Halfway through a recent New York Times story about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s long (but perhaps not widely known) history of governance-by-bullying, an ally tried to defend his signature political style. He didn’t say that Cuomo’s behavior was ethical, or reasonable, or even responsible. He just said that people liked it. The governor’s pugilistic personality is “well-worn territory for the press and the public,” Josh Vlasto, Cuomo’s former chief of staff, told the Times. “Those traits are there, but they are part of a broader perception of him that the voters like and are comfortable with.”
This is a variation on a common theme in coverage of Cuomo’s aggressive political style. The press often describes him berating and threatening his ostensible political allies in the Democratic Party, notes that he seemingly faces no electoral penalty for doing so, and concludes that that kind of behavior is baked into his appeal as a politician. People have been reading stories about it for years, and they keep electing him anyway: Maybe they actually like it.
This is, I think, a misreading of Cuomo’s political appeal and strategy, and misses what has made his recent round of terrible press so interesting. What is happening now is that fans of Andrew Cuomo the television character are being introduced to Andrew Cuomo the newspaper character.
We all know Andrew Cuomo the television character. (He recently won an Emmy.) He reassures New Yorkers (and Americans everywhere) that competent and empathetic people are still in charge. He riffs endearingly with his brother, an actual cable news anchor. He seems to have no backstory, really, but when disaster strikes, he shows up on television in a jacket emblazoned with the state seal to assess the damage. He exudes experience and authority.
Andrew Cuomo the newspaper character, meanwhile, has a backstory as elaborate as that of any mainstream comic superhero, with as many side characters, allies, and antagonists weaving in and out of the narrative. As in modern comics, it is difficult for a newcomer to find a logical entry point into the ongoing serial storyline. Take this piece from the Albany Times-Union, which ran the day before the Times story on Cuomo’s bullying nature. It introduces two new characters: Linda A. Lacewell, “an especially loyal and combative aide” known as Cuomo’s “Minister of Defense,” and her onetime sidekick, Camille Joseph Varlack, who was recently named chair of the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE.
As the governor’s “chief risk officer,” Lacewell, we learn, embedded “senior lawyers at two dozen key agencies,” all charged with flagging potential ethical or financial issues so that Cuomo and his brain trust could get advance warning on potential scandals—and possibly block or delay investigation into them. As sources tell the Times-Union’s Chris Bragg, these “special counsels” are responsible for “helping flag and manage potentially troublesome Freedom of Information Law requests filed with those agencies by the media and others.”
Freedom of Information Law requests seem to bedevil the governor. His office brags about the online open record request program it implemented, but centralizing the FOIL process also happens to empower the governor’s fixers to “more immediately flag potentially problematic requests filed at state agencies, which then often face the lengthy delays.”
Varlack was Lacewell’s deputy in the “risk management” program; she was made chair of JCOPE after its former chair, Michael Rosen, abruptly and inexplicably resigned. JCOPE, meanwhile, is without an executive officer, because the commissioners appointed by the legislature are refusing to name someone with close ties to the governor. (All of the previous top staffers at JCOPE have had close ties to the governor since the agency’s founding in 2011.)
The entire story captures how Cuomo sees government “ethics”: not as a way to keep politicians honest but as a public relations issue (see how he attempted to weaponize an ethical complaint against Ron Kim, his latest antagonist). Cuomo ensures his government now practices “compliance” as a way of protecting the executive from (legal or press) exposure.
The entire story is also impossibly arcane. And complicated. And completely unfit for television. To follow the details requires at least a working knowledge of how JCOPE operates and how it was designed to be controlled by the governor. It also helps to know Cuomo’s history with public corruption inquiries, like the Moreland Commission, which he shut down, and the corruption trial of his former top aide, Joseph Percoco (who was convicted). There simply aren’t hour-long YouTube explainer videos to bring the uninitiated up to speed. You have to have been reading a lot of newspapers for 10 years.
For a journalist who has covered Cuomo, or even just a person who has carefully followed the press coverage of his political career for more than a decade, it’s easy to imagine, as you watch him waltz through easy reelections, that voters have a solid sense of what sort of person he is (the bullying) and how he operates (the contempt for ethics)—and despite or even because of all that, they basically like him. But hardly anyone in New York experiences Cuomo the same way studious news consumers or reporters do. (It might be easier to believe voters truly like the Cuomo you’ve spent a decade reporting on than to acknowledge that almost no one was paying attention.)
Until now, at least.
The recent trouble for Cuomo started with the release of a report from the office of state Attorney General Letitia James on the Cuomo administration’s undercounting of nursing home deaths due to Covid-19. Her findings were perhaps unexpected: Cuomo endorsed and campaigned for James in her own 2018 primary, making her the de facto candidate of the establishment. Cuomo perhaps expected enough political loyalty, in return, to shield him from this sort of bombshell investigation.
But if Cuomo could have fended off the political fallout from one bombshell report, as he has numerous other investigations, it got immeasurably harder for him to do so once state assembly member Ron Kim went public with his claim that Cuomo had called him and threatened to “destroy” him for refusing to retract a quote he had given the New York Post about the coverup.
This led, eventually, to a mountain of coverage of Cuomo’s history and conduct—much of it similar to the Times story I described at the beginning of this piece. His aggressive behavior is, everyone agreed, sort of an open secret in New York politics.
What makes the current dust-up different from past issues that have dogged Cuomo—and that, in the eyes of his detractors, should have dogged him much more than they did—is that Cuomo has, in Kim, an antagonist who is willing to go on TV and tell a story both simple enough to explain and vivid enough to make for compelling television.
Try to imagine a local news segment explaining the entire “chief risk officer’s deputy appointed as JCOPE chair” story I described earlier. I mean, it actually wouldn’t be difficult to turn it into a televisual narrative that anyone could follow. John Oliver’s team would have no problem. But it would be exceptionally difficult for local news to do it. It’s simply not what they do.
One problem is that there is no main character to place in opposition to Cuomo—there is no one to spin a personal story explaining why this is bad. Television “news” is more about storytelling than newsgathering. Stories of institutional corruption need faces—victims or heroes—to make it on the air.
But in the case of the nursing home deaths, Ron Kim almost immediately took it to television. Rather than leaking the call anonymously to Politico, he called CNN. He has even been willing to go on The View, the sort of mass-audience television venue that, under ordinary circumstances, would never devote 10 minutes to a substantial exploration of the compromised nature of New York’s primary statewide government ethics body.
Before Ron Kim entered the spotlight, only a few Democrats had been willing to go on television to try to spin a counternarrative about Cuomo: Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon—the two women who ran against him in successive gubernatorial primaries, neither of whom was ever treated by the press as a serious candidate—and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. It may be hard to remember now, but it was genuinely big news in 2015 when de Blasio went on the record with his criticisms of Cuomo’s governing style. And yet the press (especially the national press) treat de Blasio as an oaf and a clown, and he was never able to turn that original complaint—which required a fairly sophisticated understanding of how the state legislative process works, and the relative powers of the governor and the mayor—into a television story. He retreated from direct criticism, back to a war waged through tweets by aides and unsourced comments to newspapers, and only returned to television to criticize Cuomo directly after Kim opened the floodgates.
Television turning against Andrew Cuomo appears to have had real, measurable effects. The most recent Marist poll has Cuomo’s (very recently sky-high) voter approval declining. Just about half of New York voters approve of his job performance, and only 36 percent believe he should be reelected. (It should be noted that he showed similar “reelect” numbers the last year he was reelected.)
Longtime New York politics hands like former Bloomberg spokesperson Stu Loeser still explain Cuomo’s sticky approval by arguing that his voters “KNOW he’s super-aggressive & tough,” and describe his temperament as “a feature not a bug.” I find it hard to square that interpretation with what we actually watched TV Cuomo do, as his popularity skyrocketed last year. He did not go on television regularly to berate other Democrats and threaten to destroy them.
Cuomo, I think, understands how many of his supporters only know TV Cuomo, and he works diligently to hide newspaper Cuomo from them. If the governor believed, as people claim, that New Yorkers wanted our political leaders to be aggressive and tyrannical, it would probably feature a bit more in his official, made-for-television political branding. He might have focused on it in one of his 2018 television ads, for example. (Instead, he chose to highlight his experience, and his endorsements from Democrats like Joe Biden.) Or he might have actually agreed to debate Teachout in 2014, or Nixon more than once in 2018. And he probably would’ve more directly insulted her when he did.
Donald Trump’s key insight in 2016 was that Republican voters enjoyed seeing him humiliate and attack fellow Republicans in televised debates. If it were the case that Cuomo’s attacks on other Democrats were legitimately part of his brand—part of what made him a popular figure among New York Democrats—he’d do it on camera, instead of weekend phone calls, wouldn’t he?
TV Cuomo is now wounded. It’s too early to say how badly, and he is a resilient figure, but there is a lesson here that ought to be useful (if difficult to put into practice) for anyone challenging a powerful incumbent. If a politician acts as if he believes his voters experience politics as a television show, the best way to harm him is to make yourself a compelling character.