Welcome to the Cuomo Files

This is my brand-new newsletter dedicated to politics, policy, and Andrew Cuomo, New York's most powerful person.

Hello and welcome to the Cuomo Files, a newsletter that will be dedicated to holding Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, accountable. Some of you reading this may have seen my Cuomo-themed newsletter that was sent out on Monday. The response to it was gratifying enough that it got me thinking—why not keep this thing going? I’ve switched over to Substack from Mailchimp because it’s more conducive to newsletter writing and the interface is user-friendly. Let me know what you think.

Why a newsletter about Cuomo? It’s simple. He is the most powerful person in New York State and, therefore, one of the most powerful human beings in America. He has garnered remarkable praise for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst we have seen in a century. Many people learned only recently about who Cuomo is and that he’s governed New York State since 2011. Without term limits, he can be with us another decade. I want to use this newsletter to illuminate and educate. As a journalist, columnist, and former candidate for state office, I have followed Cuomo closely since 2012. Time and experience have granted me some useful knowledge.

Most power in New York flows through the executive branch. The governor’s office has extraordinary clout and Cuomo knows how to wield it. Since the state government has dominion over New York City - we city dwellers can’t raise income taxes, strengthen our tenant laws, or even change the speed limit on city streets without the state’s permission - Cuomo is effectively the leader of the five boroughs, the man who can determine the fates of nearly nine million people. This is not an exaggeration.

The Cuomo Files will be a mix of commentary, analysis, and journalism. I am a contributor to the Nation and a Guardian columnist, as well as a contributor to GQ, Gothamist, and other publications. All that work will continue. But I see this newsletter as being a little something extra - what I can’t necessarily work into a story or a column, what is perhaps a better fit for Twitter, but without any pesky character limits.

I believe journalists should hold power to account and that’s what I plan to do. The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst catastrophe to befall New York City in modern history, and that includes 9/11. Those who made decisions that failed us, that led to the deaths of more than 20,000 people—more than entire nations—must be held accountable. As you’ll find, I believe Andrew Cuomo, perhaps America’s most popular politician of the moment, is at least partially to blame for this mass suffering. Accountability is crucial. I hope, overtime, to create a public record here, in addition to my journalism and commentary. I hope I can be a resource to you.

Please subscribe. I plan to keep the newsletter free for now but it will take time and effort to make it worthy. News is a precarious business. The more subscribers I have, the more time I can justify dedicating myself to the Cuomo Files. It’s as simple as that. Below, you’ll find my first entry, my thoughts on a particularly irksome New York Times story about an all-powerful Cuomo aide.

If you have comments or questions, please email me (ross@rossbarkan.com works) or DM on Twitter, @RossBarkan. I look forward to hearing from you.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a rather glowing profile of Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor. DeRosa, like Cuomo, has enjoyed a great deal of attention since the outbreak of coronavirus. She is seen every day, sitting next Cuomo at his televised briefings. She will answer reporters’ questions. A career government official and the daughter of one of New York’s premier lobbyists, she is arguably the second most powerful person in New York State, Cuomo’s proxy in interactions with politicians and state officials.

DeRosa is a worthy profile subject. One could take a deep dive into her day-to-day duties. One can ask how Bolton St. John’s, the lobbying firm where her father, Giorgio, heads up the Albany office, has benefited from having a family member in the executive branch. Has their business increased? Do clients hire Giorgio knowing he, some way or another, has a direct line to the governor? How has Melissa separated her public affairs from her father’s private business? No one is suggesting there is anything untoward. One merely begs for illumination.

But the Times wasn’t really interested in going there. They did, ultimately, in the 21st paragraph or so, get to Giorgio and Melissa’s two siblings, who all ply their trade at Bolton St. John’s. Most people aren’t going to read that far. What they will see, however, is the story’s lead. Anyone who’s done journalism knows the lead, especially in features and profiles, is fretted over extensively. This is the place where the tone is set. This is where you get your hook. And the Times, a left-of-center newspaper that vacillates between occasional Cuomo skepticism and an unshakeable reverence of the executive’s might—such a squishy, guilt-ridden editorial board could spurn Cuomo’s progressive challenger in 2018 to choose the ethically-challenged governor for a third term—made it clear where their journalist was going to go.

“Competence is captivating. No need to tell viewers tuning in to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s daily media briefings,” wrote Ruth La Ferla. “Many have been riveted by his plain talk in the face of a global pandemic.”

Some of this is true. Competence, in a time of crisis, does captivate. What’s less clear is how the same set of people who will cry out that Donald Trump has blood on his hands for the tens of thousands who have died from coronavirus can simultaneously celebrate a governor who, under his watch, has seen more than 20,000 die in New York State, a death toll that rivals nations like Italy and Spain and far surpasses any in the rest of America. This is what we might call cognitive dissonance. But the Times, at least, isn’t so out of the mainstream here. The liberal punditocracy has elevated Cuomo tremendously. (I am not really indicting La Ferla here. Editors at major newspapers are often agenda-setters. The individual journalists, unless they are of a certain star power or brand, can be confined to whatever narrative the editor deems necessary.)

What makes the story far more frustrating is what follows: “Others are increasingly focused on the woman usually seated at his left: the one who on a recent Thursday countered a reporter’s suggestion that New York had dragged its heels in response to the spread of the coronavirus by assuring him in a tone like flint that once it was clear that New York, and not just the West Coast, was an entry point for the virus, ‘we shut down fully, with literally zero guidance from the federal government.’”

“She is Melissa DeRosa, the trusted aide and strategist to whom Mr. Cuomo routinely turns for a reliable litany of figures and facts…”

There is no serious analysis of the reporter’s question and the reader is not told whether DeRosa’s answer is valid. In fact, from the tone of the paragraph, the reader is led to believe the reporter may very well be in the wrong, or just too nettlesome for someone of DeRosa’s stature to engage with for long. Her tone is flint. Her words are steely and true. She is not to be fucked with.

This will not be a profile that fact checks, that answers the very simple journalistic question—was what DeRosa said true? That once it was clear that New York, and not just the West Coast, was an entry point for the virus, “we shut down fully, with literally zero guidance from the federal government.”

At best, this is half-true. Part of it—the part that really matters—is an outright lie. Yes, Trump’s government had been giving rather horrendous guidance. Trump himself spent most of February all but denying COVID-19 existed, for fear any acknowledgement would tank the stock market. (Spoiler: it tanked anyway.) But Cuomo did not issue an order to “shut down fully” once it became clear New York was a hotbed for coronavirus. The first New York COVID-19 case showed up March 1, after scientists and epidemiologists had been warning it was only a matter of time before the deadly virus made its way from Europe and China. New York was obviously vulnerable. “There is no cause for surprise—this was expected. As I said from the beginning, it was a matter of when, not if there would be a positive case of novel coronavirus in New York,” Cuomo said that day.

A shutdown or shelter in place order for New York—Cuomo, for whatever reason, would eventually rebrand it PAUSE—did not come until March 22, more than three weeks later. This was after California’s March 19 statewide shutdown. What was so damning and tragic about the lateness of New York’s shelter in place order was the number of cases that were already confirmed in the state when it came. When California Governor Gavin Newsom issued his shutdown order, there were 952 cases in the state, a significant but not overwhelming number. In New York, there were 15,800 cases by March 22.

For DeRosa’s statement to be taken at face value, it must be assumed Cuomo was waiting until the case count spiked to such a dangerous degree before deciding, yes, New York was an entry point for the virus after all. This indicts Cuomo’s government as unintentionally or willfully neglectful to a disastrous degree. But DeRosa wants us to believe Cuomo acted early. There is no way to argue this point with any of the facts available to us. A case was confirmed as early as March 1 and thousands of more were confirmed in the subsequent weeks. Given New York’s initial lack of testing, there were probably many more never detected. California, a larger state with its own international ports of entry, gave shutdown orders days before New York. We know little about COVID-19 but we know social distancing, imposed early enough and with severity, can slow the spread of cases. In every sense, New York failed.

These are the kind of inconvenient facts that may appear in another story on another day. Sooner, rather than later, I hope.