Hugh Leo Carey was the 51st governor of New York state and arguably was among the smartest of the bunch. That’s not to suggest he had better grades than, say, noted polymath Theodore Roosevelt, or that he could match credentials with the likes of John Jay. But on a cold January day in Albany in 1982, Carey showed just how smart he was by announcing that he would retire after two remarkable terms as the state’s chief executive.
Carey’s decision saved him from exposure to the dreaded third-term curse that has haunted some of the most-lionized political leaders in state history, both in Albany and New York City, and one that appears to have caught up with Andrew Cuomo. As for Carey, rather than battle through scandals or plod his way through ennui or engage in pointless political quarrels with friends and enemies alike, he left office hailed as the man who saved New York. Which, as these things go, is a pretty nice thing to have in the first paragraph of your obituary.
As for the current governor of New York, it is far too early to consider how it all ends for him, although that may come as a surprise to consumers of Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment content. But there is little question now that even Cuomo, as resourceful as any of his predecessors and shrewder than most, has come face to face with the third-term curse. The nursing home scandal he now faces will shadow his pending reelection campaign next year — assuming nothing worse happens between now and then — and may yet threaten his presumed bid for a fourth term.
A student of history might well have predicted something like this in 2018, when Democrat Cuomo won term No. 3 by dismissing Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro in a manner reminiscent of Admiral George Dewey entering Manila Bay in 1898. But as recently as just a few weeks ago, it seemed as though Cuomo might have the proper shield charm to protect himself from the various hexes and spells that bedeviled other third-termers, including his father, Mario. His daily accessibility at the outset of the pandemic, his ability to convey both empathy and competence, and even his adventures in graphic design inspired a sort of gauzy affection that had been missing from the governor’s personality profile.
That’s all changed now, and Cuomo finds himself on more familiar territory, from both a personal and historical perspective. He was at his father’s side during the long slog from 1991, when Mario took the oath of office for the third time, to Election Night, 1994, when the upstart Republican George Pataki put an end to the era of Cuomo the Elder. Those four years were notable for the lack of anything notable, save for the annual springtime sniping among three men who appeared to operate in separate rooms — Cuomo and legislative leaders invariably took until June to agree on a state budget, to the chagrin, and worse, of local governments dependent on funding from Albany. Voters were tired of all that in 1994, though they wound up getting more of the same during the Pataki years.
New York’s history books are replete with tales from other third-term crypts, ranging from the scandals that enveloped Ed Koch in the late 1980s to the harangues of Fiorello LaGuardia in the early 1940s, when the Little Flower officially became a Big Pain in the Tokhes. Koch lost his bid for a fourth term, while LaGuardia declined to run for a fourth term, having worn out his welcome. Mike Bloomberg truly tempted fate by, er, requesting that New York City suspend its term limits statute, just this one time, to allow himself to run for a third term. He won it and got things started by naming the publisher of glossy magazines, Cathie Black, to run New York City’s schools. It was a long four years.
Those three were mayors, obviously, not governors. But the curse still applies in Albany. Only Nelson Rockefeller has snagged four four-year terms since the days of Al Smith, although he resigned three years into his final term (and after the infamous Attica uprising) to lead a federal panel bearing the ponderous title of Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, filled with Rockefeller’s fellow luminaries.
Herbert Lehman, who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt as governor in 1933, quit eagerly near the end of his fourth term, but that statistic requires an asterisk because his first three terms were a mere two years; New York switched to four-year terms in 1938. Thomas Dewey and Pataki, a pair of three-term Republicans, managed to get through their dozen years without a disqualifying incident, although they both declined to go the full FDR as their third term came to a close.
Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, appears to be all-in in his quest to do one better than his father and perhaps exorcise the memories of that bitter defeat to Pataki, who at the time seemed to be an unworthy vanquisher of one of the 20th Century’s great American orators. (A younger Cuomo churlishly said that Pataki had merely held Rudy Giuliani’s coat in the aftermath of 9/11, a remark that has aged no better than the coat’s owner.)
But if history and precedent argue against Cuomo’s coming reelection effort, he does have a powerful ally his father so conspicuously lacked: Tangible, visible achievement in the form of … stuff. Like the Moynihan Train Hall on Manhattan’s West Side, unveiled to universal praise two months ago. The new LaGuardia Airport in Queens. And that new Hudson River bridge named for one of Andrew Cuomo’s predecessors.
No governor since Rockefeller has changed the public works landscape of New York as much as Andrew Cuomo has. And, yes, it may not be a coincidence that only the indefatigable Rocky retained enough support to win that elusive fourth term.
By this time next year, it will be clear — much more so than it is now — whether the curse has claimed another victim, or whether Cuomo retains the required charm to repel its sinister intent.