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Queens assemblyman speaks out over public feud with Governor Cuomo over nursing home COVID deaths

Photo by Michael Shain

By Saturday morning, Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim had suffered a meltdown.

He’d gone from local lawmaker to national figurehead overnight by standing up to the excesses of a governor who’d been given unlimited power because of the coronavirus pandemic. His name was splashed across headlines locally and around the country, his family was nervous about the feud, and the issue it was over was far from solved.

So, he cried.

“I had about three meltdowns, including this morning,” Kim said in an interview on Saturday. “I do feel better every time I kind of let it out. And then you move on.”

Kim stepped into the spotlight last week after telling the national press that Governor Andrew Cuomo reportedly called him and threatened his career. Cuomo demanded Kim didn’t back him in an ongoing controversy over his administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. Kim denied him.

The controversy has pitted Kim against one of New York’s most powerful and politically connected families — a match up that frightens his own family members.

Kim immigrated with his parents as a child from South Korea. His mother takes the subway every day to her job as a cook in a supermarket. His father is battling cancer, fighting for health.

“We’re a bunch of immigrants, you know, from Flushing that are just trying to survive, and trying to figure out how to have some social mobility,” he said.

His family knows who Cuomo is from the news, he said. They see him in the newspaper, know that he has power, wealth and connections. They understand that he comes from a political dynasty, and has a brother with a bully pulpit on CNN. Every day they are fielding phone calls from worried friends. They are scared of what could happen, he said.

“There’s a lot of fear taking on a very powerful politician who made — who made tangible threats,” he said.

Earlier in the week, it was reported that Cuomo’s administration purposefully withheld and misconstrued data on the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes throughout New York state.

Kim, whose uncle died of presumed COVID-19 in a nursing home, was already a vocal critic of Cuomo’s handling of the virus in nursing homes early in the pandemic. He’d been outraged at the deaths, and the immunity for the industry that Cuomo had covertly slipped into the budget. So when Cuomo allegedly called him to demand he make a statement supporting him, Kim refused. That refusal prompted the threatening phone call.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Kim has since led a call for Cuomo’s emergency powers to be revoked. This is a complete turnaround from a year ago when he was one of the first sponsors of the bill granting the governor emergency powers in the first place.

“I even got up and made the argument against the, against my close progressive friends who voted against it, that we need to give him a chance,” Kim said.

But he pretty quickly regretted that effort when, two weeks after the budget vote, he found out that Cuomo had snuck in immunity for the nursing home industry.

“I think the state of politics prioritizes corporations over people’s lives, and there’s no way, no other way to describe it. This pandemic is a clear example of that,” he said.

He understands that people make mistakes, Kim said. But Cuomo’s inability to admit his mistakes is what got the state into this position. Instead of owning up to them and collaborating to find a fix when everything went wrong, he covered up his mistakes.

“They’re just, at best, offering Band-Aids,” Kim said about Cuomo. “And not admitting to those horrible things that they did like providing, you know, apply good immunity for nursing and executives at the peak of the pandemic.”

Kim’s adamant months-long stance against Cuomo’s handling of the virus in nursing homes has gotten him into what he called “political trouble.” In fighting Cuomo he’s partnered with Republicans, and gone up against the Democratic establishment. He even befriended people like Janice Dean, a conservative FOX News Meteorologist who became a fierce critic of Cuomo’s after both of her parents died of COVID while living in assisted living homes.

“I don’t think these travesties have any political affiliation,” he said.

Despite the stress on his family and the fear, Kim said he is doing what he has to do and he hopes he can leverage the attention into real policy change.

“Every lawmaker should be doing this if they see something wrong. Our job is to call it out and legislate,” he said. “This is what we should do.”

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