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The Myth of Andrew Cuomo the Competent, Steady Statesman Is Finally Being Punctured

For the better part of a year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has basked in an absurdly undeserved, media-driven reputation as a wise and competent COVID-19 statesman. Now reality is finally catching up with him.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during his daily news conference amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Bennett Raglin / Getty Images)

Andrew Cuomo might be America’s most famous governor. Once the recipient of fawning press coverage from cable news networks, national magazines, and plenty of local outlets, he is the sort of self-aggrandizer who had the gall to publish a memoir about combating the pandemic during the pandemic. Almost a year ago, he rose to tremendous heights as tens of thousands of people died of coronavirus in his own state, his inept response winning plaudits because he managed to string together a few more coherent sentences than Donald Trump.

Now Trump is gone and Cuomo is alone, deprived of his favorite foil. Though his poll numbers have yet to significantly decline, the prestige media that spent so long propping him up has now turned. Even if Cuomo never sinks low enough to lose reelection next year — given his enormous war chest and New York’s horrific campaign finance laws, it’s still an unlikely scenario — he will never again be the governor feted by Ellen and celebrated by self-described “Cuomosexuals.” He’s not getting another Emmy. His moment is over.

What happened? In some sense, this has been slow-building. For months, more and more people have been waking up to the fact that the popular, media-created conception of Cuomo was nonsensical. More than 45,000 people have died of COVID-19 in New York State, the second highest absolute death toll in America, just trailing California. (California is more than twice as large, so New York maintains a far higher rate of death.) Cuomo, like Trump, downplayed the pandemic in its earliest days and issued a shutdown order for New York far too late, defying the opinions of experts and other elected officials.

It was the nursing home issue, however, and the subsequently botched vaccine rollout that began to trigger a much-deserved reevaluation of his legacy, which is one of arrogance, secrecy, and failure. Last March, Cuomo ordered nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients who had been discharged from hospitals instead of directing them to large temporary facilities that had a surplus of beds. This decision likely contributed to outbreaks in nursing homes, which the state oversees.

Unlike most other states in America, if not all of them, Cuomo’s New York decided to keep a highly skewed count of nursing home deaths, only tallying those who died while physically in facilities. If you were a nursing home resident who got infected in a home, became sick there, and were transferred to a hospital dying, you were not a part of the official Department of Health tally.

Confirming the suspicions of health care experts and many journalists, the state attorney general revealed in a January report that the Department of Health had undercounted nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent. Shortly after, Cuomo was forced to revise the tally far higher, increasing it by more than 60 percent.

Last week, it was revealed that the Cuomo administration had purposefully withheld nursing home data from lawmakers for months out of fear the Department of Justice, under Donald Trump, would investigate. Several legislators have contemplated calling for Cuomo’s impeachment. In a rage, Cuomo called up a leftist assembly member from Queens, Ron Kim, and threatened to “destroy” his career.

This is just the news that has grabbed the most headlines. Cuomo is a Clintonian Democrat with a lust for austerity, and he has been quietly slashing and burning New York’s social safety net since the pandemic arrived last year. The City University of New York, which educates a largely working-class and nonwhite student body, has faced severe budget cuts, as have local public schools and social services.

Legislators have called for significant tax increases on the wealthy to offset these cuts. Cuomo spent most of 2020 dismissing the idea and has yet to act on it in 2021. An ally of the real estate developers and financiers who have dominated state politics for decades, Cuomo has refused to bail out the tenants facing eviction in just a few months.

Cuomo’s portrayal as a coronavirus hero was so at odds with reality that in future years it may well be chalked up to pandemic-induced derangement. It was a time when confused liberal pundits hunted for anyone not named Donald Trump to venerate. In one of the darkest moments this country has ever faced, a destructive myth was created. Tragically, the consequences could linger, and New Yorkers are all the worse for it.