The reckoning for Robert Moses took four decades, spanning mayors, governors, presidents, a second World War, and the dawning of the Sexual Revolution. He was old by then, still swimming through the crashing waves of the Atlantic, desperately trying to stave off incursions on his empire. In the end, it would take one of the richest men in human history, Nelson Rockefeller, to defeat him. It was not Robert Caro’s The Power Broker—the book appeared in 1974, when Moses was already deposed, and served to forever alter the narrative of the Master Builder’s life, not the power he once wielded—that sealed his fate. It was Rockefeller, the most dominant governor in New York until a man named Andrew Cuomo arrived on the scene, who decided to trick Moses into ceding his power, creating the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to dump Moses from the impregnable governmental entities he once controlled.
Cuomo, in the end, was no Moses, though he very badly wanted to be. For all his sins, his racism and the terror he wrought in New York City neighborhoods, Moses left behind a legacy that was inarguable. The parks, the beaches, the public housing, the highways, the bridges—every day, if you live in the State of New York, you interact with structures Moses dreamed to life. Caro, in his magisterial introduction, makes this clear, and we realize there will never exist a single human being who so dramatically and solely determined the destinies of millions ever again. Cuomo dreamed this dream, too. For a decade, he consolidated influence like few others, governing through cunning and brute strength, building his own less impressive bridges, breaking the backs of interest groups and labor unions, inventing new legislative conferences to keep progressives from power, and demanding and winning the sort of deference reserved, in earlier times, for monarchs. Cuomo’s power was so complete that at one point, four summers ago, he was able to rewrite reality and compel a large segment of the press and political class to play along, pretending he had no control over the crumbling subways, even though the MTA, which oversees them, was his entity entirely.
Now Cuomo enters twilight. There are two credible sexual harassment allegations against him. The Attorney General, a former ally, stands ready to investigate them. The Department of Justice, separately, is probing how his administration hid data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. A state assemblyman who sought to hold Cuomo accountable, Ron Kim, went public with threats that Cuomo made on his career, and became one of the most famous state legislators in America.
This matters because, for the very first time in Cuomo’s political career, few people are afraid of him. Over the last two years, a new cohort of progressive state legislators have entered Albany, and they are unafraid to challenge to him, to mock and dismiss his reactionary bent. They can call for his impeachment and resignation. They still don’t have the votes—the State Assembly, the lower house, is filled with too many cautious, old-guard members who have been cowering in fear of governors since the 20th century—but they can pressure their colleagues into finding some courage. In a few days, Cuomo will enter budget season, typically his favorite time of year, and his political capital will be diminished enough that state legislators can trod over him as he did over them for so many years.
So much of politics is predicated on fear. Fear of public backlash. Fear of interest groups. Fear of losing resources, status, a generous staff budget. Fear of private actors more powerful than you ending your career. Cuomo understands this very well. It’s why he, like Moses, was so effective at crushing dissent and weathering scandals, like the corruption conviction of his closest aide. The imprisonment of Joe Percoco did not, remarkably, weaken his hand in Albany. Raising tens of millions of dollars, he obliterated his challengers months later in the primary and general elections.
There are no mechanisms for recalling a governor in New York. This is not California, where Gray Davis can give way to the Terminator. An investigation, even an independent one, of the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo can work in his favor if the investigation drags on for months and merely confirms what we already know. Cuomo will try to take cues from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who survived calls for his resignation over his past wearing of blackface. Northam never resigned, and eventually regained support. Cuomo is in a far more precarious position because these allegations are fresh and there is an unrelated federal probe into his handling of nursing homes. He will never regain the pandemic-era popularity he once had.
At this rate, however, Cuomo will not resign, barring a large number of new harassment allegations or a federal indictment. Nearly 50,000 people died of COVID-19 in New York and he has still maintained broad support from voters in the state. He cannot be made to simply step aside, and his survival instincts will never allow him to do so. His lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, is not well-known, and has no leverage of her own. A weakened Cuomo is not a Cuomo who will flee.
The real next project, for those on the left and right who oppose Cuomo, is to pressure him into not seeking re-election in 2022. Cuomo hungers for a fourth term because only Rockefeller got one; even his own governor father lost his attempt at such a feat, falling to George Pataki, a Republican, in 1994. A normal politician would survey his situation—COVID disaster, a federal probe, sexual assault allegations—and decide against running again. Andrew Cuomo is not a normal politician. There will need to be an enormous campaign to keep him from running.
The two most influential politicians now, in this potential effort, will be Carl Heastie, the speaker of the State Assembly, and Letitia James, the attorney general. Heastie commands a 150-member body and is the only one who can initiate impeachment proceedings. Many state senators have turned against Cuomo, but Heastie has been hesitant to publicly challenge him. If Heastie aligns himself with the vocal progressives in the upper chamber, Cuomo will be imperiled.
James, the attorney general, triggered this new wave of scandal when her investigation revealed, back in January, Cuomo’s Department of Health had severely undercounted nursing home deaths. A fellow Democrat, James was not viewed as an obvious counterweight to Cuomo because she was elected in 2018 with Cuomo’s strong support. Cuomo’s campaign blasted TV and radio ads across the state touting James, helping to defeat Zephyr Teachout, the influential anti-corruption lawyer who once ran against Cuomo. Cuomo marshaled the resources of his State Democratic Party to elevate James that year, and there’s little doubt the major labor unions would not have been behind her without Cuomo’s blessing.
But James has made it clear her office is going to be operating independently of Cuomo. Her report, which also took aim at the sweeping immunity protections Cuomo granted to hospitals and nursing homes, is evidence enough of that. James is, politically-speaking, Cuomo’s most formidable opponent, and is likely the only politician who can defeat him in a Democratic primary next year. James should be gearing up to do that, or at least organizing out of public view to convince Cuomo not to run. James is a strong candidate because she’s from New York City, she’s African-American, and she boasts strong ties to organized labor. No Democrat can beat Cuomo in a primary without winning working and middle class African-American and Afro-Caribbean voters in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. James is well-positioned to do this and Cuomo knows this.
If James is able to push Cuomo aside, new opportunities will be opened up for the ascendant left. There will be a wide array of contenders for attorney general, including Teachout and Michael Gianaris, the deputy leader of the State Senate and an ally of progressives. Alessandra Biaggi, another state senator who has consistently opposed Cuomo, could be in contention too. Perhaps Sean Patrick Maloney, a centrist who ran in 2018 just to kneecap Teachout, will not seek the office again, since he has the plum of leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
All of this would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. Cuomo, at 63, seemed destined for fourth and even fifth terms because he could always exploit the horrid campaign finance laws of New York State to bury his rivals with unprecedented amounts of money. The donor class—the power class—was always his. They paid for the government they wanted and Cuomo delivered. Like Moses, Cuomo assumed a political immortality that could never be, no matter how much he willed it. Moses got his 40 years. Cuomo may just get a fraction of that.