Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Andrew Cuomo Held New York’s Health Care Hostage to Undo Criminal Justice Reforms

New York’s governor claims he’s not being political, but the acquisition of power permeates everything he does.

NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES - 2020/03/30: Following the arrival in New York City of the U.S. Naval hospital ship Comfort, NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen during a press conference at the field hospital site at the Javits Center. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a press conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on March 30, 2020.

Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo broadcast his now daily press briefing from the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, which the Army Corps of Engineers is rapidly transforming into a massive pop-up hospital to help manage the city’s exploding coronavirus caseload.

Backed by the New York state flag and Old Glory, Cuomo sounded an inspirational note about the need to transcend politics as usual during this unprecedented crisis. “I’m not going to engage in politics,” he said. “I think it’s counterproductive, and I think it’s anti-American. Forget the politics. Forget the politics. We have a national crisis. We are at war. There is no politics.”

The statement surely appealed to the growing national constituency that in recent weeks has latched onto Cuomo as a straight-talking, get-it-done authority figure. The appeal is obvious, as President Donald Trump’s narcissistic flailing and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s Homer-into-the-hedge disappearing act have left a disconcerting void in national leadership.

For anyone that has a passing familiarity with Cuomo, however, his call to move past politics for the greater good was worth at least a grim, wheezing chuckle. Cuomo forswearing politics is like a shark loftily intoning against swimming through water. Zero-sum, power-broker politics is what Andrew Cuomo does — indeed, what he excels at — and no pandemic is going to change that.

Even as Cuomo was staging his daily crisis briefings and playfighting with his kid brother on CNN this week, where Chris is an anchor, he was also taking advantage of the pandemic to drive through a vindictive and life-threatening state budget through the legislature. It was a naked power grab unprecedented even in a state legendary for its murky and undemocratic government.

The day after Monday’s convention center press briefing, the New York State legislature was staring down a midnight deadline to pass a budget. The process was complicated by the logistical difficulties of conducting the usual debate, conference, and negotiation with most lawmakers physically absent from the state Capitol. But it was also made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that Cuomo — his calls to transcend politics notwithstanding — was insisting on jamming complicated and contentious policy initiatives into the budget negotiations, daring legislators to hold up a crisis budget if they wouldn’t get on board.

Cuomo’s wish list — what he was prepared to hold his state’s own pandemic response at gunpoint to achieve — was a budget full of perversities.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo’s top aide, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, tightened the screws, issuing a thinly veiled threat: If the legislature couldn’t agree on a budget by the end of the night, she said, “State government will shut down — including the Department of Health.”

The legislature didn’t quite manage to meet that deadline, but it did pass a budget Thursday night, handing the governor virtually everything he wanted. Cuomo’s wish list — what he was prepared to hold his state’s own pandemic response at gunpoint to achieve — was a budget full of perversities.

While New York’s health system, already hobbled by years of neglect, buckled under the coronavirus outbreak, Cuomo wanted to cut $2.5 billion in state Medicaid funding, even though doing so would mean forfeiting $6.7 billion in federal aid. He wanted to slash state funding for education. As the pandemic eviscerates state revenue, he wanted to avoid any increase in taxes on the ultra-rich and instead balance the books by cutting muscle and bone from critical social services.

And like Viktor Orban on the Hudson, Cuomo wanted to use the pandemic to arrogate vast new powers to himself: the ability to further slash spending on a quarterly basis without so much as consulting the democratically elected legislature.


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Lastly, and perhaps most inexplicably, Cuomo was holding the state budget hostage to his regressive criminal justice agenda. The previous year, state Democrats had taken advantage of their newfound control of both chambers of the legislature to pass landmark criminal justice reforms that went into effect in January, eliminating cash bail in most instances and ending a long-standing arrangement that allowed prosecutors to withhold their evidence against defendants virtually until the day of their trials.

Cuomo signed the legislation last year, but made it clear he didn’t like it, and set about trying to roll it back this year — threatening to put more people in jails even as they are ravaged by the novel coronavirus. Rather than asking the legislature to consider changes in open floor debate, he stuffed his criminal justice agenda into the secretive budget process, where legislators would get virtually no chance to even review the changes to the law, much less discuss them before voting on them.

In typical hardball fashion, Cuomo’s opening bid was a reformers’ worst nightmare. His draft legislation proposed to give judges the power — unprecedented in state history — to jail defendants, even people facing misdemeanor charges, on the basis of a premonition that those defendants might commit some future act of violence. The same judges who have spent decades using money bail to incarcerate New Yorkers before their trials would now be handed the power to lock people up based on their powers of divination, the reading of entrails, or the huffing of oracular vapors. The result, critics warned, was sure to be a new era of racist mass incarceration.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie managed to block this dark vision, but the final compromise still spelled the end of New York’s brief flirtation with criminal justice reform. Whole new categories of defendants will now be jailed based on their inability to pay money bail. The carceral forces that lobbied hard to undo last year’s reforms are already baying for more blood, making it clear that coming years will likely further erode what remains of reformers’ modest gains.

What Cuomo wanted, he got. Gutting health care, protecting the rich, making it easier to put his constituents in pestilential jails, gaining czar-like powers to unilaterally determine funding — he got it. By threats, by arm-twisting, by brilliant manipulation of the legislature’s disarray, he got it. If it all sounds like an incredibly cynical, anti-democratic exploitation of a crisis to accumulate and exert power, well — that’s politics.

“There is no politics,” Cuomo insisted to his new national audience. Speaking at an online press conference Tuesday night, Assembly Member Latrice Walker, who sponsored the criminal justice reform last year and fought a losing battle to keep in intact, knew better. “The greatest trick that the devil ever pulled,” she said on the legislature floor in the early morning hours, “was to prove to the world that he doesn’t exist.”

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