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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Is Fresh Off His Book Tour, But Activists Say He Doesn’t Live Up to His National Reputation

Progressive lawmakers and activists say Cuomo has failed to adequately protect those who are out of work, at risk of losing their homes, or living behind bars, where the virus has spread rapidly.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo had become a national media darling. His daily streamed press conferences were praised for calming rattled nerves and at times forced the White House to delay its own televised briefings. Last month, he made the rounds promoting “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a book touting his successes managing the spread of the virus.

But Cuomo doesn’t live up to his reputation, New York-based activists and progressive lawmakers say. He’s failed to adequately protect those who are out of work, at risk of losing their homes, or living behind bars, where the virus has spread rapidly.

“I wrote bills to help to make sure that we had revenue raisers. I wrote bills to make sure that we could cancel rent. I made sure that we could have different ways that we could get people out of jail,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “And yet it just isn’t on the radar for our governor or for our leadership.” 

Come January, Cuomo’s power—and national reputation—will be challenged by Niou, along with a slate of incoming newly elected legislators: Marcela Mitaynes, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Emily Gallagher, Jessica González-Rojas, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, and Jabari Brisport. Most of them defeated long-term incumbents and were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. 

They easily won their seats in the general election, running on platforms to decarcerate jails and prisons, cancel rent, and tax the rich—policies opposed by the Democratic governor.

“So much of our issues with the nature and the reality of our state comes back to the decisions of our executive, of Cuomo,” said Assemblymember-elect Mamdani. “Cuomo is a massive obstacle to building this better world that we not only need but we deserve.”

A recent conflict between Cuomo and the influential Working Families Party suggests the power of progressive candidates may be growing in the state. Cuomo supported a rule change that threatened to leave third parties, including the WFP—which endorsed his primary challenger in 2018—off future ballots if they did not meet a significantly higher threshold of votes on their ballot line in the election. (WFP and Cuomo are said to have a contentious relationship, though the governor often receives the party’s support.) Several WFP-endorsed officials opposed the proposal, which Cuomo later included in his 2020 budget, including Niou, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and state Senator Julia Salazar. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren also campaigned to ensure the party’s survival. In the end, WFP received more than twice the votes needed in the election to automatically stay on future ballots—and more than twice their 2016 total.

And Cuomo’s existing powers may soon be curtailed. State Senator Alessandra Biaggi is ready to introduce a bill to take back some of the expansive emergency powers that the legislature granted Cuomo during the early days of the pandemic. 

Starting in the spring, Niou said she led efforts to collect and distribute masks to healthcare workers and cleaning staff, as well as food to her constituents. Help from the state was minimal, she said. 

“They gave us 200 gallons of hand sanitizer,” she said, adding that they received no masks. “That was all that we got from Cuomo and they were also in gallons, so we had to buy little bottles and hand fill them.”

Cuomo’s office said in a statement that “the governor and his administration have worked every day since the pandemic has started in order to bend the curve, fight this virus and keep New Yorkers safe.”

The governor’s office said that it also provided smaller bottles of hand sanitizer for constituents to all Assembly members. “There was never a request for masks made to us, but obviously if people did request masks and we had them available, obviously more became available as the pandemic kept coming, we provided them,” the statement said.

Niou said her office received only 1,000 2 oz bottles, and had to buy thousands more empty ones to distribute the bulk sanitizer; she provided The Appeal with her receipts. She maintained that her office requested masks from the state multiple times in April, but did not receive any. “When we asked for masks, we were told they were going to healthcare workers and hospitals and nursing homes, which is fine, but workers in our communities and our families needed them, too. So we got 20,000 masks from the city, and everything else we had to get ourselves.”

She added that she found it troubling that “the Governor wants to quibble about masks and sanitizer to avoid talking about the fact that he’s done so little to address the deeper systemic problems that made New York the epicenter of the pandemic with more deaths than any other state in the nation.”

For New York-based activists, Cuomo’s national image is at odds with the harm he continues to inflict on the state’s most vulnerable residents, who were hit hardest by the pandemic. More than 30,000 people in New York have died from COVID-19. Cuomo has blamed the death toll on President Trump, but according to infectious disease specialists, thousands of lives could have been saved if he had shut down the state one to two weeks earlier.

Instead he minimized the virus’s threat. On March 2, Cuomo said, “What happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” On that day, there were zero new cases of COVID-19 reported in the state, according to the New York Times’s COVID map and case count. On March 31, there were more than 8,000 new cases reported. 

As of Nov. 18, more than 1,700 state prisoners were confirmed to have COVID-19 and 18 prisoners had died from the virus, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.  

“The Cuomo administration and DOCCS have failed New Yorkers impacted by COVID-19 behind bars,” reads testimony presented to state legislators in September by the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign and the Parole Preparation Project. “Their response to the deadly virus specifically for people in New York State prisons has been at best negligent and dishonest, and at worst torturous and deadly.“

Cuomo has refused to use his clemency powers to release thousands of elderly and/or medically vulnerable state prisoners, as well as those held on technical parole violations. Since February, the governor has granted clemency to three prisoners. 

In May, Mamdani and other Democratic primary challengers sent a letter to the State Assembly and Senate leadership, calling on them to pass several measures including the Elder Parole Bill, which would allow people who are 55 years and older and have served at least 15 consecutive years in prison to be considered for parole. The bill is still in committee. 

“You see all these stories about how great he’s doing, but if you represent people that are incarcerated,” said Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, “it made us feel like, do our clients’ lives not matter?”

In the spring, Cuomo and state legislators also rolled back the state’s bail reform law, adding more misdemeanor and felony charges that would be eligible for cash bail—thereby exposing more people to pre-trial incarceration during a global pandemic. According to a new report by the Center for Court Innovation, “from July through November 1, the effect of those amendments alone has resulted in a 7 to 11 percent increase in the pretrial jail population.” 

“The steady rise in admissions now threatens to wipe out the effect of the initial reductions, putting more New Yorkers at risk of contracting the virus in the high-risk conditions behind bars,” writes the report’s author, Michael Rempel, the director of jail reform at the Center for Court Innovation. “The overwhelming driver of the increase is a steep rise in the number of people detained awaiting trial.”

In September, Cuomo’s office issued a press release entitled “Governor Cuomo Announces Moratorium on COVID-Related Residential Evictions Will Be Extended Until January 1, 2021.”

“As New York continues to fight the pandemic, we want to make sure New Yorkers who are still struggling financially will not be forced from their homes as a result of COVID,” Cuomo said in the release. 

But no such moratorium exists, explains Jason Wu, a housing attorney and trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act permits tenants to argue in housing court that they were financially impacted by COVID-19 and, therefore, should not be evicted for failure to pay rent. However, most New Yorkers are not provided counsel for housing court, who could help them raise this defense. Only tenants in New York City who live in certain ZIP codes and meet income requirements are guaranteed counsel in eviction cases. Those who are spared eviction can still be held civilly liable through liens on their bank accounts or garnished wages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a federal temporary eviction moratorium, through Dec. 31, for nonpayment of rent for those who meet certain criteria.

For months, housing rights activists have demanded that Cuomo cancel rent and impose a true eviction moratorium, but he’s given no indication of doing either, according to Wu. In July, Niou and Salazar introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, which would cancel mortgage payments for small homeowners and rental payments for all tenants.

“Cuomo’s response to the housing crisis has been haphazard and piecemeal at best,” Wu told The Appeal in a statement. “He could issue a real eviction moratorium through executive order, or there’s a pending eviction moratorium bill in the legislature.”

And despite a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and rampant unemployment, Cuomo has resisted calls to increase taxes on the wealthy. Instead, he’s proposed an austerity budget with cuts to hospitals, municipalities, and public schools.

“You can’t cut your way out of a recession,” said Niou. “We need to stop austerity budgeting. We need to make sure we’re investing in people, investing in us as a community. That makes good policy.”

During the first three months of the pandemic, more than a hundred of the state’s billionaires became richer, according to a report by the groups Americans for Tax Fairness and Health Care for America Now. New York City has more billionaires than any other city in the world, with a combined net worth of $424 billion, according to Forbes. The group Make Billionaires Pay has detailed 14 taxes that can be imposed on the state’s wealthiest residents, which would raise approximately $50 billion annually. 

We must be willing to enact equitable revenue raisers by taxing the millionaires and billionaires among us,” state legislators Biaggi and Karines Reyes wrote last week in the New York Daily News. The legislature can use those funds to cancel rent and mortgage payments, and establish a rental assistance program, they wrote. 

“We have not done enough to address the severity of the eviction crisis we face,” Biaggi and Reyes wrote. “With a new slate of lawmakers heading to Albany, this is an opportunity for the Legislature to lead.” 

Legal Aid’s Trujillo hopes the growing number of elected challengers will act as a warning to incumbents in the Democrat-controlled legislature. 

“It’s more than just Cuomo,” he said. “It’s not enough to just have ‘Democrat’ next to your name but just do the bidding of this governor. You have to actually act like a real progressive, otherwise you will lose your seat.”

This story has been updated with comment from Cuomo’s office and additional comment from Niou.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Julia Salazar’s first name.