Interviews & Profiles

Q&A: Ron Kim’s latest update on nursing home deaths investigation

The Aging Committee chair talked about cooperating with the feds and the next steps for the 2024 legislative session.

Assembly Member Ron Kim is continuing his push to get to the bottom of COVID-19 nursing home deaths.

Assembly Member Ron Kim is continuing his push to get to the bottom of COVID-19 nursing home deaths. Office of Assembly Member Ron Kim

For Assembly Member Ron Kim, it’s not hard to call a spade a spade. The Queens lawmaker took on the Cuomo administration over nursing home deaths during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kim was not shocked that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his acolytes have made the rounds in the media and continued to share their version of events.

Kim is also preparing for the 2024 legislative session and intends to hold more people accountable. One of things he’s anticipating this year is an independent review of what led to nursing home deaths during the pandemic.

Looking ahead to the elections for state Legislature, Kim said next year won’t be as fraught as in years past, but a rightward shift in Asian American voters should be taken seriously. He said due to complacency in the Democratic Party, the party is losing some people who feel “politically homeless.”

City & State New York chatted with Kim about his outlook for 2024, Cuomo’s attempts to reenter politics, Melissa DeRosa’s upcoming book and the conservative shift made by some Asian American voters in New York City. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is there any legislation you’re planning to introduce next session, or do you have a general outlook for next year?

We’re looking into legislation to improve the social day care centers that have run into some problem areas in the form of corruption and fraud and people taking advantage of facilities that lack proper oversight. In the industry, it’s very needed, with the increase of older populations that are living isolated and lonely lives, these are some of the facilities that are designed to help them connect with the community better and other seniors in the neighborhood.

But we have the bad apples that are really using these facilities to exploit seniors and also commit Medicaid fraud by not providing necessary services but they’re just literally paying off seniors to come to their facilities. What some of them actually call “go centers” where instead of providing breakfast, lunch and social hour, they’re just liquidating Medicaid benefits and giving kickback money to the seniors. And as you can imagine, if you have more and more of these seniors unknowingly taking these types of dollars instead of receiving the services, the good operators can’t persist. So that’s something that we’re focused on rooting out – improving the industry as a whole.

What did you think of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic signaling that it might subpoena former Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the nursing home deaths?

There has to be accountability. I’ve always said that. Resignation doesn’t equal accountability, and executive leaders that made unilateral decisions, regardless of whether it was with the best intent or not. If the outcome was bad and especially when it involves something unique like this that is linked to a multimillion-dollar book deal and a motive to hide, he shouldn’t have pulled data and information from lawmakers and the public. We need to shed as much light (as possible) so we don’t repeat the same mistake in the future.

Speaking of shedding more light, how is your investigation into the nursing home deaths progressing?

Yeah, we’re fully working with the subcommittee at the federal level. I know that they’ve already had a hearing on the COVID response, and I think they’ll continue to investigate this matter. I’m looking forward to the new administration fulfilling their word that there will be a thorough investigation.

I look forward to making sure that they can produce an independent report and our new chair of the Health Committee is also committed to doing a thorough investigative hearing as well, and that’s something that I’m brokering as we speak with the families and the new chair of the Health Committee to see what we can do going into the new session and providing more transparency into what happened.

What do you think that report might say?

We want to get as much of the unbiased, independent input centered around the families and the workers on the ground that saw the truth. None of the hearings really reflected on what really happened on the ground versus what we heard through the skewed data that we received in the back end.

I think once we do a thorough report, we will see the disconnect in terms of what was reported and the narrative that they tried to control versus what we saw on the ground, which is a total neglect of the most vulnerable population at a time when everyone should have been hands-on in protecting and figuring out a solution to isolate and giving these individuals and giving their families the option to take them home.

Oh, and none of them were properly administered during that period. I think the report will indicate a system that sorely lacks the public administrative capacity to take care of older adults in emergency times, and it will call for a rebuilding of public ability to take care of our most vulnerable population.

That being said, what do you think of Cuomo’s current attempts to sort of relitigate what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you think the public has an appetite for it?

I mean, I think the former governor is politically finished. He suffers from extreme narcissistic behavior where he can’t be self-reflective and hold himself accountable for the stakes he’s made. He will lean on those narcissistic tendencies and try to make a comeback, thinking the public has forgotten and will forgive and accept him and that’s not how our democracy works.

I have full faith in our democratic process that the public will continue to hold him accountable for the mistakes he’s made. The more he’s visible, the more he will trigger the public to continue to hold him accountable.

Having said that, he is going to make a run for it. I mean, he is trying to strategically align himself with the right issues. He is a masterful narrative-setting governor that rules through the press and he has a decade, a life’s generation, of experience doing that and he’ll do his best to try to make a comeback. But I think again, our democratic accountability is built into our system to hold people like him accountable, and I have faith that the public all across this country will see through his toxic narcissistic behavior.

And we see that on both sides of the aisle, you know? I’m not just trying to bash my own party member, right, but we’re seeing these kinds of personalities popping up on both sides of the aisle at a time when I think our country needs more moderate leadership that can get things done instead of pandering to our worst fears and extreme tendencies.

Have you heard that Melissa DeRosa is in the process of releasing a new book soon?

I have no qualms with Melissa. When we had a conflict with the administration, I had no animosity toward her. It was always about the former governor making the most deadly mistakes, and I wish her the best.

I hope she does well with the book but based on just the numbers of how Gov. Cuomo did with his book, I can’t see how she would do well with her book. I don’t know who would buy that book, to be honest.

Do you think she’s going to speak negatively of you after you called for her resignation?

Again, it was never personal, and I know I can’t imagine how angry she feels with not only me, but others that wanted to hold her administration accountable. But that’s part of the job. That’s what you signed up to do when you and your principles decide to go public and declare that the buck stops here. That’s what we serve. That’s what we’re doing. We’re doing our job to hold the administration accountable. We legislate, they administer, and if they can’t administer properly, we have to call them out regardless of what the party is. And, you know, again, I hope that she doesn’t take any of this personally. Everyone’s doing their job in order to make sure that government functions properly.

Do you think it has any potential of helping Cuomo’s reputation through her representation of events?

No, I mean, if the former governor really desires to get past this chapter in his life, he needs to come to grips with the mistakes he has made and stand with the families. I mean, I think the first step is to publicly apologize for lying about life and death information that impacted thousands of families in the state of New York that have caused what I call social-moral injury in the state where hundreds and thousands of families have decided to no longer believe in the public.

We have lost trust in hundreds and thousands of families, and if he ever wants to come back to the public, he should start there.

Are you concerned about the conservative shift among some Asian American voters?

Yeah, I’ve been raising the red flag since you know, four years ago, and especially in the last election cycle. We have a group of voters that feel politically homeless, and I sat down with Jay Jacobs after the election last year. I voiced my opinion publicly and on different platforms where Asian American workers, small-business owners, parents, they, they just feel like whenever they talk about their concerns, there really isn’t a home for them. And whenever they are front and center, it’s also because they’re being used and weaponized for something else.

And I just think there’s a big opportunity to center some solutions around Asian American issues. And we haven’t seen that level of commitment. I mean, yes, like Lunar New Year legislation and some money to nonprofits, those are all symbolically meaningful things that sets the right tone, but I’m talking about like everyday struggles that people are going through in neighborhoods like mine – getting on the subway as a student and feeling scared that they’re going to get jumped going into school. And home care workers that are owed $250,000 of back wages and no matter where she turns, everyone is saying it’s your problem and we can’t help you.

Those are everyday struggles of Asian Americans that we can dedicate ourselves to fixing, but we haven’t seen the level of commitment yet.

Do you think that’s going to have a real impact on City Council elections in November and state legislative elections next year?

Yeah, I think for the most part we’ll be fine. But there are a couple of districts that are newer – like the newer districts in Brooklyn – that could be problematic in terms of turning red because we’re seeing that trend go that way right now. I think since last year, the Democratic Party has been more visible and the governor herself has been more visible in our communities. So we just need to continue to do that and I think we’ll be fine going into next year.