A quarter-century ago, as President Bill Clinton dealt with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other credible charges of sexual misconduct lodged against him, America’s political culture reached a turning point. Rather than condemn him or demand his resignation, fellow Democrats stuck with him, thereby proving that they cared more about policy and partisanship than morality. Some 18 years later, Republicans demonstrated that they were no different when they nominated and then elected Donald Trump as president, a man with a long list of moral failings on his record.
It’s clear that both parties engage in situational ethics when it comes to politicians. But the question facing the largest Jewish community in the United States is whether they subscribe to the same cynical formula.
The person who will be testing this proposition is former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s been signaling his interest in returning to high office since he was forced to resign the governorship in disgrace in August 2021 when he was faced with possible prosecution for his actions toward women and the likelihood of impeachment. His appearance last month via video giving a featured speech at a Carnegie Hall event honoring the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was part of a concerted effort on his part to woo Jewish support for his unlikely comeback attempt.
Like his late father Mario, who also was elected three times as governor of the Empire State, the younger Cuomo has long cultivated a reputation as a friend of the Jewish community and a supporter of Israel. So if, as appears evident, he is attempting a comeback by running against fellow New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand next year, what could be more natural than to do so by playing the kind of religious/ethnic politics that has long been the mother’s milk of New York public life? That he was assisted in this effort by the celebrity cleric and Kosher Sex author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a frequent dabbler in politics and the organizer of the Carnegie Hall event, was also nothing out of the ordinary.
There is no shortage of groups whose purpose is to build support for the Jewish state; still, Cuomo announced at the event that he was founding yet another one, which he has named “Progressives for Israel.”
At a time when, as a Gallup tracking poll indicated, for the first time more Democrats support the Palestinians than those who back Israel, pro-Israel activists are inclined to welcome any effort along these lines. Cuomo was right to say, as he recently did on his podcast, that the intersectional left is intimidating moderate Democrats on the issue. He also hopes to take advantage of his party’s drift to the far left in the form of New York laws abolishing cash bail and the election of prosecutors like Manhattan’s District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who are pulling back on prosecutions of criminals, which is driving an increase in crime and a decline in quality of life in Gotham.
But the notion that a politician who was driven from office because of multiple charges of sexual harassment, as well as carrying heavy baggage from thousands of COVID deaths among elderly residents of senior homes that were arguably caused by his decisions at the time, is going to be the answer to Israel’s problems among Democrats seems more than a stretch.
From an Emmy to disgrace
On its face, the notion of a 65-year-old man felled by a barrage of #MeToo charges and pandemic blowback—and prior to that having earned a reputation as a political thug—returning to any high office, let alone a seat in the U.S. Senate, seems like a ludicrous idea. Yet Cuomo rightly senses that there is an opening for a centrist Democrat, especially against a senator like Gillibrand, who is disliked by her party’s donor class and has mediocre popularity ratings.
As his pro-Israel gambit indicates, Cuomo, who still has $10 million sitting in his campaign chest, understands that New York politics can be intensely tribal. While this initiative will not endear him to the state party’s powerful left-wing faction, primaries in New York aren’t necessarily determined by Manhattan elites. Turning out specific groups in a low-turnout primary—whether Jews from the outer boroughs and suburbs or Chassidic enclaves whose residents vote in blocks—can be more important than the inevitable avalanche of scorn that will be aimed at him from liberal outlets like The New York Times.
Cuomo’s fall from grace was spectacular.
In 2021, he was preparing to run for a fourth term in Albany with little indication that he wouldn’t succeed. Moreover, in 2020, he became the country’s pandemic hero as, with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden keeping an understandably low profile to avoid harming his cause with gaffes, Cuomo’s daily televised press conferences—for which he won an honorary Emmy Award—made him a star. Fawning treatment from leading figures in the corporate liberal press, talking heads and the hosts of late-night comedy programs who all contrasted his supposedly steady and empathetic leadership to that of Trump all contributed to his popularity.
That came in spite of his infamous March 25, 2020 order when he had forced New York nursing homes to accept recovering coronavirus victims. This led to thousands of preventable deaths and was compounded by the cover-up of the number of victims by the governor’s office.
Yet that would not be his undoing. When multiple charges of sexual harassment lodged against him were made public, detailed in a report issued by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, his former sycophants and enablers ran for cover. He left Albany with his reputation destroyed and his career apparently at an end. Nevertheless, a comeback may not be as unlikely as it sounds.
The success of this gambit may depend on his bid to position himself as the champion of the Jews and Israel.
At Carnegie Hall, Cuomo declared that he will be the “Shabbes goy”—a non-Jew hired by Orthodox Jews to turn on lights and appliances on the Sabbath, and a line that his father, who had a part-time job as one in his youth, used frequently with Jewish audiences—who will fight the rising antisemitism that is prevalent within his own party’s left wing. In doing so, he is attempting to seize control of an open lane in New York politics that could prove advantageous in a state with so many Jewish voters.
Redemption or entitlement?
Boteach told me that he met Cuomo in Poland when they both attended the ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He has had close associations with other political figures such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), with whom he broke after the latter’s support for the Iran nuclear deal. Boteach even once ran for a New Jersey seat in Congress himself. He said he has no qualms about backing Cuomo because “I believe in redemption and repentance. He paid a huge price and took responsibility for his actions. I don’t want to live in a country where people can never atone for mistakes.”
It’s far from clear that he actually has made amends for his behavior. His claim that his unwanted touching of women was merely a matter of being an Italian American was appalling. So, too, were the attempts by staff and friends to besmirch his accusers. But undaunted by that, Boteach said that if Cuomo is willing to leverage his reputation to speak about antisemitism at a time of an epidemic of anti-Jewish violence in New York City, then he deserves the gratitude of Jewish voters. Boteach also pointed out that on the most important vote concerning Israel during her Senate career, Gillibrand voted for the Iran nuclear deal that endangered the Jewish state’s existence. While that can be used against her, it’s also true that Cuomo didn’t take a stand against the pact at the time either.
Boteach seems to be turning a blind eye to the tone of defiance rather than repentance that Cuomo has exuded since his troubles began. But he might not be the only one thinking that in a Democratic Party increasingly dominated by progressives and celebrity members of the congressional “Squad” like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who helped to push weathervane politicians like Gillibrand further to the left, even someone with Cuomo’s baggage might be useful in the fight against the radicals. If Cuomo runs as the anti-woke candidate in the primary, that fact might be seen as more important than his past indiscretions.
Still, the odds against a successful comeback remain long. The thought of someone with the #MeToo badge of shame successfully competing against a woman in any state—let alone ultra-liberal New York—boggles the imagination. Talk of redemption notwithstanding, the main vibe Cuomo still gives off is entitlement. But if anyone could accomplish such a feat, the former governor might be the only one who could do it.
If so—and if it happens because he mobilizes the support of New York’s Jewish Democrats—it will be more proof that as we’ve already seen in the cases of Clinton and Trump, concerns about public virtue or even decent behavior when it comes to the treatment of women from our leaders are a thing of the past.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.