I wrote here about the developing situation with Andrew Cuomo, our governor here in New York State, where I live in Broome County, far from both New York City and Albany, our capital. In the week and half since I wrote, things have become increasingly contentious, both on the reporting of nursing home death issue and the sexual harassment/bullying issue.
The nursing home death reporting issue parameters are largely unchanged. The administration reported deaths where they happened, whether in a hospital, nursing home, or elsewhere, such as a private residence. Some people wanted to know how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come to the hospital from nursing homes; they wanted the term “nursing home deaths” to refer to people who had likely contracted the virus in a nursing home, regardless of where they died. The newest wrinkle in this is that it appears some of the governor’s top aides edited a report over the summer in such a way as to not reveal how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come from nursing homes at a time when the governor was writing a book on his leadership during the pandemic.
In reaction to all this, the legislature has rescinded the broad authority to take executive action that it had granted to the governor last spring. This is their right to do, of course, but I would feel better if they committed to staying in session past June. Getting things through the New York State legislature is often a long, drawn-out affair and there are times with the pandemic when things change quickly and new policies need to be enacted as expeditiously as possible. The governor can continue to extend existing executive orders.
I am grateful that the existing orders can still stand because, by and large, they have worked well in keeping as many New Yorkers safe as practicable. While the initial outbreak in New York was horrible, the policies the governor enacted in conjunction with public health, medical, scientific, and legal experts were adopted by the public and brought the infection rate down well below the national average. Although there have been spikes, for example over the holiday season when many people travelled and gathered in groups against the state and public health recommendations, New York has not suffered the fate of other states that didn’t implement mask mandates, distancing requirements, gathering size restrictions, etc. or that lifted restrictions too quickly. By being thoughtful and incremental in re-opening and by gathering, analyzing, and adjusting in response to data, most New York businesses and schools are open and are expanding hours as our vaccination rates go up and infection rates go down. New York needs to continue on its science- and data-driven path to keep from suffering the spikes we have seen in other states that were less thoughtful in their plans. Governor Cuomo made mistakes during the past year, but he took responsibility for them and changed policies to correct problems. His leadership mattered and I will always be grateful for what he did because he helped as many New Yorkers as he could to survive a devastating year.
I think New Yorkers need to remember that Governor Cuomo is also a regional and national leader. He spearheaded an effort in the Northeast for states to cooperate on policies and on procuring supplies after the prior federal administration decided not to have a national strategy. In 2020, he was vice chair of the National Governors Association; in 2021, he is chair. This gives him even more opportunity to advocate for policies to help everyone in the US in these trying times. In a few days, it is likely that federal aid to state and local governments will finally be enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan, an initiative that Cuomo has been championing since last spring.
I admit that I am somewhat perplexed that people are surprised by Cuomo’s personal behavior. Any casual observer of New York politics or regular viewer of his pandemic press conferences has seen him being combative and displaying his sense of humor, which ranges from dry to caustic. His sense of what is appropriate to say in public is – um, let’s say – less circumspect than one would expect. He seems especially unable to understand younger people’s sensibilities. For example, when his three 20-something-year-old daughters and one of their boyfriends were living with him last year, he said any number of embarrassing things regarding them. I don’t think he really understands current mores on what is appropriate to say or do in work settings, which is why I think his apologies following the young women’s stories of feeling uncomfortable with his behavior are credible. He is as clueless as Joe Biden who faced criticism for touching and whispering in the ears of women while on the campaign trail or George W. Bush who tried to give German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder rub.
I think that the independent investigation that is ongoing is very important to gather evidence on stories of sexual harassment and hostile work environment. If there is evidence of impeachable acts by the governor, then that should take place. Unlike a corporate executive, the governor is elected by voters, not a board of directors, so there is no relevant authority to fire him or force him to resign. While some state legislators have gone on record calling on Gov. Cuomo to resign because these investigations are a distraction, the governor is carrying on with his duties, adjusting the pandemic policies as conditions warrant and getting ready for budget negotiations with the legislature. Unlike most states, New York’s budget is supposed to be passed by April first, so, once the American Rescue Plan is signed into law, there will be a short window in which to finalize and pass the state budget. Although Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul has been involved in the pandemic response, especially in her home region of western New York, it would be much more disruptive to the state budget process to have Gov. Cuomo step down at this time.
While I admire Governor Cuomo’s leadership through the pandemic, I do not admire him as a person. I find him to be arrogant, overbearing, and a boor. Unlike his father, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, who was principled and articulate, Andrew has always been a bare-knuckles brawler and bully as a politician. Despite being a Democrat, during his early years as governor, he governed more like what used to be a moderate Republican. He and then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were willing to inflict the health and environmental consequences of fracking on our area, as long as the watershed for New York City water supplies was kept free of drilling. (The eventual fracking ban in New York was thanks to Dr. Zucker of the Health Department and later passed into law once the Democrats had the majority of both houses of the legislature.) It wasn’t until it was clear that the national electorate was becoming more progressive and the Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature that Governor Cuomo started to govern and talk like a Democrat.
Because past Republican candidates for governor have been unqualified and put forward ideas which I oppose and because I didn’t like or trust Andrew Cuomo, I have been voting for the Green Party candidate for governor, whose platform aligns most closely with my own. Granted, in heavily Democratic New York, it was unlikely that my choice to vote third-party would have any real bearing on the outcome of the elections, but I wanted to make clear here that my admiration of the governor’s handling of the pandemic was not a reflection of my being a fan of him personally. Likewise, my observations of his personality and behavior are not coming from a place of partisanship.
At this point, my main motivation is pragmatism. The next couple of months are critical in the course of the pandemic. As national health experts and the Biden administration are pointing out repeatedly, we need to be cautious in ending pandemic protection measures until we have a much higher level of protection among the general public. Texas and a number of states have, as they did in previous waves, lifted restrictions too soon. Governor Cuomo will continue to follow the science to keep us from having a large spike in cases. He is also setting up vaccine sites among underserved populations, trying to address the health and social inequities that caused people of color and those with low income to be hit hardest by the pandemic. I don’t think the New York State legislature is nimble enough to address these issues and I’m not sure if Cuomo’s prior executive actions would stay in force if Lt. Gov. Hochul were to become governor.
Also, the budget negotiations will be very difficult. In New York, for a number of complicated historical reasons, the budget gets hammered out largely by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the majority leader of the Senate. The budget also includes a lot of non-budgetary legislation; one hot topic in the last several fiscal years has been the legalization of recreational marijuana. I don’t think it would be fair to expect Hochul to be thrown into the midst of that process with the deadline coming up in three weeks.
I have often written about how the stress of our governmental function adds to my personal stressors. After the November election, I had hoped that, by this time, the governmental stress might have eased more than it actually has. With the aftermath of the insurrection and the state of the Republican party on the national level and the upheavals with Governor Cuomo, my hopes were not fully realized.
But, hey, what’s life without stress?
I’ll never know.