Andrew Cuomo's Last Act
The ex-governor and his cronies have already begun the campaign to blame his downfall on the ambitions of a treacherous woman
Andrew Cuomo is, incredibly, no longer governor of New York. For the next few years, the state's political class will be fixated on two questions: What will he do next, and who will win the next election for the seat, in 2022?
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The questions are, obviously, related. Probably up until the night before state Attorney General Letitia James released her office’s report into his misconduct, it seemed inevitable that Cuomo would run for a fourth term, and he even remained likely to win the Democratic nomination without much trouble. He didn't just have the loyalty of Democratic primary voters (though he had that); he had a demonstrated ability to scare everyone else out of challenging him. His inevitability was sustained by a state Democratic party that refused to challenge it, no matter how much they despised the man.
That's probably why he assumed James would, as everyone else has before her, pull her punches in her office's investigation—for the same reasons that Rep. Kathleen Rice, currently giving interviews about how Cuomo stymied and co-opted the anti-corruption commission she co-chaired in his first term, also endorsed him in his campaign for a third term.
Once it became apparent to the office of the executive that James was not going to carry out, or sign off on, one of their controlled pseudo-investigations, they panicked (making "dark jokes about going to jail," as New York's Justin Miller and Laura Nahmias reported) and also dutifully began doing their one move in the face of any perceived threat to the governor's image: They launched what the British press calls a briefing war against James.
James, the governor's aides began telling reporters, could not be trusted to carry out an independent investigation because she herself had political ambitions. Many of the Cuomo team's arguments only really made sense if you'd spent enough time in his inner circle that you too came to adopt his paranoid vision of politics as consisting mainly of personal displays of power and dominance detached from outside considerations like "ethics laws." As attorney general, he'd politicized investigations into governors to advance his own political career. To Cuomo, it was evidence of a conflict of interest for James to hire Joon Kim, an attorney who'd previously investigated the governor's office for corruption—and then won a conviction against Cuomo's top aide, because of all the corruption he uncovered. In Cuomo world, the existence of that investigation is proof of bias, and the fact that Cuomo didn't also go down with his aide simply means the attorney doesn't deserve another shot at him.
The more persuasive claim, and the one Cuomo's camp is leaning on most heavily, is that James herself wants to be governor. This seems to be true. (Al Sharpton told the New York Post recently that associates of James, along with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and some even less notable figures, have already reached out to take his temperature on their chances at winning the nomination.) And it is also true that Cuomo no longer being governor is good news for anyone else who wants to be the governor. Removing Cuomo from office was practically necessary for someone else even to be willing to mount a serious campaign. Cuomo was undefeated in the field, after all, until his hand-picked attorney general stabbed him in the back.
But that explanation also contains its own contradiction. The notion that James would decapitate Cuomo entirely because she wants to be governor—that this was a politically motivated plan to remove a guy she wasn't willing to run against in a primary—has one serious flaw: The extant political history of women who are blamed for "taking out" white male Democratic politicians with huge and fervent fandoms, made up of people who enjoy seeing their favorite guys on TV. Kirsten Gillibrand, you may have noticed, was not the Democratic nominee for president (or vice president) in 2020.
If you want to be the governor, you needed Cuomo gone. But the reason no one actually did the thing is that you also didn't necessarily want to be the person who defenestrated him. Cuomo and his pet snakes are not just banking on a "natural" backlash. They're going out of their way to Gillibrand James.
James will probably not be caught unprepared for the campaign against her. Her office’s account of Lindsey Boylan's treatment by Cuomo and his office prefigures it, and points to the incoherence of the attack on her motivations. “Going public” with her accusations did not jump-start Boylan's political campaign and propel her to victory; it made her a victim of targeted retaliation by the office of the very popular Democratic governor, which even enlisted allies outside government to smear her to as many reporters as possible.
Making an enemy of the popular Democratic governor did not, it turns out, help a candidate win a Democratic primary in Manhattan. Despite the mountain of “earned media” Boylan received for publicly accusing Cuomo of misconduct, she won 10 percent of the first vote in her campaign for Manhattan borough president and was eliminated well before the final round of the ranked-choice count.
With the knowledge that they have basically nothing left to lose, Cuomo and diehards are no longer bother to try to launder their attacks through friendly reporters. As I was drafting this, the most egregious and high-profile example of Cuomo world's smear campaign was top aide Rich Azzopardi's brazen Daily News op-ed accusing James of railroading the governor for the sake of her own ambition. Then, on Monday, Cuomo himself, in his resignation speech, described himself as a victim of political assassination, the target of a "political firecracker" tossed by an ambitious politician in cynical league with the biased local press. The line is not very convincing to anyone not already on Cuomo's side. It's a bet, though, that a lot of people still are on his side.
As to whether or not an overt smear campaign against James will work, it depends on what the point of it is. Certainly, if Cuomo wanted to be governor again, this would be one way of laying the groundwork for a comeback campaign. While most New Yorkers wanted Cuomo to go, either through impeachment, resignation, or simply not running for reelection, his numbers among self-declared Democrats remained depressingly strong almost to the end.1 But the same polls showing that only a slim majority of Democrats wanted him to step aside also showed that hardly any of them wanted him to run for another term. Melissa deRosa, who was allowed to publicly “resign” to salvage her reputation but who then just continued to do her regular job for Andrew Cuomo, has now said that her boss is finished in electoral politics.
Thought maybe that’s just what they want you to think, right? A ploy, before the big comeback? It's probably past time to stop thinking of Cuomo as the Machiavelli of Albany, and start considering him someone so used to getting away with everything that he really didn’t know how to act when that suddenly stopped being true. What could once have been painted as skilled political knife-fighting, or whatever strange term the Times used to use to euphemize his paranoid belligerence, might now just be pure lashing out from a guy who doesn't know what to do when he's beat. While I think Andrew Cuomo believes he could be governor again, and he'll go to his grave with that belief, I no longer think he'll actually test it out.
The only strategy now, in other words, is to take Letitia James down with him. As to whether that will work, it's legitimately hard to say. Kirsten Gillibrand may not be president, but she'll likely remain a senator as long as she wants to be one. But Al Franken, certain power-abusing habits aside, is not Andrew Cuomo. Imagine if, instead of lying low for years before eventually starting a podcast to entertain his remaining Boomer liberal fans, Franken had his flacks and lawyers—some still on the Senate payroll—openly attack the credibility of Gillibrand along with the character and motivations of the women he was accused of groping. Imagine if he alluded to Gillibrand's perfidy in his farewell speech in addition to merely reiterating his own innocence. That's what Cuomo chose to do, and the rest is up to the cable news–addled Democrats who make up his rump of support. His loyalists and goons, and the man himself, will openly cultivate those dead-enders to hate Letitia James, in order to strangle the career of the woman who took out Andrew Cuomo.
If you want a window into what James will have to overcome if she does run for governor, go take a look at Rich Azzopardi’s replies sometime. Twitter may not be “real life,” but for many loyal Democratic primary voters, cable news, which loved Andrew Cuomo most of all, is.
There is some irony in Cuomo—a politician who regularly lectured other Democrats on the right way to win the suburban and rural white vote—finally ending his tenure clinging to the strong support of a hyper-partisan base as basically every independent and Republican in the state couldn't wait for him to go away. Some polling in May suggested James would outperform Cuomo in a general election against a generic Republican, not because she had more overall support, but seemingly because just the thought of Cuomo on the ballot juiced support for the generic Republican. The man has not been able to admit it, but the electoral case for Cuomoism in New York truly died with the IDC.