Empire State of Mind: Nursing Homes and Sexual Harassment

“Success is a lousy teacher.  It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” 

— Bill Gates 

It is nothing short of astonishing how quickly a popular public figure can fall in American society.  Popularity, particularly among public officials, is precarious.  And neither major party has cornered the market on stupidity.  

We find the latest instance of a precipitous decline in New York, with three term Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Ten months ago, Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis appeared to be crafting a playbook for other governors.  However, the successes in Cuomo’s career perhaps made him believe his penchant for making the right calls would allow him to get away with nearly anything.  

To briefly summarize, Cuomo is blue blood status in New York.  His father, Mario Cuomo was a popular three term governor of New York with an extensive array of written works.  The elder Cuomo also donated significant amounts of money to charitable organizations.  To say that Andrew Cuomo was groomed for the job might be an understatement.  

Cuomo served on his father’s campaign for governor, worked as a private lawyer and assistant district attorney for New York.  In 1993, he received a position as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.

In 2006, Cuomo ran a successful campaign for Attorney General of New York, a significant building block for his later campaign for governor.  His tenure as Attorney General received high marks from most corners of the state, as Cuomo’s office was involved in a significant number of high profile investigations.  Four years later, Cuomo made the move to the governor’s office.  

Though a Democratic stronghold, Cuomo did win elections with a significant crossover appeal.  He has backed a number of more conservative stances, including tax breaks for companies who wished to move to the Empire State.  

Fast forward to March 2020, when COVID-19 arrived in the United States.  Under Cuomo’s direction, the state secured tests, encouraged masks and distancing, put non-essential businesses on lockdown, and the governor appeared on media frequently urging the public to take the virus seriously.  He also openly criticized the federal government’s response as too weak, and the nation heaped praises on Cuomo as the right kind of leader.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is coming under fire for claims of misleading the public and sexual harassment

Though Cuomo did have a failed run at governor in 2002, he succeeded in almost all of his endeavors in his career.  But with this much success in his life, Cuomo reminds me of a gambler on a hot streak who never believes he might lose.  That level of success only teaches you that more wins lie ahead.

Last fall, Cuomo took another peculiar step by publishing a book on leadership, American Crisis. All the signs seemed to point towards a future presidential run. 

In the last month, two major bombs crushed Cuomo’s popularity and his future as a presidential hopeful.  

During the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo ordered that data about the number of deaths due to the virus from nursing homes be withheld.  The governor later admitted that he feared the high number of deaths would be used by the Trump administration as a major critique against Cuomo and Democrats.  

A count of approximately 8,500 deaths in nursing homes turned out to be closer to 15,000.  Cuomo’s administration attempted to explain the underreporting of the deaths as a ‘pause’ on data collection to prevent any deaths from being reported twice.  Was this genuinely the case?  Of course, the possibility exists, but Cuomo and his team are no amateurs.  If the data collection was taking more time to correctly assess the death toll, the governor’s office should have said as much. 

Cuomo also blamed the media for their portrayal of the underreporting of deaths, claiming that news outlets misled or outright lied about the story.  At least one New York lawmaker claimed the governor low-key threatened him over his comments on the matter.  Assemblyman Ron Kim claims Cuomo called him at home and threatened to destroy Kim’s career if the assemblyman did not back off his dogged criticisms of the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.  Kim’s allegations are not the first from lawmakers who state the governor attempted to strong-arm them.

Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-40)

The pandemic’s effects on nursing homes received more scrutiny when media outlets reported that early in the crisis, the Cuomo administration directed that nursing homes admit recovering COVID-19 patients before they completely recovered from the virus.  The Associated Press conducted its own search and found over 4,500 patients who had been released by hospitals into the care of nursing homes.  

Dr. Michael Wasserman, president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, was quoted as reporting, “There has never been any question in my mind that sending COVID-19 patients into completely unprepared, understaffed and underresourced nursing homes both increased transmission and led to a greater number of deaths.”  This type of mistake by the Cuomo Administration and the state of New York is difficult to process.  Though Cuomo later reversed this directive, the damage was done.  Currently, federal prosecutors and the FBI are looking into the situation to assess any potential illegal actions.

If Cuomo had any hope of rebounding from this mistake, he suffered another major blow when a former aide accused the him of sexual harassment.  This week, Lindsay Boylan published an article on medium.com,  detailing claims of inappropriate conduct from Cuomo.  

Boylan, a Wellsley and Columbia graduate, established herself as a valued employee in the economic and financial fields.  Her success enabled her to land a job as a Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Special Advisor to the Governor of New York.

Lindsay Boylan, former aide to Cuomo, alleged the governor sexually harassed her

The allegations in Boylan’s account should shock the conscience.  Yet, they feel too normal in the world today and that’s a sad state of affairs.  Boylan contends the people around Cuomo — including women — created a culture where the governor’s gross behavior was normalized.  She also wrote that when she began to speak up to others in the administration about Cuomo’s unwanted attention, she received reprimands.

Among the allegations levied by Boylan include being summoned by the governor for no apparent job related purpose, a request to play ‘strip poker,’ references to looking like the governor’s former girlfriend (but ‘hotter’), unwanted touching on the lower back, arms and legs.  She also purported that Cuomo showed her a cigar from former President Clinton (a reference to the Clinton affair with Monica Lewinsky).  Boylan was also repeatedly informed by staffers and former employers that the governor had a ‘crush’ on her.  

Why on earth did Cuomo do these things?

Success has an ill effect on people.  When politicians or celebrities experience sustained success, it generally has some basis in good decision making and the proper application of intellect and skills.  At some point, the good decisions of any politician become less about the fact that the decisions are themselves good.  These individuals sometimes come to believe the decisions are good because they are the ones who made the decisions.  They promote their ideas as inherently right because it was their idea.  That’s a dangerous place for any person to be.  In a very real sense, Cuomo and others like him are victims of their own success. 

Accolades and accomplishments also change the attitude of many successful people.  They begin to believe they are more deserving than other individuals.  They forget how many people contributed to their education and career.  They believe they did it all on their own and as such, they deserve praise and treatment above the rest of society.  Politicians seem particularly vulnerable to developing a sense of entitlement because their successes tend to benefit large swaths of society or monied interests who will be appreciative.  An entitled person looks at his or her self and thinks, “They owe me.”  It doesn’t help Cuomo’s case that he grew up in a world of privilege.

Also, there’s the possibility that Cuomo is attempting to distinguish himself from his father’s legacy and prove to the world that he not only equaled his father’s achievements, but eclipsed them.  Ambition can be the best of friends, and simultaneously the worst of enemies.

The effect 

During the pandemic, Cuomo’s polling numbers shot upward, with an approval rating of over 63%  and only 33% disapproved.  With the revelations from the last week, his approval rating has already dropped to 57% in some polls, and the damage may not be done.  During Cuomo’s tenure as governor, his approval rating has waxed and waned, but it’s mostly been high.  He loses political capital here and his ability to affect policy has to be diminished.

It’s important to recognize also that Assemblyman Ron Kim and other critics of Cuomo have already proposed legislation that would limit the governor’s authority.  While it’s still unclear how much momentum this effort will gain, it’s a significant change to government structure for who creates policy in the state of New York.

Cuomo spent the last four years criticizing former President Donald Trump, but the governor might genuinely benefit from Trump’s shenanigans.  Scandals tarnish any administration, but Trump’s time in the White House diminished the impact of these situations.  Trump supporters  made so many excuses for the former president’s insane behavior, that most things, by comparison, almost seem trivial.  

I’m not trivializing the behavior of Governor Cuomo, but the state of New York seems to have no problem doing so.  While his approval rating experienced a hit, Cuomo still has more than half of the state supporting him.  In light of the allegations against him, how can New Yorkers still approve of their chief executive?  Perhaps they have fallen under the spell of tribalism, where poor behavior only matters when politicians of the opposing party err.  

Though New Yorkers still appear content with Cuomo’s leadership, any possibility for a presidential run seems out of the question.  At the age of 63, Cuomo’s best chance at a run wouldn’t come until at least 2028, when he would be over 70.  Though not out of the question, his timing doesn’t work well when we consider Vice President Kamala Harris would be the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic standard bearer whenever President Joe Biden finishes his administration.  Of course, this does not mean Cuomo could not take on a role in the United States Senate, make another run at governor, or pursue some cabinet level position in the future.

Cuomo’s recent errors bring us to an even more concerning trend in politics and society.  Democrats, thus far, have failed to truly acknowledge the mistakes made by Cuomo and the depth of his failures.  I undoubtedly believe President Trump deserved every ounce of scrutiny for his abhorrent and unrepentant behavior.  Democrats spent four years pushing that same line.  Now is the time for Democrats to put the spotlight on one of their own and let the nation know that his behavior was both reprehensible and unacceptable.  To treat women with such low regard and to mislead the public (merely because of the optics of the data) cannot occur without repercussions.  

Yes, I am well aware of the fact that Republicans failed to call out Trump for his misdeeds towards women.  But the hypocrisy is ugly.  The Democrats have a chance to do what Republicans would not and they are not acting.  

Critics, media outlets, and other political mainstays are turning to United States Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and she is holding the party line for the moment.  Gillibrand has long advocated for believing women who make claims of sexual harassment, and was quoted in 2019 as saying, “… when allegations are made in the workplace, we must believe women so that serious investigations can actually take place, we can learn the facts, and there can be appropriate accountability.”  This statement came on the heels of an investigation into sexual harassment claims against one of her former aides. 

Moreover, since Lindsay Boylan’s accusations became public, other women have come forward with allegations against Governor Cuomo.  Officials should investigate to determine the veracity of these claims, but Democrats are missing the chance to practice what they’ve preached for years.

In fairness to local politicians in New York, some Democrats have been critical of the nursing home underreporting, but I’m skeptical of the party’s overall position on the matter.  Why?  Cuomo is a moderate Democrat who somewhat alienated the far left of the party, and the Democrats in the state are taking stances as individuals … individuals who have something to gain if Cuomo isn’t around anymore.  

Politics in New York has always been brutal, but every time something like this happens without someone stepping up to challenge the status quo, the entire nation suffers.

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