Kathy Hochul has spent her first week as New York’s governor reminding everyone as often as possible that she is not her predecessor. She has introduced new sexual harassment training guidelines, a move The New York Times described as a “subtle jab” at Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace after a damning investigation into sexual harassment allegations was released earlier this month. In what may as well be another subtle jab, she has pitched herself as a model of transparency, quickly releasing new Covid-19 death numbers that grew the state’s total by 12,000. She shared a photo with the former governor’s old sparring partner and nemesis Bill de Blasio, featuring the two of them laughing over breakfast. And she has channeled Mariah Carey, dissociating with Cuomo at nearly every level. “It’s no secret that the governor and I were not close,” Hochul said last week. “He had his own tight inner circle. I created my own space.”
Cuomo, meanwhile, has been like unto Napoleon on Elba, although he has been exiled to a friend’s home in the Hamptons instead of a Mediterranean island. An inveterate schemer, he is said to be plotting both revenge and his political comeback. Late last week, Politico reported that he was already hard at work preparing an effort to sabotage Hochul and New York Attorney General Letitia James, whom he blames for his downfall.
“The fever [with] which they are doing this—to relitigate the past and undermine Hochul—is incredible,” one reporter told Politico. “They don’t seem to see that they are out of power and no one cares.” Cuomo, moreover, has amassed a substantial war chest, with nearly $20 million in campaign funds. He had hoped to use this boodle to save his skin when his political career was on the line; now, no Democrat wants to be caught dead with their fingers on the lucre. “What is a man to do with $18 million, a lot of enemies and a desire for revenge?” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf told Politico. “This is not a guy who forgets. The only question is when he tries to get even, and whether it’s upfront or behind the scenes.”
But Cuomo is in a bind. It’s unlikely that money will be spent on candidates who will primary those enemies that Cuomo blames for his downfall, particularly those serving the state Senate. He may very well be saving it for another run for office in less than a year’s time, when New York holds its gubernatorial primary. But while he was able to hold onto more Democratic support than one might hope, given the allegations against him, very few New Yorkers wanted him to run for a fourth term.
New York’s Democratic Party is a mess, thanks in part to Cuomo’s machinations over the last decade, and there is no obvious statehouse successor. Hochul will almost certainly run again; she may be able to generate enough goodwill simply by not being Andrew Cuomo, but she is relatively unknown in the state and, as the first governor from western New York in a century, lacks downstate connections. James was perhaps the best positioned to succeed Cuomo as governor, but she is also the person most likely to kindle his wrath should she run next year. There are a number of state senators who might also plausibly throw their hat in the ring. These will face the same daunting challenge nearly every New York Democrat has at the moment: Andrew Cuomo dominated New York politics—and kneecapped potential rivals at every turn—for such a long period of time that just obtaining the kind of profile necessary to run a credible campaign in a race that will touch off in a matter of months is a hard slog. Having Cuomo in Count of Monte Cristo mode, seething and vengeful and scheming against those who he believes snatched his birthright from him, only makes it worse.
Cuomo has long been portrayed as a master of the political dark arts, adept at creating conditions in which he was the conduit through which everything flowed; similarly, he was able by methods both overt and covert to muzzle potential rivals and, for most of his reign, neuter the state’s progressives. As Politico noted, Cuomo “was notorious among the Albany press corps for using the media as a tool to inspire fear and sow mayhem. He’d speak to reporters on background as a ‘senior administration official,’ and use that anonymity to defend himself. He’d plant unsavory stories about political opponents. He’d get his aides to carry out his dirty work.”
It’s not hard to imagine Cuomo reverting to form now that he’s been knocked out of office. Surely he will make the attempt. He has many enemies: Hochul, James, nearly the entire state Senate delegation. Blistering attacks have always been instinctive—not strategic—for the former governor. Chaos is his best shot at a comeback: New York may not like Cuomo, but it needs him to keep the socialists in New York City and the bureaucrats in Albany in check. Even if he fails to return to power, he may have the satisfaction of taking down those he blames for his downfall. It may be a cynical plan, but it could succeed.
Nevertheless, the flaw in this scheme’s design is that he no longer holds the office with which he constructed so much of his aura of invincibility. And while Cuomo was adroit at convincing others that he was a master manipulator and expert lever-puller, the actual record is quite mixed. He was able to use the press as a bludgeon to bully and intimidate rivals; this option won’t be as available to him now that he’s been banished. State resources, which he used to great effect to cultivate his image, bash rivals, and broadly make the case for his own competence, will similarly be unavailable to him. At the moment, he’s just a guy—albeit one with millions of dollars sitting in a bank account waiting to be spent on petty schemes.
Still, as Alex Pareene wrote last week, “What could once have been painted as skilled political knife-fighting, or whatever strange term the Times used to use to euphemize his paranoid belligerence, might now just be pure lashing out from a guy who doesn’t know what to do when he’s beat.”
The image of a sinister Cuomo plotting in the Hamptons with a loyal aide or two is a compelling tale, one that’s certainly not beyond the imaginings of the outcast governor. But it’s also a story that’s based on the old image of Cuomo, one we’ve outgrown. Nobody’s talking about an outer-borough Machiavelli anymore. We’re talking about a pathetic bum who can’t admit that he has brought about his own downfall.