In the past year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has gone from being a national media darling and fantasy presidential contender to a forlorn, scandal-plagued figure, walking the executive grounds enrobed in a blanket. Before the pandemic, most politically engaged New Yorkers knew Cuomo as a bully and a tyrant—traits despised by some and quietly admired by others. But in the depths of the Covid-19 crisis, when New Yorkers were dying by the thousands, their bodies consigned to freezer trucks in temporary morgues, media outlets crowned him the country’s no-nonsense hero. His younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, declared on the air what many Democrats had come to believe at the time: that Andrew Cuomo was “the best politician in the country.”
Since achieving unforeseen heights, Cuomo has squandered these accolades in a matter of months. He has been credibly accused of exacerbating the pandemic’s toll, threatening his colleagues, and sexually harassing women. To add to his woes, the FBI has opened an investigation into the undercounting of nursing home deaths during the pandemic. Federal prosecutors, the state attorney general, and the New York State Assembly have opened additional investigations, ranging from sexual harassment allegations to whether his “vaccine czar” linked support for the governor to access to the vaccine and whether Cuomo used state resources to write and promote his most recent memoir, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic. A man considered a national savior by many less than a year ago, Andrew Cuomo is now hanging on to his political career by his fingernails.
In The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York, the journalist Ross Barkan, who has been covering Cuomo for years, examines his stunning rise and precipitous descent. The title and cover are a nod to Machiavelli’s classic: For Barkan, Cuomo is not unlike the prince Machiavelli addressed in his 16th-century work. “Cuomo’s ascent, like any true prince’s, could not have been possible without his father,” he writes. “Cuomo long ago learned that to govern, it is often better to be feared than loved.” Yet, as Barkan shows, it was precisely this hubris and sense of invulnerability that led to his recent unraveling. Over the years, Cuomo has obsessively cultivated an image as a pragmatic progressive who gets things done. Barkan demonstrates that the governor, never a committed ideologue, has been far more pragmatic about building his brand than executing a progressive agenda.
Apart from his current office, Andrew Cuomo is best known as the eldest son of Mario Cuomo, New York’s beloved 52nd governor. Born and raised in Queens, the elder Cuomo was the son of Italian immigrants who ran a neighborhood grocery store. His modest background cemented his commitment to the New Deal liberalism that had helped families like his survive and flourish. Starting out his career as a promising young lawyer who first became known representing Queens homeowners in a dispute with the city, he eventually served three terms as the state’s Democratic governor, from 1983 to 1994. Mario Cuomo rose to national prominence as one of the last defenders of the government programs for poor and working-class people that had once been central to the Democratic Party. In 1984, he excoriated the greed and callousness of the Reagan years in an acclaimed speech at the Democratic National Convention. But though he flirted with the prospect of running for president, he dithered too long and missed his moment, ceding 1988 to the hapless Michael Dukakis and 1992 to Bill Clinton, the fresh new face of a Democratic Party that was turning its back on the New Deal.
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Andrew Cuomo, then in his 20s, served as his father’s aide and campaign manager in those years and watched with frustration as Mario, hampered both by temperament and ideology, sidestepped his chances to rise even higher. The experience sharpened the younger Cuomo’s political instincts and appetite for power. Briefly leaving politics in 1984, he became an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and, later, a partner in a powerful law firm that represented developers like Donald Trump. (His father had once worked for a law firm that represented Trump’s father, Fred.) In 1988, already weary of the law, Cuomo left his firm to run a housing nonprofit he’d founded—a move widely seen as a launchpad for his own political career—and was appointed to lead New York City’s Commission on the Homeless in 1991, before joining the Clinton administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) two years later. In 1996, he was promoted to head the department, where he remained until 2001.
In his time as HUD secretary, Cuomo did not reveal any ambitions to rein in financial institutions. As The New York Times reported in 2010, he ignored those who lobbied him to make federally backed home mortgage companies publicly report the details of the loans they were buying, and he failed to penalize large public banks to discourage risky lending. Mortgage brokers and bankers successfully pressured him to drop his initial opposition to the broker payments known as yield spread premiums, which drove the subprime mortgage crisis. He enraged those who insisted the practice was predatory by ruling that such premiums were “not per se illegal.” Although he has since dodged questions about his time at HUD, he did have Howard Glaser, his deputy assistant secretary and general counsel—who later became a mortgage industry consultant—produce and circulate a supposedly exculpatory binder of facts titled “The Myth of Andrew Cuomo and the Subprime Crisis.”
Despite his best efforts, the “myth” of his dubious performance at HUD followed Cuomo back to New York. He ran for governor in 2002 but failed to gain traction; fearing a humiliating loss and under pressure from fellow Democrats, he abruptly withdrew a week before the primary. Temporarily thwarted, he retreated from politics to work in real estate. Then his luck changed. Vowing to clean up Albany—and riding the coattails of New York’s popular new governor, Eliot Spitzer—Cuomo easily became Spitzer’s successor as attorney general in 2006. Two years later, in the wake of Spitzer’s resignation in the midst of a prostitution scandal, Cuomo seized his chance. He and other top Democrats elbowed aside gubernatorial hopeful David Paterson, Spitzer’s lieutenant governor and deeply unpopular replacement. With Paterson out of the way, Cuomo was elected governor in 2010 with nearly two-thirds of the vote, finally winning back his father’s old seat in Albany.
Like his father, Cuomo has often portrayed himself as a humble son of Queens. Unlike his father, he had anything but a humble upbringing or early adulthood. Married to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, from 1990 to 2005, Cuomo has spent most of his adult life in elite circles. Whereas Mario Cuomo rose from the back of a Queens grocery store, Andrew rose by working for his father, the governor of New York, marrying a Kennedy, and working in (and, later, courting donations from) the real estate industry. Where his father was perceived as a New Deal liberal—“one of the left’s last true liberal lions before the party’s Clinton-era swerve toward the center,” per MSNBC’s Aliyah Frumin—Andrew leaned into that swerve, fully imbibing the political ethos of the 1990s, which stressed the virtues of the free market and the evils of government spending and regulation. The era of big government, Clinton famously declared in 1996, was over. Andrew Cuomo did not mourn it.
Though more willing to embrace a practical expediency, the younger Cuomo lacked his father’s charm and ostensible commitment to principle. Whereas Mario was loved as a statesman and orator, Andrew was grudgingly respected for his ruthlessness and bullying. While Mario steadfastly opposed the death penalty at a time when it was politically courageous to do so and declared that his state had “proven that government can be a positive force for good,” Andrew was a brutal arm-twister with little interest in ideology. He backed a $15-an-hour minimum wage only after years of insisting that it was “too high.” He signed a bill legalizing recreational marijuana this year, but had opposed it as recently as 2017 on the same grounds many Republicans do: that it is a “gateway drug.” He tacitly supported the existence of a group of conservative Democratic state legislators who caucused with Republicans, impeding for years progressive legislation like the Reproductive Health Act, for which he later claimed credit. And he has frequently overstated how essential his leadership was in the fight for marriage equality, which a majority of New Yorkers supported before he took office. In the words of the law professor Zephyr Teachout, who challenged him for office from the left in 2014, “Everything he’s done for poor, working-class, and middle-class New Yorkers has been under heavy pressure.”
Even at the height of his popularity, in 2020, when he was the subject of fevered trend pieces dubbing him “America’s Governor,” the “King of New York,” and “Crisis Daddy,” the praise was often tinged with distaste. “Andrew Cuomo Is the Control Freak We Need Right Now,” declared the headline of a New York Times column Ben Smith wrote last March, which went on to cite Cuomo’s “relentlessness” and “bullying” as qualities that “drive New Yorkers crazy” in ordinary times but are soothing in a pandemic. As an accompanying caption enthused, the governor even “put state prisoners to work” making hand sanitizer. (Smith neglected to note that the state paid those prisoners an estimated 65 cents an hour for what activists called slave labor, but he did acknowledge that Cuomo had ruled New York for nearly a decade “without inspiring much love.”) Reporter Rebecca Fishbein, who penned “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo???” for Jezebel three days later, was full of similarly tempered praise. Lauding his “measured bullying,” she also noted that in her years as a reporter, she had developed an “intense and reasonable” dislike of Cuomo, who had “repeatedly hindered attempts to reform the criminal justice system,” manipulated the state legislature “to keep progressive legislation on reproductive health from becoming law,” and “forced out the only useful subway leader the administration’s ever seen.”
Although his inability to inspire genuine warmth has to some extent checked Cuomo’s ambitions, he has compensated with brute force and cold cunning. Unlike his father, Barkan suggests, he seems to have decided it is better to gain the world, regardless of the potential cost to his soul.
Cuomo has often been transparent about these calculations. Shortly before he was elected governor in 2010, he vowed to humble big labor and empower big business. “We’ve seen the same play run for 10 years,” he told The New York Times. “The governor announces the budget, unions come together, put $10 million in a bank account, run television ads against the governor. The governor’s popularity drops; the governor’s knees weaken; the governor falls to one knee, collapses, makes a deal.” His knees, he implied, would never wobble. In the same interview, Cuomo warned of impending “painful but necessary” cuts to Medicaid services like home health care. Early in his gubernatorial tenure, he successfully pushed to limit pensions and freeze state workers’ wages. The New York State Business Council endorsed Cuomo for the third time in 2018, citing his rock-solid commitment to capping property taxes, constraining state spending, and cutting corporate tax rates.
In 2014, after extracting a promise from Cuomo to bring the state Senate under Democratic control and fight for passage of the DREAM Act, a minimum wage hike, public financing of elections, and decriminalization of marijuana, the New York Working Families Party, an alliance of organized labor and progressive nonprofits, agreed to endorse him over Zephyr Teachout. Cuomo, furious with the organization for even considering Teachout, reneged on those promises, and several Cuomo-allied unions, fearing the governor’s wrath, withdrew from the WFP. When the party dared to back progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon over Cuomo in 2018, he engineered a mass exodus of unions from the WFP. It was widely reported that he had threatened to withdraw his support on key union priorities unless they abandoned the party. When the public financing of elections was finally passed as part of the budget process in early 2020, he tied it to a provision that made it harder for small parties like the WFP to keep their ballot lines.
Cuomo may have convinced himself that all of this arm-twisting and horse-trading was necessary to maintain power and to push through the kind of incremental reforms he believes are less politically risky and easier to achieve. But by 2019, after years of throwing his weight around and exacting revenge on enemies real and imagined, he’d seen his approval rating sink to the lowest level of his tenure. After fending off left-wing challenges from Teachout in 2014 and Nixon in 2018, Cuomo was still fairly sanguine about his prospects for a fourth term. His career had taught him that you don’t have to be well-liked to win, but what he arguably wanted even more than another term was to be admired and praised—and when the pandemic came along, the venal, vindictive governor sensed his moment. As Barkan shows, he was able to transform himself into the steady, reassuring presence a terrified and bewildered public craved. He held daily press briefings in which he alternated between reciting statistics and opining about hope, resilience, and family. People watched as if their lives depended on it. Cuomo later won an Emmy for his “masterful use of television,” and some commentators even suggested that the Democrats should run him for president instead of presumptive nominee Joe Biden, primaries be damned. With the presidential election far from settled, Democrats were eager to claim a winner, especially someone that many saw as the perfect foil to Donald Trump.
But Cuomo’s romance with the national press was short-lived. In January 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a report suggesting that his administration had failed to disclose the Covid deaths of thousands of nursing home residents. State health officials confirmed that the deaths were initially undercounted. By February, nine senior state health officials had left the department; Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, had acknowledged to state legislators that his staff deliberately withheld data; and Democratic lawmaker Ron Kim, a Cuomo critic, had said that the governor threatened to “destroy” him.
Then came the allegations of sexual misconduct. In February, former aide Lindsey Boylan described in greater detail the sexual harassment she had first alleged several months earlier. Days later, The New York Times published sexual harassment accusations by another former Cuomo aide. A third woman, Anna Ruch, said Cuomo had touched her without her consent at a private event. A number of other women, including two current aides, have since come forward to describe similar or worse behavior; one said that Cuomo groped her breast in the governor’s mansion. By mid-March, two US senators and 18 US representatives—the vast majority of them Democrats—had called on the governor to resign or be impeached.
Cuomo’s political future depends on the results of various investigations; if they drag on and voters lose interest or are unmoved by the findings, he may be able to weather the storm. Outside of political and media circles, most New Yorkers do not pay much attention to Cuomo, whom they correctly perceive as a tiresome fact of life, the political equivalent of a neighbor’s nuisance cat or herpes. In blue New York, he commands a certain amount of loyalty simply by being a powerful incumbent Democrat with a familiar name. And unlike his father, who hesitated to be where he wasn’t sure he was wanted, Cuomo has vowed that he isn’t going anywhere.
Barkan finds Cuomo’s entrenchment unsurprising. Deftly ferrying readers from the pandemic’s horrific early days to the press briefings that made the governor a star to New York’s stunningly high rates of infection and death, he argues that Cuomo’s actions (or the lack thereof) exacerbated the crisis, leading to as many as tens of thousands of preventable deaths. In April 2020, the state had more coronavirus cases than any single country outside of the US. With the exception of California, more people died of Covid in New York than anywhere else in the nation. That is partly because, as Barkan explains, Cuomo spent the past decade gutting New York’s health care infrastructure: ramming through Medicaid cuts and hiring consultants to shrink or merge unprofitable facilities, leading to hospital closures and reduced capacity in poor neighborhoods—and leaving New York’s most vulnerable residents uniquely defenseless when disaster struck.
Much has been written about Cuomo’s pointless and juvenile vendetta against Bill de Blasio, New York City’s oft-scorned mayor, but Barkan is especially eloquent on the subject of what Cuomo’s need to assert dominance has cost New Yorkers. More than a dozen public officials, including state Attorney General James, reportedly held a conference call last March to determine how to induce Cuomo to shut down the city without appearing to defer to de Blasio, who had proposed it first. “Taking action shortly after de Blasio’s own declaration would have meant following a lower-ranked, less prestigious official in a time of crisis, and that was unforgivable in Cuomo’s orbit,” Barkan writes. “Better the virus keep spreading than Cuomo, fully in command, appear weak.”
Barkan compares Cuomo often and convincingly to Robert Moses, the power-hungry urban planner, noting Cuomo’s own autocratic tendencies and desire for control, particularly over his portrayal in the press. He also compares Cuomo to his supposed nemesis, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Cuomo at first dismissively likened the coronavirus to the flu, cautioned against US dependence on China, and sought to shield nursing homes from liability for failing to protect residents and staff. Like Trump, he faces multiple credible sexual harassment allegations and has been accused of exploiting public resources for personal profit.
As grotesque as Barkan finds the former lionization of his subject, he is careful not to sneer at the everyday New Yorkers who found comfort in the governor’s stern demeanor. Compared with Trump, Barkan writes, Cuomo seemed “like a father huddling his brood in the London Tube during the Blitz.” Barkan reserves his scorn for Cuomo himself, his staff, and those members of the press who should have known better—or did, but willfully ignored facts that contradicted their made-for-TV narratives about Cuomo’s purported heroism. Describing the media’s pivot from Trump coverage to Cuomo scandals, Barkan writes: “Trump had left the stage, his rantings confined to occasional Fox News appearances. The major media companies needed new scandals to occupy their viewers…. They lacked the self-awareness to interrogate what exactly they were doing—daily excoriating a man they had once portrayed as an American hero—but they were, at least, acting as accountable journalists, a role they had abdicated a year earlier.”
The Prince is a swift and devastating read. Barkan writes fluently, marshals facts persuasively, and foregrounds the power-obsessed Cuomo’s contempt for the powerless: poor people, incarcerated people, those without the means to write a check or advance a career. He quotes the bereft children of otherwise healthy people who died after contracting Covid in New York nursing homes and a mother whose son contracted the virus in an upstate prison. The book could have benefited from even more of these voices.
As a work of political biography, Barkan’s book is a damning portrait of a man so obsessed with his image that, according to Vanity Fair, he asked journalists how proposing to his ex-wife would “play.” As a work of social criticism, invested in examining how Cuomo’s tenure has affected life and politics in New York, it is informed by its author’s years of careful reporting on these subjects. Cuomo’s admirers may simply dismiss journalists like Barkan, and the governor’s many scandals, as politically motivated distractions. As Trump proved, once Americans are hooked on a TV star, some stay fans for life. And Cuomo’s greatest gift is his ability to cast himself—at times plausibly—as the hero of the story. But The Prince also makes it clear that the arrogance and bullying that served him for so long may ultimately cost Cuomo more than he gained. “I speak truth to power,” he declared last year, defending his Trumpian castigation of health and news organizations for supposedly failing to sound the alarm about Covid. “And while it may make the powerful uncomfortable,” he added, “the American people deserve the truth.” In Cuomo’s telling, everything that goes well is thanks to his efforts and everything that goes badly is somebody else’s fault. As a case study in the Machiavellian manipulation of public perception, The Prince is well worth reading—a fitting antidote to Cuomo’s wildly self-serving memoir.
When it was announced in 1984 that Andrew Cuomo would be leaving his father’s office for the Manhattan DA’s, Mario characterized his relationship with his eldest son as irreplaceable. “He was able to communicate to me and for me in a very special way,” he said, adding that his son had the kind of credibility with him that was “impossible to earn”: “He’s my blood.” It was an oddly blunt and unselfconscious endorsement of nepotism, and as Barkan’s book amply shows, it hasn’t benefited ordinary people. No one should mistake Andrew Cuomo’s pedigree for his father’s stated principles.