For the 11 years Andrew Cuomo was governor of New York, he acted like a caricature of someone drunk with power, a boy-king gifted the position by his father’s name, greedy for acclaim and control. He grabbed everything for himself, literally and figuratively. He harassed and assaulted state employees and other women because he thought he could—and that no one would dare speak up. He retaliated against the smallest slight. He used state workers to grab himself a multimillion-dollar book deal. He lied about people’s deaths, trampling on the sacred with an entitled shrug. And he lied for the simplest and grossest of reasons: because telling the truth about nursing home deaths would take the shine off his glory, and cost him his book deal and his victory lap.
Cuomo was a taker. He took power, and collected chits, and took credit wherever he could. He took credit for a fracking ban when activists who followed him everywhere forced him into it against his will. He took credit for the $15-an-hour minimum wage—after fighting tooth and nail against it. He took credit for criminal justice reform that he spent years blocking. He took credit for campaign finance reform that he hobbled. Wherever there was glory, he ran to the headlines and used his perch to take credit. And where there was shame—or should have been—he hid and pointed fingers.
In the end, he has proven himself a predictable and dull tyrant, simply out for himself. The big Cuomo narrative that time has destroyed is that he was a jerk, but a competent jerk. The truth is he couldn’t even build a bridge that was safe. He was competent at tearing people down, but not at building roads, bridges, the MTA, fully funded schools, or sewer systems—the actual things a state needs to thrive. He left New Yorkers with gaping holes in our social fabric and immoral levels of inequality.
The question, then, is not how did Cuomo fall so quickly—but why did it take so long? The superb, thorough, professional, devastating report by Attorney General Letitia James was what finally brought him down. But why was the AG report needed after 11 years of credible public reporting on his corruption scandals and his lies?
Cuomo himself was a disaster, but New York hasn’t had a governor leave in dignity in years—and that is not a fluke; it is a flaw in the office. The governor’s control over appointments and over the budget creates such a gross concentration of power that the executive branch can promise enormous rewards—and threaten terrible retribution—based on loyalty. When I ran against him in 2014, I met several lawmakers who secretly cheered me on—but socially distanced themselves from me in public because they were so scared Cuomo would punish them by hurting their careers or their constituents. One lawmaker said every time he talked to me he’d get a phone call from Joe Percoco—the governor’s right-hand man, now in prison for corruption—asking what the problem was.
The power New York’s Constitution gives governors makes them feel invincible—and stop being responsive to the needs of the public. Recent research proves what observers of human behavior have said for thousands of years: Powerful people are more likely to interrupt others, not look at people when they are speaking, and to be rude, hostile, and humiliating. They are more self-centered, losing the capacity to even guess what others feel or want; power seems to take away not only compassion but the ability to even see other people’s needs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people who are given power in psychology experiments are more likely to touch others inappropriately.
New York’s current constitutional structure, in other words, sets up the state for abuse, and while we need to celebrate the outstanding work by Tish James and the incredible bravery of survivors—and of lawmakers who didn’t keep quiet when the governor asked them to—we also need to reflect: How can we avoid this in the future? New York needs some constitutional restructuring, as a matter of both culture and law. The Legislature, not the executive branch, should be leading on the budget. We need to further reform the limits on how much can be raised in campaign contributions. And we need to stop looking for strong men to lead us. Genuine democracy—where the people have a voice, and a governor can’t grab everything—is better for bridges, for competent government, and for greater equality.
When Macbeth finally faces a fate he thought impossible, with his wife dead and the forest he thought merely fixed trees marching toward him, he famously says life “is a tale told by an idiot…signifying nothing.” Like Macbeth, Cuomo remains a nihilist to the end. He never acted as a governor who thought about the real needs of the people of New York, never worried about those hurt by crumbling infrastructure, or what it was like to be a child in an overcrowded classroom—or how it felt to have your loved one’s death in a nursing home covered up. As his pathetic final performance made clear, for him it was always about his small, selfish, soul. Like Richard Nixon, he resigned whining. What we should learn from Andrew Cuomo’s tenure is that no one should ever be given such power to play with people’s lives.
The first step toward that transformation is for the Legislature to proceed with his impeachment. Cuomo wants to resign so the facts won’t all be laid out—and so he can run for office again. He doesn’t deserve that kindness, having shown nothing but selfishness in his tenure. More importantly, New Yorkers need to learn not just what Cuomo did but also how he was able to wield power to keep so many people silent and afraid—so we can avoid being back here again.