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Friday, September 17, 2021

How Andrew Cuomo’s exit tarnished a legacy and dimmed a dynasty

For more than 40 years, the Cuomo name has been almost synonymous with Democratic governance in New York, with a Cuomo running for statewide office in every election but one since 1974. Now, suddenly, it stands for something else.

By: New York Times |
Updated: August 15, 2021 12:22:07 pm
How Andrew Cuomo’s exit tarnished a legacy and dimmed a dynastyNew York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Hall of Governors at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)

Written by Shane Goldmacher

Andrew Cuomo always cared about his place in history.

And so, early in his governorship, he invited Robert Caro, a Pulitzer-prize winning biographer and historian of power, for a private audience in Albany, New York. The pitch had been for Caro to share lessons from the legacy of Robert Moses, a master builder who ruthlessly rolled over his opponents to remake New York in the past century.

But over cookies at the Capitol, it quickly became clear that Cuomo would be doing most of the talking. For close to two hours, he spoke admiringly about Moses, outlined his governing philosophy and regaled Caro with his ambitions to build big — overhauling bridges, airports and more. Then, the governor politely declared the meeting over.

“It was an arrogant and angering thing to do,” Caro, now 85, recalled in an interview. “To think I had given a day of my life to have him lecture me.”

How Andrew Cuomo’s exit tarnished a legacy and dimmed a dynasty New York Governor Mario Cuomo, joined by his family, including Andrew Cuomo, far right, celebrates after he was elected to a third term, on Nov. 6, 1990. (Keith Meyers/The New York Times)

Imposing his will on others to accommodate his agenda and ambitions has been a hallmark of Cuomo’s career, from his role as chief enforcer for his father, three-term governor Mario Cuomo, through his own decade-plus reign as New York’s unrelenting chief executive. He trampled lawmakers, lashed his own staff and browbeat political officials — in both parties, but often fellow Democrats — throughout a steady rise that saw him accumulate power and enemies in almost equal measure.

His strong-arming often worked. Cuomo pushed through some of the very infrastructure projects he foretold in his talk with Caro, including replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge and overhauling La Guardia Airport.

For more than 40 years, the Cuomo name has been almost synonymous with Democratic governance in New York, with a Cuomo running for statewide office in every election but one since 1974.

Now, suddenly, it stands for something else.

The first accusation of sexual harassment against Cuomo came in December, then another in late February, and then another, and then calls for investigations and resignations and ultimately, an independent investigation from the office of the state attorney general. The damning final report Aug. 3 corroborated or lent credence to the accounts of 11 women alleging various degrees of harassment and misconduct by Cuomo, including one accusation of groping.

Facing almost certain impeachment, Cuomo announced his resignation Tuesday, even as he denied the harassment claims and any inappropriate touching.

“It’s a stain that’s always going to be there,” said Robert Abrams, who served as New York attorney general while Cuomo’s father was governor.

The accusations and his stepping down, Abrams said, would surely be etched into the opening lines of Cuomo’s eventual obituary.

It was a fall so swift that observers could be forgiven for alternating between calling it a Greek and a Shakespearean tragedy. An upscale sweater shop that a year ago had hawked “Cuomosexual” and “Cuomo for president” wares was now offering free embroidery to remove that stitching and replace it with “Believe survivors” (or any other phrase).

Cuomo will no longer equal the 12-year tenure served by his late father, whose reputation as an orator and icon of liberalism has forever shadowed his son’s career. The younger Cuomo wore a pair of his late father’s shoes for his third inauguration, and in recent days his aspiration for a fourth term — to be the longest-serving Cuomo — evaporated.

“I love New York,” Cuomo said in his resignation speech Tuesday. “Everything I have ever done has been motivated by that love.”

Cuomo and his allies have argued that his methods were in service of taming a notoriously unruly state apparatus. Most prominently, he quarterbacked same-sex marriage through the divided Legislature in his first six months as governor, corralling conservative Democrats and recalcitrant Republicans alike to make New York then the largest state to allow it.

There would be more: a gun-safety package and timely balanced budgets, a phased-in $15 minimum wage and other crucial infrastructure investments, including the new Moynihan Train Hall and the Second Avenue subway.

“Historians are going to have to be honest about the accomplishments that he notched,” said Harold Holzer, who worked for Cuomo’s father and drove Caro to the meeting in Albany. Now the director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, Holzer summed up the younger Cuomo’s legacy as “flawed human being and a great governor.”

But where exactly Cuomo’s love of the state ended and his pursuit of power and control began has long been a blurry line. Former advisers have grappled with that question in recent therapy sessions, text chains and over drinks.

“Toxic, hostile, abusive,” Joon Kim, one of the lawyers who led the inquiry, quoted witnesses describing the Cuomo office culture. “Fear, intimidation, bullying, vindictive.”

Among Cuomo’s former closest confidantes, there has been a recent reconsideration of how necessary his tactics truly were.

“Did we all create a patina around the governor that gave him more latitude than he deserved?” said Christine Quinn, a former New York City Council speaker and former Cuomo ally.

Cuomo has been characteristically unrepentant about his style. In his first post-resignation interview, with New York Magazine, he said, “You can’t charm the nail into a board. It has to be hit with a hammer.”

Still, that heavy-handedness had a crucial side effect: The governor was fatally isolated at his time of political need.

In resigning, Cuomo said he “didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn” on sexual harassment. He left out that, as governor, he had done some of the redrawing as he signed legislation to impose new protections against sexual harassment. A day after the bill-signing, Cuomo asked a female state trooper why she did not wear a dress, according to the report.

Now the 63-year-old governor is days away from unemployment and still facing criminal investigations into his conduct with women. Federal authorities also have been examining his administration’s handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, and the state attorney general is looking into the use of state resources for Cuomo’s memoir last year.

“I am sure he feels like he has enormous unfinished business left to do,” said Charlie King, Cuomo’s running mate for lieutenant governor in 2002 and one of the few people who counseled Cuomo to the end. “And that, more than anything, will stick with him as he closes the gates at Eagle Street and says goodbye to the governor’s mansion.”

Eyeing the History Books

From the start, Andrew Mark Cuomo had a knack for vivid political imagery and a flair for exuding his dominance. He conducted interviews while lighting cigarettes in his office in the 1980s and puffing cigars in a Manhattan park in the early 2000s. Behind the scenes, he was known to shape stories with off-the-record chats.

His first run for office, in 2002, was a flop, when he dropped out of the primary even before getting a chance to match up against Republican Gov. George Pataki, who had ousted his father in 1994.

But he quickly spun a comeback narrative of contrition that propelled him to become attorney general four years later. Successive implosions of Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Gov. David Paterson in scandal put him on a glide path to the governor’s mansion by 2010.

Even before he had won, Cuomo was eyeing the history books — sending copies of a biography of former Gov. Hugh L. Carey to labor leaders that October. He said he had learned from the hard-charging Spitzer’s mistakes, too.

“Lesson 1 from Spitzer,” Cuomo said then. “Don’t alienate the Legislature on Day 1.”

It took Cuomo a little longer, but by this year, he had precious few friends in Albany.

His winner-take-all approach to politics — with the executive always winning — grew wearisome for legislators as they saw their ideas either repeatedly stomped on or co-opted (and sometimes both).

A centrist, especially on fiscal policy, Cuomo triangulated between the parties to curb the most progressive elements of his party.

For years, he had tacitly backed a division among Democrats in Albany, when a breakaway faction of Senate Democrats formed a power-sharing agreement with the Republicans. Cuomo long claimed he was powerless to reunite the party — until he helped broker an accord to do just that in 2018.

Cuomo had confided earlier that year to Alison Hirsh, then a top political adviser to a powerful union, that he did not want to put the Democrats fully in charge of the Senate before that year’s budget. Hirsh recalled Cuomo telling her that was because Sen. Liz Krueger, a liberal Manhattan Democrat, would push to increase taxes and that Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic leader, would “give free breakfast to all Black people.” Stewart-Cousins is Black.

Two people confirmed that Hirsh had told them of the governor’s comments at the time; one remembered the verbatim line. Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo, denied that the governor said that.

Cuomo became more emboldened over time. He skipped any galas for his first inauguration in 2011. By 2019, his third inauguration was a resplendent affair, shuttling New York’s political elite by ferry past the Statue of Liberty to hear him speak from the flag-festooned Great Hall of Ellis Island.

Some Cuomo advisers believe that the pandemic heightened his sense of invincibility. His daily briefings, carried live on cable nationwide, made him a Democratic antidote to President Donald Trump. People close to the governor said Cuomo inhaled the coverage, the ratings, the adulation.

He signed a $5.1 million book deal before the pandemic was over. He bantered with his brother, Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor, on prime time. He also, according to the investigator’s report, asked a young woman who worked for him if she would date older men. He inquired if she was monogamous. He said he would be OK with a 22-year-old woman.

In a March diary entry included in the attorney general’s report, Cuomo’s ethics counsel at the time, Julia Pinover Kupiec, wrote that her boss “understands subtle power dynamics and power plays better than almost anyone on the planet.”

“Either he knew exactly what he was doing (likely) or he is so narcissistic that he thought all women wanted these kinds of questions (crazy excuse even to write it),” she wrote.

‘An Eternal Race With Papa’

Krueger recalled a moment early in Cuomo’s governorship when she was among a group of legislators at the mansion. She found herself speaking with Cuomo privately as he recounted the dark days of his 2002 run for governor, when even his allies had abandoned him.

“I realized my mother was the only one on earth who loved me,” Cuomo told her, according to Krueger.

The line stood out because Cuomo was standing underneath a portrait of his father, who was alive at the time.

Although Cuomo has long chafed at the mention of any father-related psychodrama, Mario Cuomo has been a looming presence in his son’s administration. Cuomo repeatedly refers to his father and in 2017 renamed the Tappan Zee Bridge after him. During Cuomo’s 2018 race, he polled voters to ask if they thought he could be one of New York’s greatest governors — a title he bestows publicly on his father.

“It was always at the forefront,” said Peter Kauffmann, a former Cuomo adviser.

Alan Chartock, who runs an Albany-based radio station, interviewed Mario Cuomo throughout his governorship, as well as Andrew Cuomo in recent years. He sees an “an eternal race with papa.”

When Chartock told Andrew Cuomo as much on air last year, Cuomo replied: “Oh, I don’t compete with him. I know you say that, and I know you think that, and I know Freudian blah blah blah.”

Just moments earlier, in that same interview, when Chartock congratulated Cuomo on his recent Rolling Stone cover, the governor had replied, “I saw my father’s face when I look at that picture.”

Cuomo has only a handful of days left in a mansion that he has had access to for more than two decades of his adult life. On Friday, the state Assembly announced that it would drop its impeachment investigation, keeping open the possibility that Cuomo could run in the future. He still has $18 million in campaign cash — more than any other New York state politician.

“Andrew will be back in some form of public service,” said Meyer Sandy Frucher, a longtime Cuomo family friend and former aide to Cuomo’s father. “That’s who he is. That’s who he was raised to be.”

A few years after his meeting with Caro, Cuomo was set to open one of the big infrastructure achievements he had pushed as part of his legacy: the long-delayed Second Avenue subway extension. Caro said the governor’s office reached out to invite him to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Caro declined.

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