Andrew Cuomo | From zenith to nadir

Nowhere has a public fall from grace been steeper in recent times than that of Andrew Cuomo, the embattled Governor of New York State.

In the spring of 2020, Mr. Cuomo was hailed as a hero, who had waged an uncompromising battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged his State. At the peak of the pandemic-wrought devastation, Flushing Meadows, the home of the U.S. Open, was converted into an emergency medical facility. Further, a 1,000-bed hospital ship was dispatched to New York City to take the heat off the struggling healthcare system of the state. Meanwhile the daily fatality rate in New York touched 800, and the daily hospitalisation soared to 18,000.

However, by June 2020, the numbers were at 5 fatalities and less than 900 hospitalisations. At the heart of the gargantuan public health effort was Mr. Cuomo, with his hard-hitting daily COVID-19 briefings, relentless focus on data and positive messaging, and overall take-charge leadership style that even pitted him against the erstwhile Donald Trump White House. More than anything, his breakout leadership qualities propelled him onto the national stage of Democratic Party heavyweights, and whispers abounded regarding his potential as a future presidential candidate.

Yet hardly could even the man at the centre of this unparalleled public administration victory through a lethal pandemic imagined how sharply his prospects would have slumped into a morass of disrepute.

His problems began to mount on questions related to the pandemic itself, when research by an Albany think tank revealed that the Cuomo administration had downplayed and deflected questions on fatalities within New York’s nursing-home system. One of his aides, Melissa DeRosa, admitted to State Democrats last month that the Cuomo administration “froze” as the tragedy of thousands of senior citizens dying of COVID-19 mounted across New York, and in part that was driven by the fear that President Donald Trump would turn their perceived failure into “political football”. Experts observed that the spike in deaths in this niche demographic might have happened due to inadequate restrictions on nursing home staff, an honest if costly mistake that it might have been better to admit to. Yet Mr. Cuomo apparently could not back down from his high-power press briefings to strike such a sombre note.

Harassment allegations

Matters worsened for the Governor when sexual harassment allegations began to emerge from multiple women, suggesting a pattern of alleged abuse of his official position. Not only does the list of accusers include former junior colleagues, it also includes at least one member of the media. In each case, the allegations are of some form of inappropriate contact in a public or private setting, and several allegations suggest that the very office of the Governor became a toxic and chauvinist environment for women colleagues.

Anger against Mr. Cuomo has mounted since more women came forward with accounts of alleged harassment since last month, and the Governor would only acknowledge that some of his behaviour toward his staff may have been “insensitive” but that his comments to the women concerned had “been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation”.

The seriousness of the situation facing Mr. Cuomo is measured by the fact that it is not Republicans who have jumped into the fray and started calling for his resignation — rather it his own Democratic colleagues who appear to have lost faith in his ability to carry on as a viable leader bearing their collective mantle.

Over the weekend, Mr. Cuomo lost the support of two of the two Senators from his State who are arguably also the country’s most powerful Democrats — Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Under pressure

Embattled and now entirely isolated in clinging on to power, Mr. Cuomo will have to cooperate with the ongoing inquiry opened into the allegations against him — a process that his office agreed to only under immense pressure from outside. Even worse for him, on March 11, the New York State Assembly announced it would open an impeachment investigation against him, bringing together multiple allegations of wrongdoing that he faces.

Mr. Cuomo’s descent from pandemic hero to public embarrassment is more startling given his antecedents and broader political credentials. His father, Mario Cuomo, was a three-term Governor of New York, who attained a measure of fame for taking on the Reagan administration in 1984 in a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Cuomo’s younger brother, Chris Cuomo, is an award-winning television journalist with CNN.

If there is one thing that the political crisis surrounding Mr. Cuomo relieves, it is that no one, not even the most exalted in the pantheon of Democratic Party leaders, is beyond the pale when it comes to the standards of governance that the people of the country expect.

This story is available exclusively to The Hindu subscribers only.

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