As a disgraceful New York Governor Andrew Cuomo scraped the depths of his political career, publicly apologizing for his mistreatment of women, Ron Kim rose through the ranks.
Kim, a member of the New York State Assembly from Queens, got approval last week for months of pending legislation to deprive nursing homes of the statutory immunity they’ve been given. granted by Cuomo at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Finally, Kim said, there was a prospect of justice for those whose parents or grandparents died lonely in nursing homes who failed to take adequate precautions when Covid swept away.
“These facilities, including some of the worst nursing home operators, will no longer be protected from the legal consequences of their actions,” he said. The legislation must be passed by the state Senate, and there is a legal question as to whether it can be applied retroactively.
Yet the moment marks an accomplishment for Kim, a relative minnow, in a crusade for nursing home reform that has made him the archenemy of a three-term governor who has been the whale of the politics of New York for a decade but whose career is now in jeopardy.
Cuomo unwittingly raised Kim’s profile last month with a moody phone call in which Kim, according to Kim, threatened to “destroy” the member of the assembly unless he stopped criticizing the management by the administration of nursing homes during the pandemic – in particular, the governor’s order last April requiring nursing homes to accept Covid patients discharged from hospitals.
The policy was, Cuomo said, to free up space in hospitals amid an increase in Covid cases that threatened to flood the system. Critics say this has led to more deaths in nursing homes. The administration has since been found to have underestimated deaths in nursing homes, perhaps to protect the governor’s political reputation, and lawmakers stranded for information.
Cuomo has denied threatening Kim, a fellow Democrat – albeit younger and more progressive – but reports of the call have opened up a flood of complaints, years in the making, about an intimidating and vindictive governor. Meanwhile, several women have since come forward to accuse the governor of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.
“It sounds surreal,” Kim said of her sudden – and stressful – notoriety. His wife’s first reaction was anger at her husband for causing problems for their family.
“As an immigrant, it’s a lot for all of us to take on, knowing how powerful he is and the family he comes from,” Kim said. “There is a lot of fear and discussion with the family in the late evening especially when you turn on the news especially for my elderly parents all they read is hate crimes against Asians . “
But the family, who lost an uncle to Covid at a Queens nursing home last year, ultimately agreed the need to examine care homes and their operators was too important a cause to be sacrificed.
“I’m not going to have a platform or the spotlight forever. I think I have a little window to really push through some of these solutions while people are careful, ”Kim said.
Although he called for his impeachment, the Assembly member also expressed some sympathy for Cuomo as a leader trying to rally against a single enemy in a century. He was doing it, Kim said, with a government apparatus reduced by years of austerity backed by Cuomo.
“It’s like the Cuomo Paradox,” he said. “He’s got a ‘doer’ personality, but he’s established a government that can’t really do anything. “
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Kim, 41, came to Queens from South Korea with her parents when she was seven. His political career was not born from the usual story of the immigrant wanting to repay the American dream. Rather, he was inspired by his parents’ bankruptcy after a decade of struggling to run a small, 24-hour grocery store.
“They have spent years in debt and in financial distress. And it left an indelible mark on my way of seeing the world, ”he recalls. “I spend almost every day of my professional career trying to connect the dots of what led to my parents’ failure.”
Kim rose through the ranks of 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 largest Chinatown. . It is home to a multitude of immigrants and small businesses like his parents’ old store.
As the progressive wing of the party took off, Kim switched sides. He was one of the early opponents of Amazon’s plans to build a second headquarters in Queens – a deal Cuomo championed. Kim and others against him have complained about corporate tax giveaways and gentrification; supporters of the project criticize them for placing ideology above 25,000 well-paying jobs that the city could now desperately use.
Some Cuomo allies see the current attack on the governor as a way to weaken him so Kim and other lawmakers can finally push through tax hikes on the rich and other progressive initiatives he has thwarted .
Kim approached the coronavirus both as chairman of the Assembly committee on aging and as a resident of one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the country. As the pandemic swept through ill-prepared nursing homes, killing thousands of residents, Kim focused on the operators and whether the profiteering companies made patients vulnerable.
“These actors are not always guided by concern. They are driven by profit margins and quarterly returns to shareholders, ”he said.
He believed he was making progress last year in highlighting staffing and other shortcomings in nursing homes exposed by the pandemic. But the number of nursing home deaths reported by the state was lower than many others. Meanwhile, Cuomo was 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 no-problem. He changed the narrative, ”Kim recalls. “And then he promoted his book and became that kind of heroic character.”
Kim acknowledges that it is not clear how many nursing home residents have died due to neglect or simply because of the ruthless logic of a pandemic that attacks the infirm. But he suspects that a lack of investment has made some care homes more vulnerable than others, and by giving them a liability shield, the governor has removed one of the few levers to hold operators accountable.
Something that still puzzles Kim, which is why the healthcare industry has been pushing for immunity rather than resisting Cuomo’s order to accept hospital patients. His theory is that some homes have taken advantage of the pandemic.
Of the roughly 9,000 Covid patients referred to them before Cuomo canceled his order in May, around 6,000 were not former residents but new referrals. They were covered by the government’s Medicare insurance program, which reimburses nursing homes at much higher rates than the Medicaid program which typically pays long-term residents.
“This seems to be the missing link,” Kim said. “I think once we see the billable ones. . . we will see a clear picture of the behavior pattern by seeing how much they actually earned in the last 10 months.
“I’m still trying to connect the dots.”