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With Cuomo, it’s cumulative

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State speech Jan. 3, 2018, in Albany. (Photo provided by the governor's office)

It’s not just the multiple accusations of sexual harassment — and now one of sexual assault. It’s not just the undercounting, by some 50%, of how many New York nursing home residents died of COVID-19.

It’s cumulative. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pluses, to be sure, but he keeps filling the minus column as well. Those who discovered him through last spring’s daily coronavirus TV briefings may not understand why so many New Yorkers — us included — have been ready for a new governor for a long time.

It has nothing to do with party or policy; it’s his merciless power politics. All these years of aggressive tactics, control mania, secret-keeping and distrusting people have caught up with him. Many of his fellow Democrats have been willing to go along with him because they share his policy goals and know Cuomo is good at getting things done, but his bullying left him with too few friends.

It’s too bad. He has great gifts for the engineering aspects of making government work, and he often puts it to work for the public — or at least for what he believes is best. He has paid much-needed attention to the Adirondacks and brought an amazing amount of state funds — although in a top-down way. Environmentalists accuse him of manipulating the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation to achieve economic development goals. Many also disagree with him prioritizing Winter Olympic venue renovations and hotel construction subsidies over hiring DEC staff to manage overuse of the mountains, woods and waters. But he almost always got his way.

His strengths came to the fore in his pandemic briefings last spring. He was brusque but obviously cared, and stayed in the trenches working on the problem. It was a stark contrast with President Donald Trump, who clearly didn’t care enough or want to work hard enough, and was too chaotic to mobilize the federal government to effectively fight the coronavirus. Cuomo took responsibility for getting us through the crisis. Trump blew it off.

People appreciated seeing a leader work hard and tell it straight, and many were even willing to forgive his administration’s mistake of sending COVID-positive patients into nursing homes to free up hospital beds. New York was struggling with an extremely difficult situation and was preparing for a wartime-like response. No one knew how things were going to go.

Cuomo’s bad decisions have not always not so innocent, however.

To be clear, state government was notoriously corrupt before he became governor. When he ran in 2010, we publicly worried that he was too much a part of the Albany machinery. But for a time, it looked like he might be the guy to fix it.

He formed a powerful Moreland Commission in 2013 to sniff out such corruption, but then disbanded it when it started sniffing around his office. Clearly, the whole thing was a ploy to get leverage on other state leaders. The state attorney general at the time, Eric Schneiderman, was too timid to take up the investigation, but U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office did, which resulted in the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader going to jail.

A few years later, a couple of Cuomo’s closest allies were convicted themselves, for bid rigging and taking bribes in state-subsidized economic development projects.

In 2018 newspapers revealed that Crystal Run Healthcare had given Cuomo’s campaign $400,000 and received tens of millions of dollars in state grants, raising talk of pay-to-play politics. Anyone who tells you campaign donations and government patronage are unrelated is either lying or naive.

The watchdog agency Cuomo created, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, is a joke, with all its members appointed by the governor and lawmakers, the same people it is supposed to police. The fact that no one is asking for it to look into the latest allegations against the governor speaks to its uselessness.

Cuomo is the worst for government transparency. Public documents are denied, and public employees are muzzled. Years ago we reported how Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries staff were no longer able to tell outdoor writers about how great the fishing would be this year. Before he was governor, state employees were, to a fair degree, trusted to carefully state facts and share their expertise. Now they are told they can be fired if they talk to reporters about anything. Even public information officers live in fear and often give the media information “on background” to keep their names out of the news.

We reported in 2012 about how a Department of Transportation engineer for Essex County was run out for giving an authorized interview to us about how great a job the governor and DOT did at repairing road damage from Hurricane Irene. When the engineer told us about his ordeal, one of Cuomo’s top advisers immediately went on an Albany public radio show and read that engineer’s disciplinary history on the air — clearly an intimidation tactic to other state workers.

Add the new allegations to the pile. New York Attorney General Leticia James has appointed highly qualified lawyers to look into the harassment allegations, and federal agencies are looking into the nursing home deaths. We’ll all see what comes of those investigations and then see what people do about it.

Trust is running low. If Cuomo does not resign — despite many Democrats and almost all Republicans calling on him to do so — the Legislature may impeach him. That would be hard for most majority Democrats, but they might see Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul as a trustworthy and qualified alternative. We would. She has experience as a congresswoman and as Erie County clerk, and in her extensive travels around the state as lieutenant governor she has become familiar with every corner of the state, including the North Country — and familiar to local and state officials of both major parties.

If Cuomo remains in office, the budget negotiations will probably be rough, as will the lawmaking season to follow. He is used to getting his way, but he will get it less than ever.

If he survives all that, he’d have a year-and-a-half of uphill campaigning against opponents he helped empower. And then he’d face voters.

One way or another, we are ready for a change.

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