Assemblyman Ron Kim speaking at a rally. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Exclusive

Excl: New York Democratic Assemblyman says ‘Cuomo must share blame with Trump’ for pandemic response

New York’s first Korean-American Assemblyman Ron Kim faces the wrath of the Cuomo administration after he unveiled a cover up of the state’s Covid-19 care home deaths

On the evening of 10 February, Ron Kim and his wife Alison were preparing a bath for their daughters when the phone rang. The caller was Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York. Kim, the first Korean-American elected to the New York State Assembly, answered. There were no pleasantries. Cuomo, according to Kim, exploded with fury at hello.

An hour or so before the call, The New York Post had published a damning article that detailed a private phone call between the governor’s office and Democratic lawmakers—including Kim—in which Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted to a cover-up of the true extent of the Covid-related death toll in New York’s nursing homes to avert a politically motivated probe by the Trump administration. DeRosa’s apology for the cover-up was accompanied with the expectation of the lawmakers’ “appreciation of the context”.

Kim, the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Ageing, was appalled. His own elderly uncle, a dementia patient, had died of presumed Covid in a nursing home at the height of the pandemic. After having spent months pleading with the Cuomo administration to be transparent, he saw DeRosa’s admission as a sly attempt to make the lawmakers complicit in the executive’s cover-up by granting them access to facts withheld from others. When the Post reached out to Kim for a comment about the call, he did not bite his tongue: the Cuomo administration, he said, was “trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence that might put the administration … in further trouble with the Department of Justice”. This quote incensed Cuomo so much that he threatened to “destroy” Kim: “You will be finished”, the governor shrieked, according to Kim.

The tragedy inaugurated by Covid supplied an opportunity for Cuomo to recast himself as the anti-Trump. He held regular press briefings, berated those who breached the lockdown regulations, castigated Trump, and published a book of “leadership lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic”. “If you don’t believe that the truth wins,” he told The New Yorker in October, “you can’t do the job”. Three months later, the Attorney General of New York published a 76-page report that concluded New York had undercounted Covid deaths in its nursing homes by as much as 50 per cent.

Cuomo’s call to Kim did not have the intended effect. Although terrorised by the call he received, Kim did not kneel down. He stopped taking calls from the governor and his staff, and, believing he was being asked to participate in the obstruction of justice, hired a lawyer. In the two weeks since, Kim’s prominence has grown—as has the clamour for Cuomo’s impeachment and expulsion from office. This confrontation has reminded some of the beginning of the end of Elliot Spitzer’s governorship more than a decade ago. Kim, however, disagrees.

In an interview with me for The Critic, he described Cuomo as the operator of the most powerful political machine in the history of New York. Charting the history of his difficult relationship with the governor of New York, Kim disclosed that he had once worked for Cuomo’s late father, Mario, and remembered him as a generous “man of character”. He faulted Cuomo for “scapegoating” and hiding behind Trump’s mistakes. And, although pessimistic about the prospects of removing Cuomo from office, he drew comfort from the knowledge that his fight had created a rare opening that left-wing activists—who have become a force over the past half-decade—may yet seize.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kapil Komireddi: Assemblyman—please can you explain what has been happening?

Ron Kim: On 10 February, Wednesday, the governor’s top aide [Melissa DeRosa], in a private meeting, admitted that they were hiding important life-and-death information around nursing homes in fear that it could be used against them politically. That’s an obstruction of justice. You can’t just say, I don’t like the way you look, judge. Or, you’re mean to me, so I am not going to comply. That’s really what she was saying: Donald Trump wants to get us, so we don’t want to give this information. That has nothing to do with sharing data, so we can legislate and fix some of the problems in our nursing home facilities. They took that away from us by playing politics. And she admitted it. The moment she did that, it no longer became a private conversation. She implicated everyone on that phone call [in] a crime. That’s how I felt it, and that’s why I spoke up against it the next day. I did not want to be complicit in their cover-up.

I’ve been fighting for nursing homes and the older adults for ten months. I’ve been on the ground, crying for help, for ten months. Now you want to make me complicit in your wrongdoing? It was such a horrible thing for them to attempt to do. So I went on record and let a reporter know how I felt about it when I was approached. Once the story came out, the governor called to berate and yell and really threaten me—that he would ruin my career and ruin my life unless I issue a new statement that night that countered what I heard the other day. It’s pretty much what happened. I witnessed a crime, and you’re calling me to let me know that I did not see that crime.

Then they made several attempts the following Saturday—Friday they left me alone: it was the Lunar New Year Day—they called me about eight times. The governor himself directly four times and his staff another four times. And that is when I decided that I need to seek counsel to protect myself, and I told the governor on Monday that if he wants to talk to me, he should contact my lawyer.

KK: You said that a day before the call the Secretary, Melissa DeRosa, admitted that the Cuomo administration withheld—and I quote you—“lifesaving nursing home data” because they feared the information might be used against them. How would this data have saved lives?

RK: It all comes down to the [budget] bill that I’ve been trying to repeal, the provision concerning corporate legal immunity. At the peak of the pandemic, the governor listened to the business interests and decided to give a blanket criminal and legal immunity to the worst type of nursing homes there is, and also the hospitals. So, basically, his top campaign donors got access, admitted they wrote the bill—it was in a press release, they took down the press release apparently, but they admitted it, it was on record that that’s what happened. They put [the provision] into the budget at the last minute without sharing it with any of us. It’s what we call “poison bill” in the budget.

We can’t just scapegoat Trump for everything that went wrong

The moment I found out through a New York Times reporter—and this is a budget I voted against—I put in a repeal. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand that when an industry is mostly for-profit, and you give them blanket legal immunity in the middle of a pandemic, they are not going to spend an extra dollar to try and save people. It’s very simple. And I published three reports to make this point. We analysed all the data from around the country and found that 77 per cent of deaths—all Covid deaths—were in states that had a version of the corporate legal immunity. And once I published, and The Guardian published an article, the data got suppressed—they delinked the data from the hospitals and the nursing homes. Then I no longer had a case to repeal. It didn’t seem like a problem. The governor wrote a book, and it’s like, We are the last in the country, we don’t have that many nursing home deaths. Then he published the book in October and went around pretending to be a Covid hero, while I knew the truth that they were suppressing the data. We kept asking him, we kept writing letters.

It was only in January, when the Attorney General’s office in New York said that there was a 50 per cent undercount, they finally released everything in its entirety. But if we had the entire data, we would have had the momentum and the proof to repeal the toxic legal immunity. Our belief is that that’s not what the businesses wanted and that’s one of the main reasons why they decided to suppress the data for so many months.

KK: You are saying the lives of elderly New Yorkers were effectively subordinated to the profits of corporations that support the governor?

RK: Hundred per cent. This executive made a conscious choice to listen to the corporate interests and literally put profits over people’s lives.

KK: To what extent is Trump responsible for all this, for creating the climate for this? Is it not reasonable for the Cuomo administration to say that they were trying to defend their capacity to respond from being curtailed by Washington, which was intent on politicising this? “In wartime,” Churchill said, “truth is so precious that it should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Covid has been like war. The governor has described it as war. So surely you can make some allowances for a man trying to guard the truth to protect the larger interest of New York’s citizens?

RK: I do agree that there was a lack of leadership from Washington, a lack of support and overall leadership. However, we can hold Washington and this state and this city accountable—to the same standards. We can’t just scapegoat Trump for everything that went wrong. That’s what the governor was trying to do. If Donald Trump doesn’t provide you money, then you raise taxes on the rich, like we asked you to do. Every time we had a crisis in New York’s history, we always taxed the rich to get more revenue, to make sure the money was flowing back to our state. This governor refuses to go anywhere near his top-donor classes. There is a number of things he could have done differently. But what he chose was to scapegoat Trump and even use him to potentially obstruct justice by not providing information to the Department of Justice.

KK: You are the first Korean-American elected to office in New York. And you say you have been bullied and that there is a concerted effort to besmirch your reputation. What sort of support have you received from figures who are very prominent in the Democratic Party. I am thinking of someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—AOC—I know she has said this should be investigated, but have they reached out to you privately to express solidarity? Racist attacks against Asian-Americans climbed, if I’m not mistaken, to 2,000 per cent last year. Have prominent figures stood in solidarity with you as you are being attacked?

There is a better path, there is a better world, we are going to get there very soon

RK: In my inner circles—the organisers and the advocates, working families, progressive groups that I have been allied with for several years now—they are a hundred per cent behind me. They are doing everything. They reached out to me. They are putting out statements. But it’s really the people in the middle—the corporate politicians—who are silent or are undermining what I’m doing internally. They want me to go away. Anyone who is in bed with the Cuomo administration and got their crumbs from the pie and have their people employed in his orbit—they want me to disappear. That’s the difficult challenge. The institutional power is against me. And even today, I felt that in my own assembly’s Democratic conference, the one that’s supposed to defend me. I went in there to find they are doing everything to tear me down, even calling me the bully. Two members of my Democratic conference accused me of being the bully, not the governor. So that’s the kind of climate that I think is really challenging.

But I feel very optimistic because, outside of that power structure, there are literally hundreds of younger AOCs who are dynamic and strong, and they are behind me. They will take my seat very soon, I hope, and go beyond what AOC could do. When I see them speaking up for me, I am inspired. AOC contributed to my campaign and is morally behind me. There is a better path, there is a better world, we are going to get there very soon.

KK: The state Democratic chairman, Jay Jacobs, has called your agitation “nonsensical” and said that there “are groups of people who sometimes put their ambition and their personal agendas ahead of what’s good for the party and the state, and I think that’s what is happening here”.

RK: He’s a Cuomo appointee. Cuomo runs the Democratic Party in New York, and he has intergenerational network and power and money. He is a very powerful person. Which is why, when this happened, my wife was in trauma for two hours. She didn’t sleep all night after the phone call [from Cuomo]. She literally begged me for the first hour to stop everything I am doing. She was angry with me that I was putting our family in a dangerous position. This is David-versus-Goliath. I am an immigrant from Flushing whose mom still works four days a week at a supermarket. Against me is intergenerational power and money and a political structure—I don’t even know how deep his powers run. It is very scary.

KK: You are also a very ambitious politician. You worked in a lobbying firm, and you denounced in 2016 a piece of legislation designed to help workers in nail salons as a “knee-jerk reaction to a New York Times report”. But you helped to draft that legislation!

I don’t know to what extent some of the leaders are implicated in some of the governor’s wrongdoings

RK: That’s where they keep lying. It was the governor’s bill. It’s what we call a governor’s programme bill. I pushed back because it was too much of an impossible regulation on small businesses. There’s plenty of articles that document this. The New York Times corrected their original article. A number of publications came out and defended my position. It was basically a hit-job by the governor because I wasn’t complying with what he wanted me to do, which is just sign-off on his proposal to crack down on nail salons. I fought back from the beginning to end. These are all Korean and Chinese owned small businesses. These are my constituents. These are my people. I am a son of a small business owner. My parents ran a nail salon for ten years. This is the world that I come from. Why wouldn’t I defend them? The governor took a bill and tried to destroy the industry. He proposed it, I sponsored it. He came up with the language, and I changed 70 per cent of it. There’s a document of this—of what he proposed. He agreed to it, eventually, and the fight began because we passed the law and then he started doing his own unilateral regulations to bypass the law that we agreed to.

It all involved what we call the “wage bond insurance”—an insurance product imposed on small businesses that I thought was predatory. You can’t do it. In order to qualify [for the bond], you need a 740-credit score and a collateral of up to $100,000. No small business owner has that. This was going to destroy all my constituents’ small businesses. The governor agreed to my changes in the bill—and then the next month he issued a state of emergency and passed his own unilateral regulations. That’s when I called him out: You shook my hand and agreed to the law, and then you decided to do something else a month later! That’s when we started having a conflict, and that is when he planted a story to say that I am a corrupt person in The New York Times, which so many publications came out and corrected—including The New York Times, which apologised to me directly.

KK: You’ve suffered a personal loss. Your elderly uncle died in a nursing home. Did the governor send you a note of condolence? You have, after all, worked closely with him.

RK: No, he has not. I think he missed a great opportunity when he called me on that day. I think about it sometimes. Imagine if he just opened by saying, Hey, I am sorry you lost your uncle?

KK: He never did that?

RK: He never did that. The first words out of his mouth were: Are you an honourable man? I still remember the way he said it. It’s very sad because I actually worked for his father, Mario Cuomo, when I was a freshman in college. I was a doorman at his apartment for three months. I spent intimate time with his father. He was a great man. He was a man of character. Everyone in the neighbourhood loved him. He knew my name, and he always tipped me well when I got him a cab. I was so inspired by the father. When he died, I saw Andrew Cuomo at an event. I gave him my condolences. We had a moment. He was sitting next to me. He put his hand on me and said, Thank you, Ron, for sharing that story. It was a very touching moment. That was many years ago, obviously, and things have changed tremendously. But no—to answer your question, he never sent me his condolences.

KK: You’ve been at loggerheads with the governor for some years. One reporter who has observed New York politics up close has said that what is now happening looks like the beginning of the end of Elliot Spitzer’s governorship. And you may be the man who precipitated the political demise of the governor who was once seen as a potential presidential candidate. Do you see this as a triumph—or do you live in fear of retribution?

RK: I’ve had about a dozen meltdowns already. Over the weekend, I think I broke down about four times, randomly—I just don’t know why I was crying. It’s anger, sadness, happiness—I don’t know what it is. Like everything at once, its flowing through me. I do not know what’s going to happen. I feel like I’m in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where I’ve seen the truth and seen the light, and I’m trying to go back and tell my colleagues and they are in the middle of trying to kill me. That’s how I feel. They’d rather stay in the dark [about Cuomo] than come out and see the light. I do not know if I am going to survive exposing them to the light—or if I am going to be pummelled because they are just too scared to come out of the cave. That’s the state I am in right now. Thankfully, my wife, and the core group of supporters—they give me hope and they continue to support me. As we speak, they’re constantly texting me, checking up on me that I am okay, want to talk to me.

KK: But aren’t you winning this—it’s taken you years to build up this momentum, and for the first time people are speaking about the governor’s fall? You have called for the governor’s impeachment.

The Cuomo administration has a level of power that we have never seen in the history of New York

RK: After today, I don’t feel we have the votes to make [impeachment] stick. I think everyone is trying to go back to normal. They want to do a minimum transparency bill to give the impression that there’s accountability. I think that’s what they feel comfortable doing. It’s unfortunate. I don’t know where the line stops. I thought the assembly—the body I belong to—had integrity in protecting our institutions. That they would not be bullied or abused by the executive office. Now I don’t know to what extent some of the leaders are implicated in some of the governor’s wrongdoings. I get the sense that the governor has the receipts on them—to the point that we are, institutionally, essentially owned by the governor. They are even afraid to say one bad thing, after all this, inside our private meetings. It’s very telling. [The Cuomo administration] is not a democracy. It is very different than Elliot Spitzer many years ago. This Cuomo administration has a level of concentrated power that we have never seen in the history of New York.

KK: And you’ve decided to stand against that concentrated power. It’s a suicide mission, then?

RK: I have so many amazing supporters. From the Bernie Sanders campaign there’s a world of good operators at the national level, at the local level, and it’s not like I am paying them—they are working overdrive, doing their part, to support me. I am talking lawyers to PR experts to communications directors—they are all just stepping in to play their part. It’s not just about me at this point—it’s about the whole movement. They’ve sensed that something good can happen. It’s not guaranteed, because Cuomo is very powerful, but they want to see it happen. They are calling me, knowing that I may not want to do this anymore, giving me advice and encouraging me to keep moving forward. All these things are happening very organically. I do feel very privileged, because if this happened five years ago I wouldn’t have this kind of support. It’s a culmination of a lot of things.

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