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In Barely A Year, Gov. Cuomo Went From A Pandemic Hero To A Political Pariah

Aug 11, 2021
Originally published on August 11, 2021 10:18 am

In the space of just over a year, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo went from a pandemic "hero," watched daily by millions of people, to a flattened politician under intense pressure to step down after 11 women came forward to accuse him of unwelcome touching and inappropriate comments.

The Democrat tried to hang on amid an intensifying scandal until N.Y. Attorney General Letitia James released an exhaustive report detailing the allegations of sexual harassment.

James' investigation brought down the governor less than a year after he won an Emmy Award for his famous coronavirus briefings — an anchor for many people locked down in their homes in the spring of 2020. His prominence in politics, though, began decades before that.

A political scion

Cuomo was born into politics, the son of the late liberal icon Mario Cuomo, who was elected governor of New York for three terms in the 1980s and 1990s.

Andrew Cuomo ran his father's successful first campaign for governor, also serving as the "hatchet man" and earning the nickname "the prince of darkness."

Cuomo went on to become the secretary of housing and urban development under President Bill Clinton.

In 1990, he married Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and the couple had three daughters. In 2003, he and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo separated. Their messy divorce attracted tabloid headlines.

In 2002, with his father long out of office, Cuomo launched a primary challenge for governor, but his timing was off. He ran against the Democratic favorite, State Comptroller Carl McCall, who hoped to become the state's first Black major-party nominee for governor. Cuomo, trailing badly in the polls, dropped out of the race days before the primary.

But he launched a comeback. After Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a scandal that involved patronizing prostitutes, the path was clear for Cuomo to win the job in 2010.

Accomplishments and condemnation

As governor, Cuomo became known for his hard-charging, sometimes bullying, management style. At first, many in the political world were willing to live with an unrelenting leader if it meant an end to years of dysfunction and chronically late state budgets.

Cuomo enacted same-sex marriage laws in 2011, putting New York at the forefront of the issue. He banned hydrofracking, enacted a $15 minimum wage and put in a property tax cap.

Eventually, though, his tactics earned him enemies, even within his party. By the time his fortunes began to turn, Cuomo found himself with few defenders.

In January, Letitia James' office found that Cuomo had undercounted COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by 50% and suppressed those numbers for months.

Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, who lost his uncle to the coronavirus in a nursing home, was the first to publicly rebel against Cuomo's blunt tactics. Kim told several media outlets, including ABC's The View, that Cuomo threatened to "destroy" him if Kim did not stop his criticisms of the state's nursing home policies.

"Cuomo is an abuser," Kim said on the show. "He has abused his powers. And abusers are cowards."

Cuomo has denied he threatened Kim and has, in turn, accused the legislator of corruption.

Then came the accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women and the last straw — James' damaging report. That's when Cuomo found himself facing major troubles, alone and out of political options.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Just over a year ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's departure from office was unthinkable. In his resignation speech, he talked about being caught up in generational and cultural shifts.

Karen DeWitt of New York Public Radio looks back at Cuomo's career and the controversies leading up to his resignation.

KAREN DEWITT, BYLINE: In the spring of 2020, Andrew Cuomo was having a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Good morning - good to see you all here in masks.

DEWITT: The governor's daily coronavirus briefings when New York was the epicenter for the disease were a mix of science and facts, dad-style humor and anecdotes about his family. The events were an anchor to people locked down in their homes under pandemic rules as the virus expanded at a terrifying rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: One of the forecasters said to me, we were looking at a freight train coming across the country. We're now looking at a bullet train because the numbers are going up that quickly.

DEWITT: His broadcasts won him an Emmy. Cuomo was born to politics. He's the son of the late liberal icon Mario Cuomo, who was governor of New York for three terms in the 1980s and '90s. Andrew ran his father's successful first campaign for governor, serving also as his father's hatchet man. Those who found his manner too abrasive nicknamed him the Prince of Darkness.

Cuomo went on to become HUD secretary under President Bill Clinton. He married into the legendary Kennedy family, wedding Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert Kennedy. The couple have three daughters. In 2002, Cuomo launched a primary challenge for governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: I'm Andrew Cuomo. My opponent's campaign began...

DEWITT: But his timing was off. Cuomo, trailing badly in the polls, dropped out of the race days before the primary election. A year later, he and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo separated. Their messy public divorce attracted tabloid headlines. Most believed Andrew Cuomo's political career was over.

But he launched a comeback. And after Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in a scandal that involved patronizing prostitutes, the path was clear for Cuomo to take the seat in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: I, Andrew M. Cuomo...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do solemnly swear...

CUOMO: ...Do solemnly swear.

DEWITT: Cuomo was known for his hard-charging and even bullying management style. Many in the political world were at first willing to live with an iron-fisted ruler if it meant an end to years of dysfunction and chronically late state budgets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUOMO: You really don't want to do it - good. Well, then I'll send you a bill. It'll be an extended bill. You don't want to do it. Don't pass it. Shut down the government, and then let's take the case to the people.

DEWITT: The budget got done. Cuomo also enacted same-sex marriage laws in 2011, making New York the first large state to do so. He banned hydrofracking, enacted a $15 minimum wage and a property tax cap. But his tactics earned him enemies, even within his own party. So when his fortunes began to turn, Cuomo found himself with few defenders.

The state's attorney general's office found that Cuomo had undercounted COVID deaths at nursing homes by 50% and had suppressed those numbers for months. The matter's now the subject of a federal investigation. Assemblyman Ron Kim, who lost his uncle to COVID in a nursing home, was the first to publicly rebel against Cuomo's blunt tactics. Kim told several media outlets, including ABC's "The View," that Cuomo, in a phone call, threatened to destroy him if Kim did not stop his criticisms of the state's nursing home policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON KIM: Cuomo is an abuser. He has abused his powers. And abusers are cowards.

DEWITT: Cuomo denied that he said that, then accused Kim of corruption. And then came the accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women and the attorney general's devastating report. In the space of just over a year, Cuomo, who had been a pandemic hero, watched every day by millions, found himself facing major troubles and increasingly alone.

For NPR News, I'm Karen DeWitt in Albany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.