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Andrew Cuomo’s Legacy: Normalizing Corruption and Lawlessness

Andrew Cuomo is leaving. But his likely escape from prosecution and impeachment is a blatant demonstration of what kinds of crimes politicians can get away with in America.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo at a press conference on May 10, 2021. (Mary Altaffer-Pool / Getty Images)

The amazing thing about Andrew Cuomo’s announcement this week that he is stepping down as governor of New York is not that he left office, it is that it took this long for him to resign. And among the most troubling parts of the interminable saga is how many crimes he and New York politicians normalized in the process — because so many of these officials were complicit, too.

Cuomo resigned in the wake of attorney general Tish James’s report detailing his sexual crimes. But here’s the truth that’s hard to say aloud: if the New York governor had not been a sex pest, he likely would have gotten away with hiding thousands of people’s deaths in nursing homes and shielding his health care industry donors from any liability — all while profiting off a $5 million book deal and being venerated by liberals and corporate media outlets as a shining star.

In fact, unless things suddenly change, he will get away with those crimes. With US attorneys so far declining to prosecute Cuomo on those matters — and with New York’s legislature refusing to begin impeachment proceedings on those issues — the federal and state political systems made sure these crimes weren’t considered transgressions at all. Same goes for many New York Democratic voters — a new poll shows that even now, a plurality of them say they approve of the way Cuomo has done his job.

To be sure, Democratic assembly member Ron Kim’s nursing home crusade, and his allegations that Cuomo tried to bully him into silence, created a singular political earthquake that shook the New York political system and media into finally scrutinizing the gubernatorial monster that had long been rampaging through Albany. But the refusal to prosecute or impeach Cuomo over that epic scandal has further normalized that kind of corruption.

Indeed, presiding over a massacre of elderly people and shielding the perpetrators, all to ingratiate oneself with political financiers, is now just regular politics. That’s now what politicians are allowed — and even expected — to do, everywhere. While President Biden’s former top aide lobbies the White House on behalf of the nursing home industry, the Biden Justice Department recently said it will not open an investigation into nursing home negligence and COVID-related deaths in New York and other states. Case closed.

The nursing home massacre is just one of many examples of Cuomo’s lawlessness that should have elicited a law enforcement response — but didn’t. The Albany Times Union details eight other scandals that Cuomo presided over. And those don’t include other corrupt dealings, like giving his book publisher special tax breaks and funneling bond deals to his donors.

On Tuesday, the New Yorker reported that Cuomo tried to strong-arm the Obama White House in 2014 to get the Justice Department to stop probing his decision to shut down an anti-corruption panel. Obama officials said nothing publicly about this for years, and decided only to speak their peace when Cuomo was unpopular and disempowered so they would be safe from any blowback from MSNBC watchers and #TeamBlue enforcers.

Up until the last few months, media outlets, Democratic politicians, and Democratic voters averted their eyes from Cuomo’s crime spree, instead seeing him as an idol to be worshiped, endorsed, and supported as the great “Cuomosexual” future of the party.

In light of his rampage, Cuomo leaving office only because of his grotesque sexual aggressions is not enough. Not even close. It’s a good thing and the downfall is well deserved — especially when sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are so pervasive and perpetrators are rarely punished. But the Cuomo misdeeds that remain unpunished also send a message about what we continue to tolerate — and that tolerance isn’t passive or accidental. It is deliberate.

Punishing Cuomo for his corrupt dealings with nursing home and health care donors would scandalize similarly corrupt ties between these corporate interests and other politicians. For example: The health care lobby group that donated to Cuomo and drafted his nursing home immunity bill also funneled large sums of cash to New York Democratic legislators who passed that bill. And once that immunity bill was signed into law, Republican politicians then copied and pasted the language into their own state and federal bills, while raking in cash from health care interests.

Prosecuting or impeaching a governor over such corruption could threaten this entire system of legalized bribery, which politicians of both parties benefit from. And so even as brave Democratic legislators such as Kim and state senator Alessandra Biaggi tried to blow the whistle, that system effectively granted Cuomo the same immunity he gave to his nursing home industry donors while thousands of elderly people perished. Impeachment and resignation only entered the discourse in response to his grotesque interpersonal behavior — in part because that could be portrayed as merely a problem of one bad apple in the barrel.

The trouble is, we also have a barrel problem.

We live in an era of politicians screaming “law and order” while they champion corporate immunity, authorize ethics waivers, and oversee law enforcement machines that have reduced prosecutions of political corruption and white-collar crime.

This is a bipartisan affair — at the federal level, there’s a continuous theme from George W. Bush loading up his administration with corporate cronies, to Barack Obama refusing to prosecute a single banker involved in the financial crisis, to Donald Trump’s lawless rampage through Washington. On the I-95 corridor, it’s been the same bipartisan phenomenon in miniature — corruption scandals in New York, New JerseyConnecticut, and Massachusetts are the blue and red corners of the same quilt of corruption.

This quilt is now over our head, suffocating our country — and Cuomo’s departure leaves its links intact. It’s great that Cuomo is leaving, but make no mistake: his legacy of lawlessness lives on, arguably stronger than ever — and it will continue to do so until voters start demanding something different.