Call it ironic or call it fitting, but Andrew Cuomo, who frequently disdained the priorities of New York’s far-left Democrats, notched some historic victories for New York, paving a path of social progress that will resound for years to come. This is not the sum total of our verdict on the governor — we will have more to say in the coming days — but it is a worthwhile place to start.
It was in his first year as governor that New York legalized same-sex marriage — doing so by vote of the Legislature, not the courts. Its passage, including through a Republican-controlled state Senate, was a pivotal moment in a national movement that culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling guaranteeing the right to marry to couples, regardless of sex, all across America.
In 2013, just weeks after the mass murder of first-graders in Connecticut stunned the country, Cuomo led again, passing the nation’s toughest gun-safety law. It banned military-style assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; strengthened background checks and mental health screenings, and more. There was sloppiness in the hurried drafting, and not all those provisions survived court challenges from the gun lobby, but the SAFE Act remains a landmark achievement. Even with recent shooting spikes, gun death rates in New York remain among the lowest in the United States.
In 2019, Cuomo proudly signed the Child Victims Act, lengthening statutes of limitation for the sexual molestation of minors and creating a lookback window allowing those molested in the past to take their abusers and their enablers to court. It took courage to stand against powerful institutions protecting their interests.
He also put his signature on a human- and labor-rights bill that we had championed for decades, delivering farmworkers — who had for generations been excluded from the right to collectively bargain and denied overtime and days off — labor rights on par with everyone else. It’s an accomplishment yet to be matched by other parts of America where crops are grown and cows are milked.
And earlier this year, after too many fits and starts, Cuomo — who’d been a begrudging convert to legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use — made it happen, finally ending a long period of prohibition that had disproportionately punished Black and Brown New Yorkers for selling, buying and consuming a substance broadly used across the population. That came on the heels of reforms speeding up criminal trials that languished for years; requiring timely discovery of evidence; and limiting the use of cash bail. There are flaws in all those laws, especially bail reform that still fails to give judges discretion or factor in a defendant’s dangerousness, but all represent steps forward.
Which is not to relegate to a footnote other major achievements, among them a minimum wage on the way to $15 an hour, smartly stepped in year by year and region by region; a best-in-class family paid family leave plan; free four-year public college tuition to families earning under $125,000 a year; and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. On some of these, Cuomo led; on others, he had to be pulled by the ear, but all the results came under his tenure as chief executive.
To be sure, any three-term governor has his share of mistakes and missed opportunities. Many of Cuomo’s are in the realm of education, where a governor has little formal power. While he helpfully cheered on the growth of charter schools and strengthened their hand in claiming public-school space, he invested far too much political capital in a clunky attempt to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. His well-intended “Enough is Enough” overhaul of sex-assault standards on college campuses erodes due process for the accused.
And, having continued to slash the number of beds for mental-health patients while failing to strike timely agreement with the mayor on production of supportive housing, there’s no question Cuomo shares the blame for the persistence of street homelessness in New York.
Cuomo was a handful who wasted far too much energy waging wars against the mayor and his perceived enemies in the Legislature. Still, in expanding rights and protecting lives, New Yorkers will look back on years of sustained forward momentum.