Eight months ago, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a poster celebrating New York state’s triumph over Covid-19. Embossed on a mountain, symbolizing the state’s journey over the preceding four months, were a host of images and metaphors: a fire for the first outbreak; a dollar sign for the economic downturn; a disengaged President Trump sitting on the moon; a “boyfriend cliff,” a wry nod to Cuomo’s own widely praised and personal daily press conferences, in which he ragged his daughter’s boyfriend. Hanging over the summit of the mountain was a rainbow and the words “Love Wins.” The poster—and an accompanying three-dimensional foam model—are almost certainly the closest thing a sitting elected official has come to producing outsider art. They were also macabre mementos: “The ‘mountain’ is a triumphalist materialization of an overwhelming pile of bodies,” my colleague Alex Pareene wrote at the time. “It is a manifestation of a horrific and avoidable failure.”
The mountain served as a better metaphor for Cuomo’s profile than it did for New York state’s response to the pandemic. At that moment, New York’s death toll was the highest in the country, but the state’s governor was strangely viewed as the public official who had done the most effective job fighting the virus. This was an outcome that had far more to do with aesthetics than policy—Cuomo’s austere, science-led briefings were used as counter-programming to Trump’s conspiracy-filled logorrhea. By midsummer, Cuomo was one of the most popular politicians in the country. A few months later, with his state about to enter a second wave, he took a victory lap, publishing a book of leadership lessons he learned during the pandemic. He was being touted as a leading Democratic presidential candidate in 2024.
But over the last few weeks, Cuomo has careened down the mountain. Throughout 2020, Republicans had tried to turn New York’s staggeringly high rate of Covid-19-related nursing home deaths into a scandal. Last month, it was revealed that the state had deliberately undercounted those deaths, apparently fearing that they would be politicized by President Trump. A dam broke with that revelation: The governor has since been overwhelmed by a wave of scandals relating not only to his handling of the virus but also his toxic management style and penchant for bullying and making sexually suggestive remarks. On Saturday, a former aide accused him of sexual harassment, outlined in damning detail in The New York Times, which followed a previous accusation of harassment made by another former staffer. On Sunday, Cuomo conceded to undergoing a formal investigation into his behavior that will be conducted by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James. All of a sudden, after 10 years in power, the walls are closing in.
Only a few weeks ago, this would have been unthinkable to most people in Albany—and to Cuomo in particular. As concerns about the state’s handling of nursing home deaths starting piling up, he responded the only way he knows how: by going to the mattresses. He lashed out at his critics, particularly a then–little known assembleyman, Ron Kim, who had earlier revealed that the governor had threatened to “destroy him” for raising concerns about the scandal. Cuomo, it should be underlined, surely understood that he was on the verge of another major political milestone. Within a few months, he could take credit for New York reopening and reap another wave of publicity. All he had to do was see out a scandal that he had always believed was a Republican smear.
In the past, these tactics almost always worked. Critics would be relentlessly attacked and threatened into submission, irrelevance, or both. This heavy-handed style reaped enormous rewards: He has, over three elections, easily seen off challengers from his right and his left. The solution to every problem, whether it came from a media organization or a political group, was a show of overwhelming force.
But Cuomo’s aggressive, bullying style has now become one of many scandals engulfing him. His attempts to threaten and cajole his critics have only ended up reinforcing his political problems. Cuomo’s treatment of these critics was something of an open secret—any journalist who has covered his administration, even in passing, has stories about the governor, his press shop, or both that can fill an entire happy hour. For political rivals, the threats were existential. Given Cuomo’s stranglehold on New York politics, crossing him could result in serious consequences.
As a result, most people kept quiet about the threats he and his allies used to maintain his chokehold on political power in New York state. But now there is no longer a cost for criticizing the governor, and a decade of stories are coming out. When the investigation kicks in, the stories will get worse.
Cuomo himself appears to have realized this, albeit belatedly. After the first aide accused him of sexual harassment, he strongly denied the accusations. When the second aide came forward with similar accusations, he pledged to launch and cooperate with an “outside investigation” that was, in a classic Cuomo move, going to be handled by a former U.S. district judge with close ties to one of his top advisers.
On Sunday, as criticism continued to boil over, he relented, ceding control of the inquiry to James. He also released a tepid but revealing apology: “I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” he said in a statement. “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
It’s not much of an apology. “I’m sorry if you were offended” rarely works, even in benign situations; as a defense for sexual harassment, it is wholly inadequate. But it’s really a kind of surrender: Cuomo’s hardball tactics have failed miserably.
He may very well hold onto power despite this scandal. His approval rating has dipped but remained stubbornly high as the nursing home scandal became more and more serious—it’s not yet clear how public opinion has shifted as a result of the latest revelations. But Cuomo knows how dangerous James’s investigation is, more than anyone. When he served as the state’s attorney general more than a decade ago, he investigated and played a major role in the political downfall of not one but two governors: Eliot Spitzer (who ultimately resigned) and David Paterson (who served out Spitzer’s term as a lame duck). These investigations helped catapult Cuomo into the governor’s office—now he’s the one with a target on his back.
Even if the scandals and James’s investigation don’t result in his resignation, Cuomo will no longer be able to run the state the way he once did: with contempt for his enemies and allies alike. There is blood in the water, and everyone can taste it—even Cuomo’s often hapless nemesis, Bill de Blasio.