Last week, Ron Kim, a Democratic State Assembly member from Queens, was preparing a bath for his three daughters—ages six, four, and two—when he got a call from the governor around 8 P.M. An hour earlier, the New York Post had published leaked details of a Zoom meeting between state Democratic lawmakers and Melissa DeRosa, one of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s closest aides. During the two-hour meeting, DeRosa seemed to confirm a suspicion that a number of lawmakers had had for months: the governor had intentionally withheld from them data confirming that thousands more New York nursing-home residents died from COVID-19 than official numbers publicly showed. The lawmakers demanded an explanation, and DeRosa offered them one: last year, the Cuomo administration had been worried that Donald Trump and his Justice Department would use the numbers “against us.” “Basically, we froze,” DeRosa told the Democrats.
Kim, who has been a persistent critic of Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, was in the meeting with DeRosa. A month earlier, he had become the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Aging, and once the recording of the call leaked, the Post had reached out for comment. Kim told the reporters that, to him, DeRosa’s comments were as bad as they looked—“They were trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence,” he said—a quote that the governor’s office had tried to get Kim to retract. But the quote had stayed in, the story was up, and now the governor was on the phone, fuming. “I will destroy you!” Cuomo screamed, according to notes Kim wrote down after the call—which he shared with me. The governor was so loud that Kim’s wife and daughters grew upset, and Kim stepped out of the bathroom. “You haven’t seen my wrath,” Cuomo told him. “I will go out tomorrow and start telling the world how bad of an Assembly member you are, and you will be finished.”
For Kim, the nursing-home issue was personal as well as political. In April, his uncle Son Kim died, of a suspected case of COVID-19, in a nursing home in Queens. He was seventy-eight, and had shaped his nephew’s life. Son Kim had become a dentist at a time when it was almost impossible for a Korean immigrant to set up a dental practice in New York City. He enlisted in the Army, in which he could practice his profession, and eventually sponsored Ron and his family’s visas to the U.S.; in 1987, when Ron was seven, his uncle, a staunch Republican, chose a new American name for him, in honor of President Ronald Reagan. Despite the personal loss, Kim told Cuomo that he’d tried to keep his disagreements about the governor’s pandemic policies on the level of policy. I bit my tongue, Kim said.
“I bit my tongue!” Cuomo shot back.
Neither Kim nor his wife slept that night. “I’m trying to calm her down,” Kim told me. Cuomo kept up the pressure through the weekend. That Saturday, Cuomo’s aides and other intermediaries called Kim, trying to get him to talk to the governor. “It’s Lunar New Year—I’m with my family,” Kim told me. “I felt extremely uncomfortable.” Kim believes that Cuomo was trying to silence him. “I realized if I changed course, I’m complicit,” Kim said. “And then, politically, he owns me.” Kim hired a lawyer, to whom he directed any further communications about the issue from the governor’s office. “Ultimately, what he was trying to do was asking me to lie about what I heard,” Kim said, of Cuomo. “It’s like I witnessed a crime, and they’re asking me to say I didn’t witness a crime.”
As recently as a week ago, it was easy to find people in New York politics who thought the outrage over the Post’s scoop would blow over. Sure, there were Republicans, members of the minority party in both the Assembly and the Senate, who were calling for Cuomo to be removed from office. But that was nothing new. Nine Democrats in the Assembly, including Kim, signed a letter accusing Cuomo of obstructing justice and calling for actions against him, including impeachment proceedings. Yet that seemed a distant possibility. Perhaps the legislature would work up the momentum to strip Cuomo of the emergency powers he’d been granted last March, when the pandemic hit, which had codified the governor’s authority to do everything from ordering shutdowns to setting mask rules and tweaking election laws. But those powers were set to expire in a few weeks, anyway.
It was a strange scandal, in that neither the crime nor the coverup were exactly news. State lawmakers had been demanding that Cuomo release the real nursing-home death toll since the spring. They held hearings about the matter over the summer. A report issued in late January by state Attorney General Letitia James had confirmed that the public records maintained by New York’s Department of Health omitted some five thousand nursing-home residents who had died after being transferred to a hospital—meaning that the state’s nursing-home death toll was as much as fifty per cent higher than what it looked like. (This didn’t affect the state’s over-all death statistics, just which category the deaths were counted in.) DeRosa had confessed that a choice had been made to delay disclosing the nursing-home numbers. But what really seemed to set everyone off was the manner in which she made the confession. Like Kim, other lawmakers in the meeting worried that the governor had made them look complicit in his actions. During the Zoom call, Rachel May, a senator from Syracuse, said to DeRosa, “The issue for me, the biggest issue of all, is feeling like I needed to defend, or at least not attack, an administration that was appearing to be covering something up.” (The governor’s office disputed the characterization that it intentionally withheld the total number of deaths at New York state nursing homes.)
Kim and other lawmakers I talked to said that they believed the pushback caught DeRosa off guard. Even before the pandemic, Cuomo and his aides ruled New York with a carefully managed reputation for fearsomeness. After the pandemic hit, the governor’s power only grew, formally and informally, thanks to his emergency powers, his willingness to make quick decisions on critical questions, and the incredibly popular pandemic news conferences he began to hold almost daily, for which he eventually won an Emmy. For the better part of a year, Cuomo revelled in the role of America’s stern, steady stepfather, in contrast to Trump’s deadbeat-dad act. In October, he published a book titled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” That month, in a Profile in The New Yorker about his handling of the pandemic, Cuomo said, “If you don’t believe that the truth wins, you can’t do the job. You have to believe that the right thing gets appreciated in the long run. Only the long run matters.”
Yet, all along, the nursing-home issue had lingered. In late March, as the first wave of the coronavirus surged, the Cuomo administration had directed nursing homes in the state to admit COVID-19 patients released from hospitals, while pursuing a measure to grant the facilities immunity from lawsuits. The logic at the time was to do everything to avoid overloading hospital capacity, and the Cuomo administration has since said that it was following the recommendations of the C.D.C. Since then, nursing-home residents and staff have accounted for more than a third of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. Because of social distancing and public-health measures, the families of the people who died in these facilities were often unable to be with them in their final moments, or to give them proper funerals. (Kim’s uncle, who had dementia, was among those who died alone. “He probably didn’t know what was going on,” Kim told me.) In New York, many of these relatives began denouncing Cuomo’s decisions, and speaking out about the lack of resources and preparation in the facilities. Even before Son Kim died, Kim and his staff had begun hearing from nursing-home residents’ relatives. Kim came to view the legal immunity granted to the nursing homes at Cuomo’s urging as evidence of the industry’s undue influence in Albany. “Who got to Gov Cuomo?” he tweeted recently.
During the Zoom meeting, DeRosa pointed to pressure from the Trump Administration to explain why Cuomo had delayed releasing the real numbers. Last year, the former President seized on the high number of nursing-home deaths in New York as a way to hit back at Cuomo, who had repeatedly criticized the President’s pandemic decisions. But, to the lawmakers, DeRosa seemed to be blurring fear of a crooked Justice Department probe with fear of bad political optics. (“The notion that the Trump Administration had anything to do with them not wanting to disclose the hospital deaths doesn’t make any sense to me,” Dick Gottfried, a longtime Manhattan assemblyman who was in the DeRosa meeting, told me. “Certainly not as a legal matter.”) Either way, by the time of the Zoom meeting, Trump was gone, and the lawmakers were in no mood to bow to the governor. Kim described the first hour of the meeting as a “therapy session,” during which the participants let DeRosa “have it.” “I think what happened is that, at some point, Secretary DeRosa accidentally told the truth,” Kim told me.
Still, the scandal didn’t begin to really widen until Monday, when Cuomo, in his first press conference since the Post article came out, expressed something like remorse for withholding the numbers and for creating an information “void.” At the same time, he insisted that state lawmakers had been informed of the reason for the “delay.” “They can’t say they didn’t know,” Cuomo said.
Once again, it looked like Cuomo was trying to tie the legislators to his own actions, and again the legislators protested, this time publicly. “The governor is not entitled to his own facts or alternate timeline of events,” a spokesperson for the State Senate Democrats tweeted. Things only devolved from there. On Tuesday, Cuomo’s aide Rich Azzopardi was on Twitter, touting a new public-opinion poll—“NYers saw with their own two eyes how @NYGovCuomo worked day & night to get us on the other side of this pandemic,” he wrote, adding, “This poll shows Gov’s favorability is rock solid.” That same day, Kim began talking to reporters about his interactions with the governor. On Wednesday morning, Cuomo held a press call during which he appeared to try to make good on his threats to Kim. “I’ve had—well, my office more than me—has had a long and hostile relationship with Assemblyman Ron Kim,” Cuomo told reporters. He also accused the assemblyman of corruption and “pay-to-play,” for his conduct around a nail-salon-reform bill six years ago. “I believe it was unethical, if not illegal,” Cuomo said.
Shortly after, CNN, as well as the Times, published articles about Kim and Cuomo. In the ensuing scrum, Azzopardi issued a statement calling Kim a liar and denying the language that the assemblyman said Cuomo used on their call. “We will not allow an unscrupulous politician to deceive New Yorkers or distort the truth,” Azzopardi said. The governor’s office released the full transcript of DeRosa’s Zoom meeting, as well. But then other lawmakers began to come forward with their own stories of being bullied by Cuomo. Three legislators told CNN that the governor and his staff had been threatening those who were considering voting in favor of stripping Cuomo of his emergency powers. On Twitter, former office-holders, consultants, and others involved in New York politics began describing run-ins with Cuomo or his staff as a common experience. “Every single person in NY politics knows someone who has gotten the same kind of call from @NYGovCuomo,” Monica Klein, the co-founder of the political consulting firm Seneca Strategies, said. Yuh-Line Niou, an Assembly member from lower Manhattan, tweeted, “I kid you not . . . .my text messages, my DMs, and my inbox are flooded with cuomo stories. So many people have been bullied, mistreated, or intimidated by him.”
“There have been so many instances of this guy doing this,” the state senator Alessandra Biaggi told me. “It has happened so many times to so many different people.” Biaggi described a meeting she had with Cuomo the week that she won election to her seat, in 2018. “Right before I left, he sat back in his chair and said to me, ‘So, tell me again how your grandfather’s career ended?’ ” Biaggi’s grandfather served nearly two decades in Congress before resigning amid a corruption scandal, in 1988. “I very much perceived it as a threat,” Biaggi said, adding, “People don’t speak out—people are afraid. And it goes unchecked.” (A representative from the governor’s office described the comment as “a reminder of the importance of integrity in government.”) In 2019, after Biaggi, Niou, and the state senator Jessica Ramos criticized Cuomo for inviting lobbyists and business executives to a high-priced fund-raiser with his budget director, Azzopardi told reporters that the three lawmakers were “fucking idiots.”