Rossen: Rolling Back the Curtain on New York’s Wizard of Oz, Governor Cuomo

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For all the readers who grew up on the classic film “The Wizard of Oz,” this article might feel familiar. The Great and Powerful Oz, that giant floating green head that everyone looked up to? Yeah, turns out it was just a man behind a curtain pretending to be a better leader than he actually was. Today, New York has something of its own Wizard of Oz.

New York’s Wizard of Oz is a man who took the stage with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2015 to speak about the issue of sexual assault against women in college. New York’s Wizard of Oz is a man who released a statement on the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting remarking about all the actions he is taking to combat rising anti-Semitism. New York’s Wizard of Oz is a man who made a commitment to doing daily press conferences during the pandemic and emphasizing transparency. 

What a wonderful public image this is for a governor of the state of New York. But, as the classic movie goes, eventually the curtain would have to be pulled back and we’d see that maybe the man sitting behind the curtain wasn’t the person we were led to believe he was.

In the past few weeks, thanks to public documentation, investigative reporting and the bravery of Governor Cuomo’s former staff who have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment, the curtain has finally been pulled back. That giant venerable green face is no more. Now, there is just the man behind the curtain. And who is that man really?

The man behind the curtain is a man with several allegations of sexual harassment hanging over his head. The man behind the curtain is a man who took advantage of a press conference to promote one of the oldest and most harmful anti-Semitic tropes in history, that Jews somehow held collective political power, saying of Orthodox communities in New York City that “[they] are also very politically powerful, don’t kid yourself.” The man behind the curtain is a man who seems to have intentionally altered data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes to protect his political reputation.

This article is a direct declaration of support for the women who have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Governor Cuomo, and for the many lawmakers who are organizing an independent and fair investigation into it, and those who are also pushing back on Governor Cuomo’s efforts to hand-pick the people who would “investigate” him. 

This article is also a direct condemnation of Governor Cuomo’s blatantly anti-Semitic commentary. The need for leaders that know better is dire. As a leader, your words matter and can have a bigger impact than you know. In this case, it may well be that the fact that anti-Semitic incidents in the state of New York are higher than almost any other state is not unrelated to Governor Cuomo’s behavior. 

In a liberal, democratic society where we hail honesty and transparency as one of the most hallowed parts of our politics, there can be no excusing the deliberate alteration of COVID-19 death reports in nursing homes. By the admission of one of Governor Cuomo’s top aides, data on nursing home deaths were intentionally withheld by his administration out of concern that those numbers “would be used against [them]” by political opponents. 

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) writes that “Without a leader’s conscious commitment to transparency, a crisis can have negative long-term impacts on an organization’s morale, productivity, and retention.” 

Among their top recommendations for all leaders during crises is “share what you know, when you know it.”

This deliberate action by Governor Cuomo represents a conscious choice to protect the image of his administration rather than do justice to the standards of transparency he pretends to care about. The harm of this decision was real. New York University adjunct professor of clinical law Jennifer Rodgers writes that “this undercount downplayed the high rates of transmission at nursing homes, at a time when the state mandated that nursing homes re-admit patients with COVID-19 who had been receiving treatment in a hospital.”

New York’s Wizard of Oz does not have to hide behind the curtain anymore. We can see past the veneer of an administration that feigns a commitment to transparency, decency and accountability.

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