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Andrew Cuomo, the Creepy Tyrant of Albany

Why did it take so long for the New York governor’s bad behavior to catch up with him?

Andrew Cuomo has been mired in scandal for weeks, for actions that, in some cases, date back years. To what extent has the governor’s bullying been hiding in plain sight? On Episode 28 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene look into the long history of Cuomo’s coercive approach to state politics, why he’s so keen to hang onto his seat in the face of widespread censure, and how much his character and governance style can be explained by his relationship to his father, Mario Cuomo. Guests include Rebecca Traister, who reported on the governor’s toxic workplace for New York magazine; Ross Barkan, the author of a forthcoming book about the governor; and Julia Salazar, a state senator for New York’s 18th district.

[Clip of Andrew Cuomo] My natural instinct is to be aggressive, and it doesn’t always serve me well. I am a controlling personality. At one time, I opposed that characterization, because it has a negative implication. But you show me a person who is not controlling, and I’ll show you a person who is probably not highly successful.

Laura Marsh: That is New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo reading from the book he wrote last year, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Alex Pareene: When the book was published, in October 2020, new Covid-19 cases in New York were low, and Cuomo’s approval ratings were sky-high. Since then, he has been accused, by people who’ve worked with him and for him, of leading an administration that mismanaged the pandemic response and a workplace that is hostile to its many young female employees. Most of the state’s congressional delegation has called on him to resign—and yet he remains defiantly in place.

Andrew Cuomo has been the most powerful man in New York for a decade, but it feels like many people only got to know him over the last year, first as a reassuring leader during a period of nationwide crisis and then as the creepy tyrant of Albany.

Laura: On today’s show, we’re talking about Andrew Cuomo, and why his incompetence and bad behavior have taken so long to catch up with him. 

Alex: To what extent was that behavior hidden in plain sight? I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at The New Republic.

Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor.

Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.

Laura: We talked first with Rebecca Traister, who wrote a deeply reported article for New York magazine in mid-March about the recent allegations against Cuomo. 

Alex: Later in the show, we’ll talk with Ross Barkan, who wrote a biography of Andrew Cuomo, about the governor’s early career working for his father. Finally, we talk with New York State Senator Julia Salazar about how Cuomo wields his power in state politics.

Laura: Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us. 

Rebecca Traister: Thank you so much for having me.

Laura: So in your recent piece, you describe a workplace in Andrew Cuomo’s office that’s deeply inhospitable, especially for women. Can you just take us through some of the incidents that you’ve reported on?

Rebecca: Absolutely. So I would say that it is inhospitable in certain ways, particularly for women, and also for people of color, and also for people, most broadly stated. The forms that that takes are really varied. Lots of people I interviewed for this story describe the ways that they were told both explicitly and implicitly that the women were to wear heels and to dress in certain kinds of tailored, attractive, and often expensive clothes, that they were to look good when the governor was around, and not just for the governor but also for some of his top aides. There was a kind of constant culture of yelling and threatening. A lot of people who have already told their stories about how the governor treated them have noted that he used nicknames in reference to them. So his use of nicknames for younger employees, younger female employees, whom he called everything from, like, Sweetie and Honey to Sponge, or in the case of Lindsay Boylan, who wrote about her experience, she alleges that he harassed her and asked her to play strip poker and kissed her against her will. She also says that he sometimes referred to her by the name of a woman who was his rumored ex-girlfriend who he said she resembled. Lots of people described how so much of especially the junior staff in his offices were women, to whom it was made clear that they were there in part because of what they look like. 

Laura: One story that you have in your article sheds light on the recruitment process and the way that looks seemed to have factored in. Sometimes when people say, “Oh, he hires attractive people,” it can be a kind of unconscious bias, but this seemed like something much more conscious. Can you tell us about the woman who goes by Kaitlin in the article, an experience that she had?

Rebecca: So Kaitlin described to me—she had a relatively new job at a lobbying firm, she’d been there for about six weeks, and she was working at a fundraiser that was hosted by her firm, a fundraiser for the governor. As he was leaving, he approached her. She had had a previous job working for another politician, which she mentioned when she said hello and introduced herself. And she said that he immediately responded, upon meeting her at this party and shaking her hand, “Soon you’ll be working again in government, this time at a state level,” which made no sense to her. Then he held her—and there was a photographer there, and this is in public—in a kind of dance move, they had their picture taken together, and then he moved on. A couple of days later, she gets a voicemail saying, “We want you to come in for a job interview to work for the governor.” She speaks to her current bosses and to some other mentors—she was 27 years old when this happened—who all conveyed to her the same thing, which is, “You’ve got to go take this meeting.” She describes knowing the whole time that this job offer can only be because he liked the way she looked at a party, and yet her mentors and bosses are openly acknowledging this and saying, “But you’ve got to go, he’s the governor, you’ve got to do this.”

Alex: So she does—Kaitlin takes the job. She goes to work for the governor. When you work for the governor, apparently, every year, there’s a tradition, a Super Bowl party at a bar. She goes. At the end of the night at the bar, she sees something. 

Rebecca: The governor was in the back room, talking to a young woman who had a dove tattoo. The next morning at a meeting, he said to members of his staff, can you track down the woman from last night with a dove tattoo to offer her a job? And Kaitlin described the very uncanny feeling of realizing that this must have been how it went down after the event where she met him. Other people I spoke to described exactly this pattern, this was not a onetime thing: He would meet very often a young woman at an event and then track her down to hire her.

Laura: The behavior that you describe, it sounds pervasive, it takes place over a number of years. Why do you think that it’s taken so long for all of those examples to accrue, and for people to be willing to talk to you as a reporter?

Rebecca: I think there are a lot of reasons that it’s taken so long. The first is that we have to remember that a lot of this behavior is just normalized and has been normalized for a really long time. I think that some of the stories in my piece could have been public five years ago—and in fact, many versions of them were—and no one cared. 

Laura: Right. In 2017, you were publishing so many stories about men who had abused that power and sexually harassed women who worked with them. What shocked me, reading what Lindsey Boylan was talking about, is that when he asked her to play strip poker, that’s in literally the same month [when] stories about Harvey Weinstein [were] coming out. It feels like a #MeToo story in many ways, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone or to him that this was what was going on.

Rebecca: Well, I think there are a couple reasons. One is that I think the world is still filled with people who are engaging in all kinds of forms of sexual harassment and abuse within workplaces, who think that there are not going to be repercussions for them. It’s mysterious to me. I read about these things, and I’m like, “Wait, did you not get the memo?” But I think that one of the lessons of so many of these stories is that the sense of impunity is tied to a sense of what power and authority mean. Andrew Cuomo is a guy who—one of his closest aides is in federal prison on corruption charges! He’s famous for being a bully, and that not only has gone unpunished in any way, he hasn’t ever had to pay a price for it. The man has won two reelections in a walk, because we have been trained not to understand these kinds of abuses of power as negatives, we’ve been trained to understand them, in fact, over centuries, as strengths, as what constitutes power, what constitutes authority, hard-knuckle politics. There was a story three weeks ago in The New York Times about a guy whose bullying is suddenly coming under greater scrutiny, and it included the three paragraphs of “but to be sure he has his defenders.” And those defenders were saying things that, I mean, I was reading them, and I was like, “Bananas!” They were saying that he’s a master of “brutalist political theater.” What does that mean? But that’s a real phrase, people are like, well, “That’s something he’s good at—brutalist political theater.”

Alex: That’s one of the things we’re interested in—to what extent was Cuomo operating like this in plain sight, and to what extent these are new and surprising revelations. It’s hard to separate the two, not just because the stories were there if you were paying close attention, which is something I wrote about, because there are sort of new and shocking facts, but we are also using those new and shocking facts to place these old things in proper context.

Rebecca: So a lot of this is about this concept of what power is. So having your grip on power, where people love you and you have high approval ratings, the sense is no one can come for you. And so it actually becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. If there is a sense that no one can come for you, then anybody who tries to raise their voice and criticism may in fact just hit a brick wall. And you need a moment actually in which something makes it clear that maybe that myth of effective leadership is in fact just a myth. So one of the things that’s true is if I had been assigned the story in 2017, I could not have reported it the way that I could report it now, because so many of those people would have been less willing to come forward and go on the record and tell their stories.

Alex: One of the things he’s famous for is that if you tried to leave his office, he would try to get your new job taken away, right?

Rebecca: There were things that were universal in my reporting. This is something that all of my sources said: You couldn’t let anybody know who you were interviewing for because there were rumors that the governor’s office would call and have your offer rescinded. They might not have valued you there. They might’ve been telling you every day—and this was also the experience of many people I spoke to—you’re doing a terrible job. They might transfer you to a place that you didn’t want to be, where you basically have no ability to do anything that you care about or good at, but they don’t want you to leave.

Alex: That’s crazy.

Rebecca: And because he’s the governor, and because actually New York’s executive office has a comparatively huge amount of state power, these are people who in many cases went to work for the governor because they cared about public policy, because they cared about government. So many of the places that they might otherwise get jobs, at agencies or lobbying firms, those are also workplaces and careers that then wind up being dependent on the governor, where it’s hard to be a person who in any way challenges or crosses him. 

Alex: So Rebecca was very evocative about Andrew Cuomo’s executive office as a workplace and why it’s taken so long for some of the problems there to be made public. 

Laura: We wanted to go further back in Cuomo’s life and try to trace how he came to govern this way. What experiences made him into the politician and person that he is?We talked to Ross Barkan, the author of a forthcoming book about the governor.

Alex: Ross, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ross: Thank you for having me, very excited to talk about our embattled governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Alex: Embattled is certainly right. I think people know he’s the son of Mario Cuomo, but can you sketch out a little bit of his early history, what the early years were like?

Ross: So Andrew Cuomo is the son, obviously, of Mario Cuomo, who is a very famous governor of New York. Andrew was born in 1957. At the time of his birth, in Queens, Mario Cuomo is not yet famous and successful. He’s a hardworking young lawyer still in his twenties. And Andrew really comes up with Mario in Queens as he rises through the ranks of politics. He and his father have kind of an interesting relationship, where he’s volunteering for his father, being his body man, helping [him] out. But they’re also not the closest. Mario worked a lot; they didn’t bond very much. So Andrew is a campaign manager of Mario’s successful 1982 campaign for governor. And then he goes to Albany. And while Mario has this reputation as the philosopher-king of New York, behind the scenes, you have Andrew Cuomo as this young enforcer who’s calling up legislators, yelling at them, bullying them, telling them what to do. He is the kind of dark force behind the scenes of Mario’s governorship. And so that’s the first way to understand him—he is someone who’s doing a lot of the dirty work. Not that Mario was the best governor. But Mario was the “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” guy. This was not Andrew Cuomo. There was no poetry in Andrew Cuomo.

Laura: One thing that Cuomo is famous for is this incredibly confrontational style, both behind the scenes and quite publicly. Is that something that he learned from his father?

Ross: Yes and no. It’s not as if Mario was weak-willed. He was a sharp-elbowed politician. It’s just that Andrew really takes these lessons to heart and builds an entire political career and local empire through fear, through intimidation, through using the levers of the state in a very expert way to inflict punishment on his enemies. Mario formed warm relationships with politicians, with legislators. There are people who felt a great amount of goodwill and friendship toward Mario Cuomo. There’s really no one in Albany who has a great, friendly personal relationship with Andrew Cuomo. I believe Andrew looked at his father, his tenure as governor, and concluded that his father was not successful enough because he did not intimidate his opposition, because he was not as committed to “getting things done.” 

Alex: It’s an interesting take that he sees himself as correcting for what he might imagine his father’s weaknesses were. Mario Cuomo is considered a fairly successful politician, but his governorship and his political career did not end the way many people expected it to.

Ross: Mario Cuomo was defeated for a fourth term in 1994 by a little-known Republican named George Pataki. This was a Republican wave year nationally, and this really did Mario Cuomo in. So part of the Andrew Cuomo psychology is this obsession with surpassing his father. Cuomo is now in his third term as governor, and until the recent wave of scandals, he was all but a shoe-in for a fourth term. There’s only been one four-term governor of New York, and that’s Nelson Rockefeller, who was a literal Rockefeller and one of the richest men in history. So that is the terrain Andrew Cuomo wants to play on. It’s also important to remember about Mario Cuomo that he was not a particularly accomplished governor. You know, probably the most tangible thing Mario Cuomo did as governor was build a lot of prisons, but in terms of legislative achievements, very little got done in those 12 years. And Andrew Cuomo, too, has been deeply incompetent, at times corrupt. But there are tangible accomplishments he can point to in his political obituary: raising the minimum wage, passing same-sex marriage, a gun-control bill, rebuilding an apparently faulty Tappan Zee Bridge. I think part of him is trying to correct for what he saw were the flaws of the Mario Cuomo rule in New York.

Laura: His father isn’t necessarily the role model for accomplishing things in government or making his legacy. Are there people that he was looking to? The building records certainly and the bullying sound a lot like Robert Moses.

Ross: He imagines himself in the class of Robert Moses. Robert Moses, who is the quote “master builder of New York,” for a 40-year period wielded supreme power in New York state, remade the entire infrastructure of the city and state in his image— highways, bridges, parks, beaches—did many terrible things, did some good things, as well. Andrew Cuomo, similarly, has the power of the state at his disposal. 

Laura: So throughout his time in office, he’s been looking for ways to build power and especially make these grand gestures. In March 2020, New York City becomes one of the early hot spots in the coronavirus crisis. How does he use Covid to project a powerful image?

Ross: Andrew Como loves crises because it allows him to do press conferences, wear the windbreaker. I remember during Hurricane Sandy, he’d go into the subway tunnels. He loves these set pieces. Like all these kinds of—authoritarian leader is too strong a word, but people who are kind of authoritarian-curious—he is someone who’s always about appearing in command. He cuts a strong presence in person, too. He’s over six feet tall. He’s very broad. He fills a room, he fills a suit. He has this deep voice, which in our sexist society is something we also associate with power, that deep masculine intonation—all these things feed into the aesthetic of Cuomo. Bill de Blasio does not project power. Andrew Cuomo in every sense does.

Alex: De Blasio is very tall, though.

Ross: He’s tall, but he’s skinny. He’s gangly.

Laura: So the height of the first wave of Covid in New York, it’s not just journalists who are really falling in love with Cuomo, but ordinary people tweeting things like “Andrew Cuomo’s my boyfriend now,” really extravagant effusions of appreciation and gratitude for this man, at the same time as we are experiencing historic rates of hospitalization and death. How do you think his handling of the coronavirus crisis should be judged in retrospect?

Ross: It should be judged very harshly. Let’s remember, New York has almost 50,000 deaths. This is the second-highest death total in America, second to California, which is twice as large. New York was very slow to shut down. The hospitals were badly overrun, badly mismanaged. The public hospitals have been underfunded for awhile. Cuomo was trying to cut Medicaid payments to public hospitals; during the pandemic nursing homes got legal immunity, and hospitals, while Covid patients were being shoved into them, they were not getting the proper PPE. The argument is always that, well, he’s a mean guy, but he gets things done. Well, no, he’s actually both nasty and he’s fairly incompetent, and New York is not a well-run state, and Covid was a disaster. Other governors struggled with this, too—I’m not saying it was just Cuomo. But Gavin Newsom and Jay Inslee and Phil Scott weren’t being put on the cover of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and being a fawned over by the media.

Alex: One of the things we’re examining is this idea of how he got away with it for so long. And that’s not just a question of how did he get away with managing a workplace in the way he managed it for so long, but how did he get away with that incompetence you talk about? What has changed to make it possible for Cuomo to suddenly be in political trouble when it seemed like he was invincible before in New York?

Ross: I think it starts with Trump being gone. There is a void that cable TV stations and prestige media must fill, and it’s being filled with Cuomo. These scandals are of course very credible and deserve the attention they’re getting, but I don’t think they would have gotten them in a world with Trump on the stage tweeting every day. So I would say it starts there. The nursing home scandal, where, for months, Cuomo is hiding the true nursing home death toll—basically, we were counting nursing home deaths in a very unusual way, not counting people transferred to hospitals who died there. Politicians and journalists were going, “OK, how many people actually died in nursing homes?” Cuomo would not say. Finally, the state attorney general in January puts out a report that we were undercounting nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent. So this puts some heat on Cuomo. And I can imagine that these women who came forward around the same time, they were probably thinking that it’s hard to challenge someone who’s at the height of their powers. Could Charlotte Bennett and Lindsey Boylan come out with their allegations last May, at the height of Covid, where Cuomo is on the cover of these magazines? You could; you might not be listened to.

Laura: And not only did Trump grab headlines, but he also acts as an antagonist to Andrew Cuomo directly, directly attacking the state of New York. And you felt that  gave Cuomo the ability to position himself as a white knight who was going to defend New Yorkers against Donald Trump.

Ross: Yes. I mean, Donald Trump is so noxious. You cannot invent a better villain and foil than Donald J. Trump—just totally incompetent, mishandles Covid completely. And then here comes Andrew Cuomo. He is someone who is like Donald Trump in many ways—he’s the son of a powerful person from Queens, grew up in a similar environment, a very masculine environment—but he’s also someone who projects competence. Andrew Cuomo is there with his PowerPoint and his facts and his nice suit, and he’s speaking in this calm and direct way, and people see this and they see Donald Trump, and they go, well, this is the guy: Cuomo is our guy. He’s saving us. He’s defending us. It never made any sense because he’s getting famous and popular as literally tens of thousands of people are getting sick and dying.

Alex: We don’t know what’s going to happen by the time this episode goes live, but it seems really unlikely that Cuomo will have resigned as most of the New York congressional delegation has urged him to do, and as the two U.S. senators from New York have urged him to do. What’s his rescue plan for himself? 

Ross: Andrew Cuomo is going to save himself by buying himself time. Right now the state assembly is beginning its impeachment investigation. Many of the state legislators there, unlike in the congressional delegation, are intimidated by Cuomo, are more conservative in their bearing, and I think deep down do not want to impeach Andrew Cuomo at all. So it starts with buying himself time. It’s also going to hinge on the report that the attorney general puts out on these sexual harassment allegations. This report could come out in a month from now. It could come out in two months. No one really knows. And if that report confirms these allegations, if it brings new allegations to the fore, that’s where you’ll see someone like Joe Biden call for Andrew Cuomo to resign. Then it gets serious, and then the state assembly, which has the power to impeach, then they move forward, and the vote total increases. And then he steps aside. We’re not there yet.

Alex: When you were writing your book about Andrew Cuomo, I think you and I probably both would have assumed he was going to win that fourth term.

Ross: A hundred percent. I did not think he was beatable. It felt like a foregone conclusion. Now it is not. He’s a lot less popular, and prominent politicians with their own following and their own ability to raise money could force him aside this year or next.

Laura: Ross’s read on Cuomo is that his career has been a response to his father’s, that he’s focused on correcting for his weaknesses and wanting to surpass him. 

Alex: Now Cuomo is in this position of being urged in the strongest possible terms to resign. And he’s not just resisting, he’s trying to pass a state budget. I wanted to talk to someone with direct experience of working with him, who understands how Cuomo’s power works and who has seen firsthand how he wields it. 

Laura: So Alex spoke to Julia Salazar, a New York state senator for the 18th district, which covers much of Brooklyn.

Alex: Senator Salazar, thank you so much for making the time to talk to us.

Julia: Thank you, Alex. Happy to be here.

Alex: This was a bit tricky to schedule because this is a busy season for you right now—this is budget season in New York, right?

Julia: Yeah, this is state budget season, which is always very hectic. The budget is due on April 1. But it has become even more chaotic because of the news that’s been coming out about the governor and the allegations against him.

Alex: Senator Salazar explained that at the beginning of every year, the governor and his administration prepare a draft budget. They send it to the legislature, and then both houses—the Senate and the assembly—analyze what the governor has proposed.

Julia: We hold a series of joint legislative hearings on each of the policy areas that are addressed in the budget—it covers everything you could possibly think impacting the lives of New Yorkers—and we respond with two respective one-house budgets.

Alex: So now, basically, we have three proposed budgets: what the assembly wants, what the Senate wants, and what the governor wants.

Julia: And then from there, three-way negotiations begin among the executive—the executive being the governor—the assembly, and the Senate. And so that marks the final stretch before a budget would need to be passed in order for us to have an on-time budget. This process is usually referred to as “three men in a room.” Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the leader of the state Senate, so it’s no longer three men in a room per se, but it’s a process that has historically been very opaque and really lacked public input and public transparency. 

Alex: So tell me about the three men in a room, because I think that’s really important, and that gets to the power here. I think people have this sort of “schoolhouse rock” idea of how legislation passes, like someone proposes a bill, these legislative bodies vote on it, and it gets signed into law. But the budget process was the three-men-in-a-room thing, where the governor, Andrew Cuomo, would be in a backroom deal with two other people, and they would try to decide everything.

Salazar: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s been a lot of backroom deals. Legislators often know very little about the contents of the budget bills and what’s going to be the enacted budget until moments before we vote on it. We have seen in the final hours or the final day before the budget is due the governor slipping in what we would call “poison pills,” things that are priorities for the governor—such as, in 2019, the governor giving himself a substantial pay raise. 

Alex: So then if the legislature rejects the budget or they can’t pass it on time, there’s a government shutdown, suspension of pay for state workers—

Julia: Although not the governor, interestingly enough.

Alex: How you’re describing it, and correct me if I’m wrong, it’s like a “take it or leave it” thing. The governor has all this power to be, like, “Here’s what I’ve decided we’re going to do this year: Take it or leave it.”

Julia: Yeah, I mean, we are in a much weaker negotiating position than the governor. And the only way that that’s ever going to change is if there is a constitutional amendment to make sure that we’re actually functioning as two coequal branches in the budget process.

Alex: It’s funny, because right now we’re describing a contentious negotiation between a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor. Why is it like this when, theoretically, everyone’s on the same side?

Julia: I think there’s a couple things that contribute to this. One is perhaps just a fundamental flaw in the two-party system such that any two Democrats, even in a state like New York—where we have a supermajority of Democrats in the assembly, a supermajority of Democrats in the state Senate, and an ostensibly Democratic governor—can have vastly different political views, from pretty conservative Democrats to someone like myself, who’s a Democratic socialist. And then we have a governor who frankly has pretty much been an unapologetic fiscal conservative, so he’s often resistant to the types of progressive policy that the state Senate and the state assembly want to achieve. 

Alex: So the senator explained how Cuomo empowered Republicans to maintain political power in New York for a few years.

Julia: He supported, behind the scenes, the creation of the Independent Democratic Conference—Democrats in the state Senate who caucused with the Republicans and maintained de facto majority Republican power in the state Senate for years.

Alex: So this is a really important point that Senator Salazar was making, which is that in a state that is now effectively a one-party Democratic state, there are all these things that we’re still having trouble getting passed. And Governor Cuomo was often the reason for that, in part because, for a few years there, he was allowing Republicans to maintain control over one arm of government. 

Julia: And as a consequence, there was a lot of progressive legislation that was held up by our Democratic governor. 

Alex: I think part of Cuomo’s sales pitch, especially when he first ran, was that Albany is dysfunctional and you need someone like him to get things done. But that was, as you say, with a Republican Senate majority—and in fact, the New York state Senate is basically gerrymandered for Republicans to control it, and the fact that Democrats control it is a sign of how much politics have changed in New York over the last few years. 

Julia: Yeah, this session is the very first time, I think, in the history of the state that we have a supermajority of Democrats in both houses—not the first time that we have a Democratic-majority Senate and a Democratic-majority assembly, but rather that we have enough Democrats in each house that we could override the governor’s veto. 

Alex: I think part of what’s happening in this moment is that Andrew Cuomo was sort of engineered to operate in a different political environment. That’s why I bring up the 2018 and the 2020 elections—he’s not necessarily suited for a world where someone like you gets elected to the state Senate, and where you are not alone. It’s not even necessarily a matter of ideology—it’s that all these people started showing up who owed no fealty to him and didn’t necessarily think that they had to respect the machine that he represents. It’s a different atmosphere in Albany now than it was when he got there.

Julia: I came in with this class, you could say, of other legislators who also ran grassroots campaigns, who ran against the establishment, who were truly accountable to their constituents, and, more importantly, not beholden to the governor or to the establishment. And therefore he hasn’t had the control over us or been able to intimidate us the way that he would in the past.

Alex: So the governor’s sales pitch was, “I can navigate an Albany where there’s all these basically literally Republican-allied Democrats”—perhaps now we need one who says, like, “I can get things done with a legislature that has all these actually grassroots Democrats.”

Julia: Yeah. It’s very interesting. I think that given what’s happening right now—and I’m among the people who are calling on the governor to resign, and if he fails to resign, for us to move forward with impeachment proceedings—but regardless, for as long as the governor is still in office, he’s going to have to reckon with this growing body of legislators who are not accountable to him and are not afraid to stand up to him.

Laura: Alex’s conversation with the senator highlights just how out of step Cuomo is with the political environment in New York today. 

Alex: We also asked Rebecca what she thought was behind Cuomo’s apparent decision to stay in the face of such strong pressure to go away.

Laura: Now that a lot of this is out, Cuomo’s reaction has been “I’m staying, and I’m going to continue to be the governor,” which I think is quite unusual, because if you see these kinds of allegations made against the CEO of a company or a big movie producer, the reaction is usually, by the point that there is this much stuff, they leave or they’re forced to go. But he’s elected, and he can say, “I’m staying.” You’re reporting on someone who can choose to ignore this stuff if they want.  

Rebecca: After 2017, there was this spate of powerful people, many of them powerful white men, who had reporting come out that led them to step away from power. Now at a certain point, some of those people, I think, learned from the Trump playbook that you just don’t go anywhere. And in fact, there are a lot of ways in which there are many valid comparisons between Trump’s approach to power and Andrew Cuomo’s approach to power. If you are, in fact, in it for the power, then that approach of just, well, “I can just keep my power” actually makes sense. If your concern is, “Can I capably steer my state forward? Can I continue to do the work that needs to be done on behalf of my constituents?” then you might get a different answer about, like, What is my set of decisions here? But if in fact the pursuit of power is the end, then just keeping your power seems like it might work.

Alex: I feel like if you want to answer the question of what Andrew Cuomo wants to do with his power, you really can only reach to psychological explanations, which seems very unsatisfactory. That’s where you end up: He wants to to name a bridge after his dad and then serve one more term than him. Because you can’t point at Cuomo’s project. You can’t point to what his ideal New York looks like and how he’s making it happen.

Rebecca: I think that point is so crucial. One of the ironies of Andrew Cuomo is that so much of this power playing—it’s so weird—involved Cuomo himself creating the conditions of paralysis so that he couldn’t do anything. “I’m a progressive, but there’s nothing I can possibly do as a progressive governor because the legislature is not in Democratic hands, so they won’t pass anything progressive. And also the state budget is shrinking, so we don’t have money. So we have to make cuts to all of these programs.” And so the funny thing is, for all his interest in power, part of the machinations were about keeping himself in that position of paralysis—“nothing I can do here.” So that really does prompt this question: What did you want this job for? In some ways, if the man were just a Republican and passed a conservative agenda, it would be clearer. Like, OK, you want regressive policies because this is just your ideology. But it’s not even that. I don’t think there is an ideology. Somebody said to me, and this is another thing that’s very Trumpian to me: I think the only thing he believes in is Andrew Cuomo.

Alex: You can read Rebecca Traister’s article, “Inside Andrew Cuomo’s Toxic Workplace,” at New York magazine. 

Laura: Ross Barkan’s book, The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York, will be published in July. 

Alex: Andrew Cuomo’s American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic, is available in bookshop remainder piles nationwide.