Cuomo’s demise and what it means for real estate

Industry figures who stuck with governor missed chance at moral high ground

New York News Analysis /
Aug.August 09, 2021 12:07 PM
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Getty, iStock)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Getty, iStock)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was once lauded for his ability to see several steps ahead. It’s hard to find those news clips now, buried under search results from his sexual harassment scandal. How, then, did he miscalculate so badly by trying to hold on?

The governor is finished. The latest nail in the coffin was victim Brittany Commisso’s interview on “CBS This Morning” Monday. Impeachment requires just 76 of 150 votes in the Assembly, but a tally today would likely be unanimous, or nearly so. Conviction by state senators and Court of Appeals justices needs 46 of 69 votes — also a given. Yet Cuomo did not see this coming.

Cuomo’s foresight was overstated to begin with, judging from his having to shut down his own Moreland Commission when it began investigating his donors. But this time his vision was clouded not just by hubris, but by what he considered a lack of satisfactory alternatives to fighting it out.

All he ever wanted to be was governor of New York, and for longer than his father was. Resigning was not a palatable option. As a result, Cuomo has put his constituents, his party, his staff, his family and his victims through five months of hell, although it is not clear how much other people matter to him.

For top aides who sullied themselves in a fruitless attempt to protect him, the damage to their careers is permanent. And Cuomo himself is far worse off than he would have been had he resigned and apologized profusely from the outset. His reputation is in tatters and he now faces potential criminal charges.

It was clear to me in late February that Cuomo would not survive (see “Five reasons Cuomo is doomed”). He held on longer than I thought because I underestimated his selfishness.

Cuomo was adept yet overrated as a governor. He looked brilliant for a few years after his election in 2010, in part because the bar was so low: His predecessor, David Paterson, had run a dysfunctional office, and the governor before that, Eliot Spitzer, had gone down in a prostitution scandal after alienating most of the New York political establishment. But Cuomo did pass same-sex marriage, a gun-safety law, a property-tax cap, Medicaid reform and other measures that had previously seemed impossible.

The business community, and real estate in particular, responded by contributing heavily to Cuomo’s campaign and to independent fundraising efforts to further his agenda. Employers appreciate a governor who can get things done. But his relationship with real estate went south well before the governor’s serial sexual harassment came to light.

In 2015, Cuomo sabotaged an agreement between the Real Estate Board of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio to reform 421a, the huge property tax abatement for multifamily developments. Cuomo demanded prevailing wage be part of the program as a favor to the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. Then he left it to REBNY and the labor group to work things out, which resulted in the program lapsing. Filings for new residential projects were virtually frozen for more than a year.

In 2019, Cuomo left the playing field again, for reasons no one ever quite understood, and let left-wing legislators pass a rent bill that ensures rent-stabilized housing stock will steadily deteriorate if not sit vacant. Some longtime family landlords have seen no choice but to sell their buildings.

This year, Cuomo made a half-hearted attempt to fix a big problem with New York City’s carbon emissions cap. Once again, he failed the real estate industry.

I once asked the governor why he never tried to abolish the inane “scaffold law,” which raises insurance costs for building and infrastructure projects statewide without making them safer. He had a good record of getting his priorities accomplished every legislative session; why not make the scaffold law one? He said it only ranks about eighth on the to-do list, and besides, the trial lawyers (who love the statute) are the most powerful lobby in Albany.

The governor was such a control freak that issues of importance to real estate and other industries often got bottlenecked on the second floor (that’s Albany-speak for the governor’s office). Cuomo’s priority items got done, but everything else took forever or just didn’t happen. Agency heads were afraid to act on their own. And staffers were less inspired by Cuomo than they were afraid of him.

His infamously petty feuds with de Blasio and others also set New Yorkers back. Who doesn’t think we would be better off had a jealous Cuomo not chased Andy Byford, aka “Train Daddy,” back to England? 

Besides leaving a litany of female victims, Cuomo also covered up Covid deaths in nursing homes so he could collect a $5 million advance on a book that he had state staffers co-write in their “spare time.” The formerly pro-Cuomo Albany Times Union editorial board was so outraged that it called for Cuomo to resign, even while supporting his call to wait for the investigators’ report on the harassment.

Despite 10 scandals, on top of bad government and failing to support real estate, REBNY never called for Cuomo’s ouster. Even after an independent investigators’ report forced the political establishment to acknowledge that the man was no longer fit to govern, the trade group merely called for an “expeditious impeachment process.” It did not actually call for impeachment, let alone resignation.

Neither did the Building and Construction Trades Council, led by Gary LaBarbera. It just said the process should “play out.” One wonders what it would take in the #MeToo era for construction workers to stand up for victims of sexual harassment.

One real estate figure who acquitted himself well was casino developer Jeff Gural, who said he regretted giving in to Cuomo’s pressure to donate money. “I can’t wait for him to resign,” Gural told The Real Deal last week. “I think he’s a bully.” Building service workers union 32BJ SEIU, followed by the Hotel Trades Council, also demanded that Cuomo quit, as did the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord group.

But by and large, the real estate industry was silent in the face of overwhelming evidence that the governor was unfit to serve. Quite a few executives even wrote checks as Cuomo raised $2.5 million in six months for a 2022 re-election campaign that will never happen.

The industry missed an opportunity to gain moral standing that it could surely use, given its poor reputation with many New Yorkers. Still, it will benefit from the end of Cuomo. Standing by to replace him is Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will need to raise money immediately to run in 2022, giving real estate firms a huge opening to curry favor.

And she might just prove better at governing than Cuomo, too. In retrospect, actually, that should not be too hard. Not too hard at all.





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