The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York, by Ross Barkan

In The Prince, Guardian reporter Ross Barkan offers a scathing assessment of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. It is filled with essential facts ghosted in Cuomo’s self-congratulatory memoir about his leadership during the health crisis that has killed an astonishing 50,000 New Yorkers. And Barkan is nearly as tough on his fellow journalists, whom he views as deeply complicit in levitating Cuomo to undeserved hero status.

Cuomo reacted slowly to New York’s first cases of COVID-19, Barkan reports, creating a false sense of calm with lethal consequences. Epidemiologists have projected Cuomo could have spared thousands of lives if he had ordered a lock down a week earlier than he did in March 2020. Compelling information from Europe and Washington State, where the virus first appeared in the United States, made the danger clear. Washington, with policies driven by health professionals, suffered 35 deaths per 100,000 people. New York’s mortality rate, with policies driven by Cuomo, is 178 and counting.

At least in part, we are told, Cuomo’s delayed response resulted from his ego-driven churlishness towards New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who first called for drastic measures. The governor’s near pathological desire to deny credit for leadership to his rival led him to reject the need for crucial days. The accusation is hard to prove, easy to believe, unforgivable if true.

And it gets worse. The Cuomo administration adopted regulations that forced nursing homes to accept COVID infected elderly New Yorkers into their facilities. When nursing home deaths soared and became politically toxic, the governor’s office doctored a health department report, eliminating from death counts nursing home residents sent to hospitals with COVID symptoms.

As if that were not enough. Cuomo, who receives huge direct and indirect campaign contributions from the Greater New York Hospital Association, a powerful industry group, and from health care executives, slipped liability limiting rules for hospitals and nursing homes into legislation granting him emergency powers to deal with COVID. The new law made it all but impossible to hold institutions responsible for negligence of any kind while the pandemic raged.

As the New York death toll mounted, for 111 days Cuomo held daily press conferences. His empathetic demeanor and sober presentation of facts contrasted sharply with President Donald Trump’s chaotic management of the COVID crisis. A poised media presence elevated Cuomo to national hero status in the eyes of a public starved for leadership. It should not have, and would not have Barkan insists, had journalists done their job properly and taken Cuomo to task for bad decisions and misleading announcements. Not captured in Barkan’s book is recent news that Cuomo relied on state employees to help draft his version of the story, for which he reportedly received $4 million. Or revelations that Cuomo’s relatives and supporters got preferential treatment when COVID tests were scarce.

Cuomo’s duplicity, Barkan writes, should have surprised no one. Albany journalists knew he had cultivated an image as a committed champion of the poor for years while surreptitiously supporting Republicans and renegade Democrats in the state senate whose shared allegiance to low taxes provided cover for fiscal conservatism. Until progressive victories in 2018 changed the state senate’s composition, Cuomo’s purposeful neglect left no fingerprints as he killed policies dear to liberal Democrats, rent protections in particular. And Barkan blames Cuomo driven austerity in the years before COVID for weakening New York’s medical system, leaving it overwhelmed when the pandemic hit.

Demands that Cuomo resign have intensified in recent months because of multiple sexual harassment charges against him. New York Attorney General Letitia James has appointed an independent team of lawyers to get the facts. The Department of Justice is investigating COVID death reporting irregularities. New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has initiated an impeachment inquiry.

Cuomo, defiantly, has vowed to win a fourth term, something his father Mario tried to do and failed. As with every prince, Barkan reminds us, without Mario there would be no Andrew. The son’s desire to achieve what the father could not is fierce. Cuomo’s popularity has fallen precipitously from unsustainable heights, but he remains a credible candidate. New York voters may be called upon to determine his fate, and theirs.

By 2022 Cuomo will have been at the center of state government for 28 years — 12 advising his father, four as attorney general, 12 as governor. New York has an affordable housing crisis in 54 of 62 counties, a mass transit system in a state of emergency, a school system that educates one third of its students well and two thirds poorly, a crisis of confidence in its police departments from Brooklyn, to Rochester, to Buffalo, and a healthcare network whose deficiencies contributed to the state’s massive death count. The battle of the virus vs. the vaccine continues to hold New York’s economy hostage.

Will voters re-elect the man more responsible for these conditions than anyone else? Guilty of mismanaging the crisis of our times? Who in the age of #MeToo stands credibly accused of behavior towards female staff that ranges from cringe-worthy to appalling? Whose governing style is generally acknowledged as manipulative, bullying, and abusive?

Barkan leaves readers to ponder that fundamental question.

#NewYorker, historian, author & believer in government & business working *together* towards a better quality of life for all.