Cuomo’s Icarus Arc: How The Governor’s Quest For Pandemic Power Led to His Undoing

The resignation of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo marks the end of a year-and-a-half period in which he reached the zenith of his political power and hit his lowest point yet, unemployed and evicted from the executive mansion he’s had access to for most of his life.

Cuomo spent decades amassing power in Albany, first as the right-hand man to his father who served three terms as governor, then as attorney general, and finally as governor himself for more than a decade. He wrangled a divided legislature (which he still controlled) to legalize gay marriage and to phase in a $15 minimum wage. He oversaw the completion of a stretch of the long-awaited Second Avenue subway, a revamped train hall for Penn Station, and a new Kosciuszko Bridge.

But early last year the COVID-19 pandemic upended his political priorities and plans. The ensuing crisis allowed him to wield unprecedented control of the state, yet the efforts he and his top aides took to preserve that power ultimately contributed to his downfall.

At first Cuomo, like many leaders at the time, downplayed the virus’ severity.

“I’m of Italian-American descent, I’m a hugger,” he said at a March 5th press conference, describing why he didn’t practice social distancing as health experts recommended. A day later he added, “I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus.”

By early March 2020,  the governor had declared a state of emergency. He later negotiated even more authority with the state legislature. He could write laws and enact them without any oversight. Cuomo said he needed the additional powers to respond swiftly to the evolving crisis. At the time, the public and lawmakers agreed.

Governor Cuomo claps while walking through Javits Center where works have been setting up

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Governor Andrew Cuomo at the pop-up hospital in the Javits Center on March 27, 2020

Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

When it came time to shut down the state, Cuomo stalled. On March 17th, de Blasio warned New Yorkers to prepare for a “shelter in place.”  But it took Cuomo five more days to implement New York’s version of a lockdown, rebranded a PAUSE order. Researchers have since estimated that if New York had locked down just a week earlier, around 17,500 New Yorkers’ lives might have been saved. 

By early April, the toll of the virus was undeniable. Hospitals were stretched to capacity; so were morgues. There were shortages of masks, gloves, and gowns for health care workers. Hundreds of New Yorkers were dying every day. 

Amidst the devastation, Cuomo leveraged the power of his office: he negotiated deals for supplies and staff, he pushed private hospitals and nursing homes to get on board. He rallied neighboring states to coordinate a regional response. His voice of reason and calm stood in contrast to then-President Trump who was musing about a bright light COVID-19 treatment or downplaying the pandemic.

Cuomo unveils all these handmade masks on the wall of the Red Room in Albany

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Governor Andrew Cuomo shows the masks he’s received on April 29, 2020

Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefings were viewed by millions, across the country, even the world. People were stuck inside, alone, afraid. Admirers sent Cuomo hand-sewn masks and knitted $285 sweaters with the words “Cuomo for President.” He got a $5 million dollar book deal, received an Emmy. And Cuomo basked in the attention.

“I’ve always been a soft guy,” he told his brother and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. “I’m the Love Gov, I’m a cool dude in a loose mood.”

But at the same time, behind the scenes, Cuomo and his top staffers were going to great lengths to protect that public image of heroism, misleading the public about how many residents of nursing homes were dying from COVID-19, and attempting to bury allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women. State lawmakers who’d handed over so much power were growing tired of him, too.

The first blow to the image of Cuomo as a pandemic savior came in late January from New York Attorney General Letitia James, confirming the state massively undercounted the number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19. The report forced Cuomo to address the issue head on, after months of ignoring requests from reporters, state lawmakers, the federal government, and relatives of nursing home residents killed by the virus.

“We should not have created the void. We should’ve done a better job in providing information,” Cuomo said at a February 15th press conference soon after the report’s release, where he offered up one of his signature Powerpoint presentations, this one with an image of a black hole.

Once the state revised its numbers to include nursing home residents who were transferred to hospitals, the death count among this population jumped 50% to more than 15,000 victims. 

Governor Cuomo discussing nursing home deaths with a power point graphic behind him showing total nursing home deaths by state

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Governor Andrew Cuomo discussing nursing home deaths on February 15, 2021

Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Then, as New Yorkers approached the one-year anniversary of the pandemic’s arrival, the governor’s image took some more hits. The state legislature stripped Cuomo of his emergency powers. The New York Post described a private meeting the secretary to the governor, Melissa deRosa, had with state lawmakers, where she’d admitted deliberately withholding the number of nursing home deaths from the federal government. Federal investigators started sniffing around soon after. 

The Post quoted Assemblymember Ron Kim, one of Cuomo’s fiercest critics on the issue of nursing home safety, who then received a furious phone call from Cuomo. Instead of intimidating the Queens lawmaker, the call—and the fact that Cuomo spent 20 minutes blasting him during a press briefing— prompted Kim to go public. 

“He said, ‘I haven’t seen his anger, I haven’t seen his wrath,’” Kim said, recounting the call to CNN’s Erin Burnett on Feb. 20th. “He’s been biting his tongue. He will go out tomorrow and destroy my political career.”

Kim’s account of rageful intimidation by Cuomo unleashed a torrent of similar stories, from politicians, reporters, state employees, all of whom said they’d been bullied by the governor and his top aides. 

Cuomo’s grip on power was loosening, making him especially vulnerable to what came next. 

A former state employee named Lindsey Boylan followed up a December tweet with a lengthy Medium essay in February, detailing how she’d been sexually harassed and forcibly kissed by Cuomo. A second aide, Charlotte Bennett, came forward shortly after describing similar conduct, and the drumbeat of demands for Cuomo’s resignation and his impeachment began. Attorney General James launched a second investigation soon after.

Cuomo gave a partial apology, for making anyone feel uncomfortable, but he insisted he’d done nothing wrong; that he was a misunderstood Italian hugger, that the motives of those who accused him or those who called for his resignation were political. 

Governor Cuomo and Eric Adams smile at each other

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Governor Cuomo and Brooklyn Borough President and NYC Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams on July 14, 2021

Governor’s office

He spent several months avoiding questions from reporters and surrounding himself with allies who lauded his leadership, focusing on vaccine rollout and pandemic recovery, trying to turn the clock back to 2020 where he’d controlled the narrative. But it was too late.

The state attorney general’s devastating report was the final blow, corroborating the accounts of 11 women who’d accused Cuomo of sexual harassment and misconduct. In his final remarks to New Yorkers as governor on Monday afternoon, he still maintained he’d done nothing wrong, and said he was stepping aside for the good of the state. 

“We didn’t get everything done that we wanted to, or even everything we should have done. And we didn’t always get it quite right,” Cuomo said. “But I want you to know from the bottom of my heart, I want you to know that every day, I worked my hardest, I gave it my all, and I tried my best to deliver for you.”

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