Have you ever seen a house of cards fall? Often a seemingly beautiful facade can have serious structural flaws. All it takes is a breeze, a card put out of place, or a bad deck to begin with and the whole structure comes crashing down. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has gone from being the Emmy Award-winning darling of daytime TV and self-appointed calmer of the masses, to now facing a career-jeopardizing litany of scandals including covering up COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and a series of sexual harassment allegations. Tried and true Democratic rivals such as Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as socialists in the New York State Legislature called for his resignation first, but now, even close confidants like Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Leticia James have joined those calls. Figureheads of the Democratic Party, including Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden, are also calling for an investigation into the charges and for Cuomo’s resignation if the allegations are confirmed. The NY State Assembly is issuing a probe into a potential impeachment, and if the assembly follows through, this would be the first time a New York governor has been impeached since 1913.
What the Facade Protected
Cuomo was first elected in 2011 in the wake of the scandal that engulfed former governor Elliot Spitzer. Cuomo was seen as a stable pro-business politician with a family legacy to back it up. He built alliances with the tops of New York’s labor unions while also making deals with Wall Street and corporate America. He relentlessly sought to privatize public education, pushing to expand charter schools and high stakes testing. He was extremely close to the state Republican leadership actively helping them to maintain control of the State Senate as a counterweight to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
On the one hand, Cuomo was capable of populist moves like his support for a $15/hr minimum wage after a series of victories by workers in SeaTac and Seattle. On the other, in the face of rising COVID hospitalizations, Cuomo forced over $1 billion in Medicaid cuts. While he projected a certain strength publicly, he used his leverage to force through cuts, block tax hikes on the rich, and block the NY Health Act.
During the pandemic, Cuomo was elevated by the mainstream media as the “anti-Trump,” citing his seemingly swift and effective response to the emergence of New York becoming an early epicenter of COVID in the US, and his daily briefings have been compared to FDR’s fireside chats. In reality, the “swift and effective response” has been exposed as a partial truth at best, and an outright lie at worst.Cuomo has, like Trump, blurred the lines between science and politics during the pandemic. This finds perhaps its most egregious expression in the cover up of nursing home deaths due to COVID, to the tune of 5,000 unreported deaths caused by negligent government directives early in the pandemic that sent recovering COVID patients to nursing homes and allowed for the transmission of COVID via visitors and nursing home staff. Over the past year Cuomo has worked hard to play down and pass off responsibility to anyone but himself, yet at the same time he’s leaned heavily into his newfound executive powers to strong-arm his way through the pandemic.
Cuomo’s Trump-like bullying and vicious political affect naturally existed well before COVID, and this was no secret to the political establishment. Cuomo used cynical identity politics, including surrounding himself with many women staffers, to cover up the fact that women in his office were regularly objectified, harassed, and degraded. Now six women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by Cuomo, though their recounts of the toxic work culture he fostered indicates the number of women who have been subject to casual sexism in his office is certainly much higher. Like Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and other powerful men with the social or political currency and close circles of allies and lawyers to protect them, Cuomo’s political machine and the environment it bred is not merely a symptom of individual megalomania. It’s the logical extension of a diseased capitalist system which rewards the powerful and wealthy with enablement and immunity to the consequences of sexist behavior.
Cuomo has so far denied all of the allegations and it’s an open question what stops he will pull to protect himself. But, under pressure from even a dormant MeToo movement, the rest of the establishment has turned on him with such speed and decisiveness that this political career could very well be over.
The compounding scandals surrounding Cuomo have dropped his approval rating to an all-time low of 33% statewide, and it’s clear that his credibility as a leader has been too damaged for the political establishment to ignore any longer. Much like key figures in the Republican Party distanced themselves from Trump after the Capitol riots, many of Cuomo’s long-time allies in the legislature now see associating with him as too great a liability to their own political standing, and have joined a litany of other forces from all political angles in calling for his resignation.
The timing of all this is troubling to New York’s business leaders. Between bailouts to big business and the stock market, and half-measure bailouts to working people, unprecedented stimulus spending has effectively staved off the worst of the economic crisis for the time being. The ruling class is looking toward more favorable short-term economic prospects than they have since the beginning of the pandemic, boosted by promising, albeit slow, progress in vaccinations and the beginnings of reopenings in many cities (safe or otherwise). But still looming is the major task of bringing New York City and State back to longer term economic health and stability. The ruling class has relied on Cuomo’s unapologetically pro-business agenda to prevent the legislature from levying taxes on the rich, and instead raising taxes on working people to generate revenue and cutting social services to lower spending. But Cuomo’s career now hanging in the balance presents an unforeseen complication.
The ruling class has serious concerns about who will be a viable replacement for Cuomo, and for that reason may choose to allow him to stay until the end of his term. If Cuomo does leave office before the end of his term, he will be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. A career politician with a vested interest in big business, Hochul will no doubt continue Cuomo’s legacy of corporate politics if she serves the remainder of his term. But her ability to carry a victory in the 2022 election is not guaranteed.
Socialists Should Charge Ahead
Whether or not Cuomo stays out the end of his term, the 2022 elections will likely bring candidates of many stripes vying for the governor’s seat when the incumbent’s shot at reelection is looking increasingly bleak. Socialists should not go unrepresented in this opening, and should seize on the opportunity to make a fighting case for working class politics in the highest seat in Albany.
The DSA-endorsed electeds in the state legislature have rightfully called for Cuomo’s resignation and begun pursuing impeachment as he continues to resist these calls, but it’s not enough to just get Cuomo out of office when big business will go all out to make sure Cuomo’s austerity agenda is preserved in the next governor. Without an organized fight back from the left united on a clear working class program, there will be little resistance from the liberal wing of the political establishment who have until this point have not been prepared to challenge Cuomo and his friends in business.
The debate about impeachment cannot simply be about who is the “right” Democrat if Cuomo is the “wrong” one—it must center around the kind of politics and strategies that are needed to win structural change that Democrats like Cuomo have continuously blocked. A narrow focus on the allegations around Cuomo’s misconduct may be sufficient to remove him from office, but to achieve any real ground for working class politics, the impeachment discussion must be taken up as a referendum on how New York State has been run for decades by the corporate establishment.
Already, the lacking approach taken to Cuomo’s impeachment by the DSA-endorsed Democrats has opened up opportunities for the right. Republicans have also been calling on Cuomo to resign, working closely with some of the victims of the cover-up of the COVID spread in the nursing homes. Of course, Republicans have no intention of meaningfully providing justice or change to the victims – and certainly the majority of families victimized by the cover-ups want anything to do with Republicans – but without a clear left alternative to Cuomo’s big business-friendly government, right populists can take advantage of these openings to solidify support among those who the Democratic establishment has consistently left behind. Socialists should be leading the charge, in concert with all working people harmed by Cuomo’s politics, in driving him out of office.
In the opening of the 2022 elections, socialists should run a challenger for New York’s gubernatorial seat based on mass movements such as BLM, MeToo, CancelRent, and labor, endorsed by the DSA members currently serving in the state legislature. COVID-19 has exposed the capitalist system as completely unable to provide a decent standard of living for working people, and at a time when progressive demands like Medicare for All are massively popular, running a socialist with an unapologetically left, working class platform is a chance to build a powerful working class movement that can fight for change in all arenas no matter the outcome of the election.
Any candidate must be prepared to withstand the immense pressure of the political establishment not only during their campaign but also while in office. To succeed against the entrenched business interests in Albany, it will be necessary for a socialist candidate to be backed by and democratically accountable to the platforms of mass movements. Elected socialists must be able to draw political strength from organized working people, not from back-room deals with corporate politicians, which inevitably result in compromise with the ruling class.
We’ve seen how popular working class issues are defeated when a fighting strategy is not used. The unwillingness of the Squad to position themselves against House Speaker Pelosi to fight for Medicare for All, and their failure to use their collective political leverage to force a $15 minimum wage into the stimulus, demonstrated a lack of both the political confidence to put themselves in direct opposition with the corporate interests of the Democratic Party, and a lack of political clarity to invoke and build mass movements around these issues that could force the establishment’s hand. Instead, the Squad fell back on the same types of arguments that Democrats inevitably fall back on to justify why they sell out the working class time and time again. That now isn’t the right time for a particular issue, that there isn’t enough mass support (which in the case of both Medicare for All and especially the $15 minimum wage is simply not true), or, in the case of the $15 minimum wage, that they didn’t want mar their public image in the eyes of working people by delaying the stimulus, when in reality they could have used such a position to expose corporate Democrats and build support for a fighting tactic.
We also see this problem at the state level on issues like #CancelRent. DSA-endorsed electeds in the state legislature have been advocating for a strong package of housing bills, including rent cancellation, since the summer, and commendably have even attended direct action events in their jurisdictions such as eviction defense. But they have thus far not used their position to build and amplify the type of mass movements that could truly force the hand of corporate politicians like Cuomo and his allies, as this would mean going into open conflict with their own political party and those who control it. Consequently, rent relief for New Yorkers has been limited to half-measures, and the movement has lost much of the original energy that could have been leveraged to win rent cancellation.
On rent cancellation, as well as virtually every other area in which New York’s working class desperately needs relief and aid, progressive politicians have consistently pointed to Cuomo as the ultimate culprit in blocking legislation. This is not completely untrue, but we must remain clear: just as Trump-ism will not disappear now that Trump is no longer president, the commitment to austerity and corporate politics that Cuomo has embodied during his time in the New York state government will not be ousted from the Democratic Party even if he is.
Cuomo’s house of cards may be falling down before our eyes, but the ruling class is preparing to shuffle in their next deck. Socialists must be ready to intervene with cards of a new suit.