I have some idea of what it means to be “New York tough.” When I was young, I was holding my mother’s hand as we rushed through Penn Station and a man walking in the opposite direction hit me with his very impressive briefcase right between the eyes, opening up a blood vessel. The man never slowed down, and neither did my mother. I was wailing and bleeding, and my mom said, “We can still make the train,” without breaking stride. I appreciate that tristate area commuters have little time for such niceties as “Sorry I brained your child” or “Mommy can take a later train.”
To me, “New York tough” means a daily willingness to share space with millions of other souls crammed onto a small island without overreacting to their presence. It means functioning amid the din of humanity. It means overcoming the adversity, or simply accidents, thrust upon you by millions of others and continuing to do whatever it is you do.
But there is an alternative view: the idea that being from or of New York is a license to be a jerk. Indeed, some will contend that being a giant briefcase-swinging brute is the only way to “succeed” in New York, and those who are not built for permanent, unrelenting aggression are doomed to fail in the big city. The vast majority of New Yorkers thrive precisely because they’ve developed a high tolerance for difference, along with an amenable “live and let live” approach, but there are others who contend that “my way or the highway” is the only way to be a real New Yorker.
Soon-to-be-former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those people who seems to think that aggression and bullying are the true hallmarks of the Empire State. Cuomo’s caustic retirement press conference on August 10 included numerous references to his “toughness” and his “fighting” spirit. Even while succumbing to the many allegations of sexual misconduct levied against him, Cuomo agreed to leave only after his lawyer spent an hour trying to poke holes in the New York attorney general’s investigation into his behavior and after his own speech (he took no questions) claiming that his conduct was merely misunderstood because of his New York–ness and cultural heritage. As if nonconsensual groping were some kind of downstate old-Italian greeting. I have met many Italian New Yorkers in my life, and while some of them have said “Ciao,” none of them have grabbed my ass.
Cuomo resigned much as he governed, which is to say he tried to impose his personal will onto the reality of the situation. This is a guy who wrote a book about defeating Covid-19 even as the virus still raged and his own cover-up of nursing home deaths was being investigated. He’s been known to call up political rivals and shout at them, and people who have worked for him talk of their fear of telling the governor anything he doesn’t want to hear.
So it’s no surprise that he tried to paint the allegations against him as politically motivated—what’s surprising is that he stepped down. Most people, including me, expected Cuomo to fight to the last and drag the state down with him.
It’s important to understand that many of the qualities that led to Cuomo’s downfall—namely, his bullying, his abrasiveness, and his seeming inability to respect boundaries—are the very qualities that brought him to power in the first place. Many of the people who voted for him liked the “never take no for an answer” part of his personality. I’ve voted for every primary challenger Cuomo has ever had (Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon when he ran for reelection as governor in 2014 and 2018; I even wrote in Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan when Cuomo ran unopposed in 2010), but all of those votes were useless because Cuomo has been unbeatable in a Democratic primary in this state.
Some will chalk up Cuomo’s political strength to his family name. His father, Mario, is remembered fondly for his soaring oratory, amiable nature, and role as a liberal counterpoint to Reagan-era Republican cruelty. But I don’t think the younger Cuomo prevailed purely because of his beloved family name. The fact is that many New Yorkers believe it takes sharp elbows and a volatile temperament to run this polity.
Cuomo is merely the latest person to tout his pugilistic temperament as a political strength around these parts. We’ve seen former Governor Eliot Spitzer proudly call himself a “fucking steamroller” as if that’s a good thing. We’ve had mayors like Ed Koch, who was eulogized as “brash” and “outspoken” as papers largely whitewashed his politics. Mike Bloomberg acted like being a hard-nosed businessperson was a qualification for government service, while Rudolph Giuliani acted like being straight-up vicious was a strength and not a crime against humanity. Across the Hudson River, we’re still recovering from eight years with Chris Christie, whose entire political career was based on bombast and threats.
And, of course, this state produced Donald Trump, a man entirely too incompetent to succeed in anything but bankruptcy in the New York political market, but who was able to export an allegedly New York–style of bullying and machismo that the rest of the country, gullibly, believed was authentic. Just as Trump is a weak man’s idea of a strong man, he is a non–New Yorker’s idea of a Manhattan businessman. (Trump, like me, is from Queens.)
The epidemic of New York strongmen has been a constant feature of my lifetime, but it wasn’t always the norm. Historically, New York is probably best known for its strong machine politics. The elected leaders were, as often as not, good-looking and charismatic fronts for machine bosses who held no elected office but real political power. Think Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.
But coming out of the 1970s, New York City was fiscally unstable and dealing with the “white flight” that plagued many urban areas. It got slapped with the moniker “Fear City”—by the cops, of course—just as it became a browner city. It was at that point that the “tough guy” mayor really took hold—as white New Yorkers, both liberal and conservative, cast about for a strong white man to “take back the streets” from, well, we all know who. In 1977, Koch ran on a platform of stopping “black poverty pimps” and reinstating the death penalty, never mind that New York’s mayor had no control over the issue. During his 12-year reign—the same era during which Bernard Goetz was heralded for shooting Black people on the subway and the Central Park Five were railroaded by the system—Koch became more and more willing to slag off Black and brown communities in order to shore up white support. After he left office, David Dinkins, the first Black mayor, was panned as being “too weak” and was replaced by Giuliani Time.
And then 9/11 happened. That’s about when the city’s love of the charismatic jackboot started trickling outside the five boroughs and up through the rest of the state—and then out into the vastness of the country. Giuliani became “America’s Mayor.” His police chief, Bernard Kerik, was tapped to be head of Homeland Security (before scandal caught up with him). And in 2006, instead of the usual New York thing of electing shamelessly corporatist governors, like Nelson Rockefeller and George Pataki, we started electing steamrollers like Spitzer and Cuomo who promised to crush rules and humans who opposed them.
Bullies are not the only people who can wield power effectively. Threatening people is not the only way to keep us safe. We keep electing people who promise to not let other people get in their way, and then seem surprised when these leaders have no respect for other people. Maybe, instead of electing the next person who acts like pushing people onto the subway tracks is just the way “real” New Yorkers get a seat at rush hour, we might try looking for someone who practices the common courtesy of letting people off the train before they push their way on.
Or we could elect a woman. Well, not a hypocrite like Elise Stefanik. Or any of the women who enabled Cuomo’s abusive behavior. But you take my point. I’m trying to set the bar at “administration doesn’t end in a sex scandal.” Can any of the 20 million people who live in this state meet that commitment?
It has been over 40 years since the “Summer of Sam.” It has almost been 20 years since 9/11. Could New Yorkers stop being so afraid of seemingly everything that we seek the protection of despots? Surely whatever psychological wounds that have plagued this region are starting to heal.
But I guess we’re not ready for nice things. After all, the current New York City mayoral election is between Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa, in a test of who can land the best punch on a turnstile jumper. Even in 2021, we’re still picking candidates who think they’re in a measuring contest with the Empire State Building.
As a New York resident, my only warning to the rest of the country is to not elevate the so-called tough-guy candidates who are from here. Real New Yorkers are tough, but the ones who rise to executive power appear to be damaged. If you can make it here, politically, you’ll probably be terrible for everywhere else.