As a shamefaced New York governor Andrew Cuomo was scraping the depths of his political career, publicly apologising for his mistreatment of women, Ron Kim was scaling the heights.
Kim, a New York state assembly member from Queens, won approval last week for legislation months in the making to strip nursing homes of the legal immunity granted to them by Cuomo at the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic.
At last, Kim declared, there was the prospect of justice for those whose parents or grandparents died lonely deaths in nursing homes that had failed to take adequate precautions when Covid swept through.
“These facilities, including some of the worst nursing homes operators, will no longer be protected from the legal consequences of their actions,” he said. The legislation has to pass the state senate, and there is a legal question as to whether it can be applied retroactively.
Still, the moment marks an accomplishment for Kim, a relative minnow, in a crusade for nursing home reform that has made him the nemesis of a three-term governor who has been the whale of New York politics for a decade but whose career is now in peril.
Cuomo unintentionally elevated Kim’s profile last month with an ill-tempered phone call in which, Kim alleges, he threatened to “destroy” the assemblyman unless he stopped criticising the administration’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic — in particular, the governor’s order last April requiring nursing homes to accept Covid patients discharged from hospitals.
That policy was intended, Cuomo says, to free space in hospitals amid a surge in Covid cases that threatened to swamp the system. Critics say it led to more nursing home deaths. The administration has since been revealed to have undercounted nursing home fatalities, possibly to protect the governor’s political reputation, and stonewalled legislators seeking information.
Cuomo denied threatening Kim, a fellow Democrat — albeit a younger and more progressive one — but reports of the call opened a floodgate of complaints, years in the making, about a bullying and vindictive governor. Meanwhile, several women have since come forward to accuse the governor of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour.
“It feels surreal,” Kim said of his sudden notoriety — and stressful. His wife’s first reaction was anger at her husband for bringing trouble to their family.
“As an immigrant, this is a lot to take for all of us knowing how powerful of a person he is and the family that he comes from,” Kim said. “There’s a lot of late-night fears and talks with the family, especially at a time when you turn on the news, especially for my elderly parents, all they read about is hate-crimes against Asians.”
But the family, who lost an uncle to Covid in a Queens nursing home last year, eventually agreed that the need to scrutinise care homes and their operators was a cause too important to sacrifice.
“I’m not going to have a platform or the spotlight forever. I think I have a small window to really push some of these solutions through while people are paying attention,” Kim said.
In spite of calling for his removal, the assemblyman also expressed some sympathy for Cuomo as a leader trying to mobilise against a once-in-a-century foe. He was doing so, said Kim, with a government machinery stripped back by years of austerity Cuomo supported.
“It’s like the paradox of Cuomo,” he said. “He has a ‘doer’ persona but he established a government that can’t actually do anything.”
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Kim, 41, came to Queens from South Korea with his parents when he was seven. His political career was not born of the usual immigrant’s narrative about wanting to repay the American dream. Rather, it was inspired by his parents’ bankruptcy after a decade struggling to run a small 24-hour grocer.
“They spent years in debt and financial distress. And that left an indelible mark on how I saw the world ,” he recalled. “I spend almost every day of my professional career trying to connect the dots of what led to my parents’ failure.”
Kim worked his way up in local Democratic politics until, in 2012, he became the first Korean-American elected to the state legislature, representing a section of Queens that includes New York’s biggest Chinatown. It features a wealth of immigrants and small businesses like his parents’ old store.
As the party’s progressive wing took flight, Kim shifted sides. He was an early opponent of Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in Queens — a deal that Cuomo championed. Kim and others against it complained about corporate tax giveaways and gentrification; supporters of the project blame them for placing ideology above 25,000 high-paying jobs the city could now desperately use.
Some Cuomo allies see the current onslaught against the governor as a way to weaken him so that Kim and other legislators can finally push through tax increases on the wealthy and other progressive initiatives he has thwarted.
Kim approached coronavirus both as chair of the Assembly’s committee on ageing and as resident of a neighbourhood that was among the hardest-hit in the nation. When the pandemic swept through underprepared nursing homes, killing thousands of residents, Kim was focused on the operators, and whether profiteering firms left patients vulnerable.
“Sixty-five per cent of the industry, as you know, are for-profit. Those actors are not always driven by care. They’re driven by profit margins and quarterly returns for the shareholders,” he said.
He believed he was making progress last year at highlighting the staffing and other inadequacies in care homes exposed by the pandemic. But the number of nursing home fatalities reported by the state was lower than many others. Meanwhile, Cuomo was being celebrated as a national hero for his daily Covid briefings.
“We were getting traction and all of a sudden the numbers didn’t look that bad and it became a non-issue. He changed the narrative,” Kim recalled. “And then he promoted his book and became this kind of heroic figure.”
Kim acknowledges that it is not clear how many nursing home residents died because of negligence or simply due to the remorseless logic of a pandemic that preys on the infirm. But he suspects that a lack of investment made some care homes more vulnerable than others, and that by giving them a liability shield the governor withdrew one of few levers to hold operators accountable.
Something that still puzzles Kim is why the care industry lobbied for immunity rather than resisting Cuomo’s order to accept hospital patients. His theory is that some homes profited from the pandemic.
Of the roughly 9,000 Covid patients who were sent to them before Cuomo rescinded his order in May, about 6,000 were not previous residents but new referrals. They were covered under the government’s Medicare insurance programme, which reimburses care homes at much higher rates than the Medicaid programme that typically pays for long-term residents.
“That seems like the missing link,” said Kim. “I think once we see the billables . . . we’ll see a clear picture of the pattern of behaviour by seeing how much they actually made during the past 10 months.
“I’m still trying to connect the dots.”