Opinion

Only Letitia James running against Gov. Cuomo in 2022 could unseat him

About a year from now, there’s a good chance that Gov. Cuomo, as obstinate as ever, will run for a fourth term.

Since his youth, this has been his overriding obsession — to outdo his governor father, Mario, who failed to win a fourth time in 1994. Until January, this seemed like a fait accompli, even though it never should have been.

The myth of Cuomo, coronavirus conqueror, was in full force for all of 2020, as the mainstream media fawned over him and ignored the mass suffering across the state. His popularity skyrocketed and there was a brief, deranged moment when Democrats mused about dumping Joe Biden on the presidential ticket and replacing him with Cuomo. 

In 2021, that all changed. First, Attorney General Letitia James, a former ally, released a report that confirmed what many reporters and Albany politicians suspected: The Cuomo administration had severely undercounted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. The Justice Department would soon launch a fresh probe into the coverup. 

At the same time, women who had worked for Cuomo were coming forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault. The State Assembly opened an impeachment inquiry. 

A former ally of the governor, Letitia James (right) is now the only Democrat who could seriously defeat him in the primary next year.
A former ally of the governor, Letitia James (right) is now the only Democrat who could seriously defeat him in the primary next year.
AP

Most of the state’s political class, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, called for Cuomo to resign. Taking advice from his CNN host brother, Cuomo refused to give in, ranting about “cancel culture” as his polling numbers tanked. 

James is set to release a report on the sexual harassment allegations in the coming months. At some point, the Justice Department probe will reach its conclusion. The slow-grinding Assembly investigation will need to wrap too. 

But for now, Cuomo exists in a kind of limbo. Support from Democratic voters, down from the historic peaks of 2020, might be stabilizing or even increasing. A recent Siena College poll found that more than 60 percent of Democrats still approved of Cuomo, which will likely convince him to run one more time. The governor has a pathological thirst for dominance and won’t voluntarily surrender the trappings of his office. 

Cuomo and his allies think they’ve waited out the worst and can now trundle onwards to June 2022, when the next state Democratic primary will be held. In 2014 and 2018, Cuomo easily swatted away lefty challengers, spending them into oblivion. 

But this time could be different because a new, ideal candidate has emerged to drive Cuomo out: James herself. 

The state’s first black attorney general, James has deep roots in Brooklyn and strong ties to organized labor. Beating Cuomo in the primary will be about cutting into his deep reservoirs of support. One is labor: Huge unions like 1199 SEIU, the health-care workers union, have remained steadfast Cuomo supporters. James, with her own statewide perch and campaign history with them — she won races of attorney general and public advocate with the backing of many unions — may be the only person who can peel these organizations from Cuomo. 

These statewide unions pour millions into campaigns and mobilize voters. In 2014 and 2018, they helped Cuomo easily swat away two progressive challengers, Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon. 

In the past, Cuomo easily swatted away progressive challengers, such as Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout (right), but now sexual harassment claims by ex-aide Lindsey Boylan (left) and others have made the governor vulnerable.
In the past, Cuomo easily swatted away progressive challengers, such as Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout (right), but now sexual harassment claims by ex-aide Lindsey Boylan (left) and others have made the governor vulnerable.
J.C. Rice; Getty Images

Both women failed to beat Cuomo because they could not make inroads in the outer boroughs of New York City, particularly in black and Latino neighborhoods. Spending far more money, Cuomo dominated The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, and is depending on this support again to glide to a fourth term. 

Deep down, Cuomo knows James, unlike any other potential contender, is a threat to take these voters away. She is a former city councilwoman from Central Brooklyn and enjoys significant name recognition in black neighborhoods. The city’s public advocate before capturing, in 2018, the office of attorney general, James has appeared on ballots in competitive elections in all five boroughs. 

The Prince.

So far, Cuomo has survived because the cautious labor unions are still in his corner, as well as the state’s wealthiest donors. If the titans of finance and Wall Street decide they are sick of Cuomo, he is in deep trouble. James must merely improve on Nixon’s New York City vote share, since there are many anti-Cuomo Democrats to be found north of the five boroughs, particularly in the Albany area. 

The path to beating Cuomo is joining black and Latino voters, many of them more moderate and church-going, with white progressives who also vote reliably. Teachout and Nixon could not create this coalition. James, with her pedigree, can. No longer perceived as Cuomo’s lackey, she has won headlines for suing Donald Trump and investigating Cuomo himself. 

This won’t be easy, of course. Cuomo is a prodigious fundraiser and there are enough blinkered MSNBC-watching liberals who will stick by him. But James has a chance to do what was once unthinkable — end the reign of another Cuomo. 

Ross Barkan is the author of “The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York” (OR Books), out June 22. 


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