On The Trail: Andrew Cuomo and the peril of ruling by fear

On The Trail: Andrew Cuomo and the peril of ruling by fear
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New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoHochul raises .6 million since launching gubernatorial campaign Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India De Blasio says he won't run for New York governor MORE (D) used a final message to his constituents on Monday after 10 years in office to deliver one final glimpse into his psyche when he took a slap at a prominent rival.

Cuomo, hounded from office after allegations of sexual harassment made by nearly a dozen women, took no responsibility for his actions. He offered no contrition or remorse. Instead, he complimented Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (D), likely the next mayor of New York City, by insulting current Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioHochul raises .6 million since launching gubernatorial campaign De Blasio says he won't run for New York governor Watershed moment in NYC: New law allows noncitizens to vote MORE (D).

“I think he’ll bring a new philosophy and competence to the position,” Cuomo said of Adams.

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De Blasio may be the most frequent target of Cuomo’s ire in recent years, but he is hardly alone. From Albany to New York City and his rare forays outside the state, Cuomo developed a reputation for berating reporters, staffers and even the legislators whose votes he has counted on to build the legacy he will leave behind.

Those reporters, especially a crack team at the Albany Times-Union, broke news of Cuomo’s alleged harassment. Those staffers offered testimony of a toxic work environment in an office that allegedly offered jobs to women the governor found attractive. And those legislators turned on Cuomo, both over the alleged harassment and when it became clear his administration was hiding the true toll of its disastrous decision to send people infected with the coronavirus back into nursing homes.

Cuomo and de Blasio, two big personalities who clashed constantly, escalated their feud at a time when New Yorkers most needed them to work together, during the pandemic. Cuomo overrode or criticized several of de Blasio’s decisions over school closings, a stay-at-home order and a reopening plan as recently as last month.

Staffers who work for both the city and state said they tried to ignore the constant squabbling between the two men.

“Staff rolled their eyes over the constant dick-swinging,” one Cuomo aide told The Hill, on condition of anonymity to describe internal attitudes. “Everyone knows the principals are assholes and just goes on with day-to-day business.”

Cuomo even earned the quiet ire of his fellow governors. Though he was on track to run the Democratic Governors Association at one point, Cuomo ended up chairing the nonpartisan National Governors Association instead — a move insiders described as a relief to Democratic governors who did not want to have to deal with him for an entire election cycle.

Ultimately, it was Cuomo’s relationship with legislators that doomed him once allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced. 

A new generation of progressives recaptured control of the state Senate, after years in which Republicans and a rump faction of independent Democrats held a coalition majority. Few in the new majority felt beholden to Cuomo, who often seemed more comfortable using the Republican Senate as a convenient foil against the most progressive impulses of his own party. 

At the same time, Cuomo’s attacks on Assemblyman Ron Kim (D), who raised questions about the administration’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, undermined the governor’s support in the lower chamber.

The swift buckling of Cuomo’s coalition offers an important lesson for any political leader: If they choose to rule by fear, they have to keep everyone afraid.

“You can rule by fear, but the moment the fear is gone, you’re dead,” said one top Democratic strategist who has dealt with Cuomo over the years. “The minute you stop being able to leverage the fear, all your enemies will combine.”

When he leaves office at midnight, Cuomo will be replaced by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who made headlines earlier this month when she pledged to run an office that was not toxic.

That she had to draw that distinction says more about the open secret of Cuomo’s behavior and the office he managed than it does about the woman who will replace him.

“I know too well the flaws of the political system,” Cuomo said in his farewell address Monday.

The Cuomo aide sent a text message minutes later: “God that speech was disgusting.”