state, unlike the U.S., can’t just print money. It has to tax, cut, borrow, and beg. For months, Cuomo cajoled Congress for a rescue, on the ground that New York had borne the brunt of the federal government’s failure to track the virus. “If we could sue for negligence, we would win in court,” Cuomo told me. But the Republicans seemed determined to compound inaction with inaction. Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, the Senate Majority Leader, dismissed such support for local and state governments as “blue state bailouts” and suggested that they consider bankruptcy instead. Cuomo called this “one of the saddest, really dumb comments of all time,” and noted, repeatedly, that Kentucky receives tens of billions more from Washington each year than it contributes, whereas New York gives tens of billions more. “That’s the bailout!” he fumed. While such jawboning did nothing to alter the politics on Capitol Hill or shake loose badly needed funds, it was galvanizing, at least, for many blue staters, facing budgetary Armageddon and the quadrennial Electoral College handicap, to see someone shake a fist. For years, many Democrats had pined for a tough guy of their own. Cuomo has avoided talking specifics, so as not to negotiate against himself: “I don’t think you can take any dramatic action until Election Day.” If Trump wins and the Senate remains in G.O.P. hands, he told me, “that is a long four years, my friend. These deficits are so large that there is no constructive way to close them.”
At home, Cuomo’s emphasis on Washington’s indifference deflected blame for prior budget mismanagement, and for the pain of the Covid closures. Restaurants, gyms, summer camps, schools: citizens chafed as their businesses and lives withered in quarantine. Cuomo, determined to keep the Covid numbers low, stayed strict. With reports of revellers congregating outside bars, Cuomo started going after liquor licenses, dusting off an old statute requiring bars to also serve food—real food, not just peanuts or chips. Who knew? The State Liquor Authority, with local law enforcement, began citing and, in hundreds of cases, shutting down bars. “The Drinktator,” the Post called Cuomo. As for the schools, he declared that they could open, then left it up to the localities to figure out how: aggregate the power, disperse the responsibility.
Without money from Washington, the pressure on Cuomo to raise taxes and make painful cuts was increasing. By now, he was accusing Trump of “actively trying to kill New York.” “I think it’s psychological,” he said. Trump not only “caused” the virus (“That’s a fact!” Cuomo said); he was also to blame for withholding previously earmarked funds for essential New York infrastructure projects, for having imposed the cap on federal deductions for local and state taxes, and for doing nothing to persuade the Senate to do right by the city that made him. Trump had even floated the ludicrous idea of cutting off federal money to Democratic cities, which he called “anarchist jurisdictions.”
“This is a war on cities,” Cuomo said. “It is an unsustainable position for the federal government. Either this President will figure it out or the next President will figure it out. If the Congress doesn’t figure it out, there’ll be mayhem in this country, and there will be a different Congress in January.” The next day, once again addressing the President’s hostility to his erstwhile home town, Cuomo said, “He can’t have enough bodyguards to walk through New York City. Forget bodyguards—he better have an army if he thinks he’s going to walk down the streets in New York.” This you could classify, perhaps, as both opinion and fact.
There has been talk, lately, of New York needing a savior, a hero from the political class. In early September, a coalition of a hundred and fifty business leaders sent a letter to de Blasio, accusing him, in a roundabout way, of neglect and begging him to fix things. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Related, Vornado, JetBlue: the power élite had observed that, as the letter said, “there is widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues that are contributing to deteriorating conditions in commercial districts and neighborhoods across the five boroughs.” The signatories, many of them supporters of Cuomo, had been rounded up by an ally, Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, who told the Times, “It’s all a chicken-and-egg problem. Until the people come back, the streets aren’t safe. If the streets aren’t safe, the people don’t come back. So somebody’s got to break the egg.”
The egg-breaking aspirants, past and present, made for a sad array. Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson, showed up at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, to perform some covers on guitar accompanied by his teacher, whose flyers—“Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar”—have for decades been ubiquitous all over town. Another former governor, George Pataki, he who’d held the coat, said, on Fox News, “The Mayor is a catastrophe,” while Rudy Giuliani, he whose coat had been held, went on CNN to tell Chris Cuomo, referring to either the Governor or the Mayor, or both, “I think what they’re doing to this city could be fatal.” Giuliani’s son, Andrew, an aide to Trump, revealed that he was considering a run for City Hall. Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former mayoral hopeful, resurfaced as the new C.E.O. of a kitchen-countertop company specializing in the use of broken glass. If you listened closely, you could hear the sawing under the floor. Or maybe it was just the sound of New York, arguing with itself, as it went to pieces. ♦
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a provision that would raise the number of votes needed by a party to remain on ballots in New York.
Published in the print edition of the October 19, 2020, issue, with the headline “The King of New York.”
Nick Paumgarten has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2005.