New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has had a rough couple of weeks.
His decision early in the pandemic to force nursing homes to accept COVID-19-positive patients morphed into a national scandal when it emerged that Cuomo’s administration hid the number of deaths in those facilities.
A browbeating phone call to Ron Kim, a Democratic state assemblyman, generated a new round of negative headlines about his well-known penchant for bullying.
On Wednesday, Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. And on Saturday, a second former aide, Charlotte Bennett, accused Cuomo of sexual harassment as well.
It’s a stunning fall from grace for a governor whose daily televised press conferences during the pandemic won him an Emmy Award and the adoring moniker “America’s governor.” Media outlets fawned over him, and in a telling display of arrogance, he wrote a book about his leadership in the fight against COVID-19 only months into a pandemic that is still raging.
“At the very least, between the nursing home scandal and now [the sexual harassment allegation], what had been a great 12-month stretch, now no longer is,” said Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and political consultant whose firm is advising Andrew Yang’s New York City mayoral run. “You have a true moment of crisis for the governor.”
Cuomo has survived numerous smaller scandals and two progressive primary challenges since assuming Albany’s top post in 2011.
“He’s more vulnerable than he’s ever been.”
But this time feels different. It’s not every day, after all, that a Democratic Cuomo critic like Kim gets the chance to appear on ABC’s “The View” to tell millions of Americans watching in their homes that Cuomo is an “abuser” and a “coward.”
“It’s an unprecedented moment because for the first time in his tenure as governor, there’s open hostility that’s not going away any time soon,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with New York politics, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “That’s made possible by 10 years of accumulated grievances where lawmakers and others are treated horribly by a governor from their own party.”
The question for Empire State politics watchers, and Cuomo’s long-standing critics on the left and right, is: Just how different is this scandal and what could it mean for Cuomo’s shot at a fourth term in office?
The answer depends on a number of factors, including how Cuomo responds to the backlash, whether the Democratic-controlled legislature challenges his power, whether more allegations of sexual harassment or salacious stories of bullying emerge, and which of his Democratic rivals step up to challenge him.
“He’s more vulnerable than he’s ever been,” said Monica Klein, a progressive consultant who advises the Invest in Our New York campaign to raise taxes on the state’s high earners. “That doesn’t mean defeating him would be a cakewalk. But this moment is a critical opening.”
When Cuomo was first elected in 2010, he ran as a proud centrist eager to use the Great Recession as an opportunity to demand cutbacks from the state’s influential labor unions. Even as Democratic governors in Connecticut and Maryland sought to distribute the burden of budget austerity more equitably by raising taxes on the rich, Cuomo fought to let a millionaire’s tax expire ― likening it to his father’s opposition to the death penalty in spite of public opinion.
Since that time, Cuomo has carefully pivoted to the left, co-opting the causes of his opponents in progressive bastions like the Working Families Party. After defeating law professor Zephyr Teachout in a Democratic primary in 2014, Cuomo banned fracking, raised the state’s minimum wage to $15, and stood alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he announced a limited free tuition program for undergraduate students at state colleges and universities.
His more expensive victory over actor Cynthia Nixon in the 2018 primary ― and the simultaneous ouster of a bloc of centrist Democrats who aligned with state Senate Republicans ― prompted another shift. Amid protest from the real estate industry, Cuomo signed a 2019 bill strengthening protections for New York tenants. He also withdrew his opposition to marijuana legalization.
To the frustration of New York’s growing progressive faction though, Cuomo’s willingness to take on the state’s considerable class of multimillionaires and billionaires remains limited. He has resisted calls to increase taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents to close an impending $15 billion budget deficit generated by the COVID 19-related economic slowdown.
Regardless, what never changed was Cuomo’s approach of governing by fear and making a mockery of the state’s already loose ethical standards.
“I will not accept an apology anymore. It’s too much time. It’s too much pain.”
In 2014, Cuomo dismantled the “Moreland Commission,” a panel he had created to investigate campaign finance corruption in state politics, halfway through its intended lifespan. The commission got on Cuomo’s bad side when it subpoenaed one of the media advertising firms that had produced work for him.
What’s more, Cuomo’s signature economic development initiative for Western New York ― the “Buffalo Billion” ― ended up being a boondoggle that enriched key Cuomo donors.
Even at the height of his stardom during the pandemic, Cuomo prioritized personal grudges over effective governance. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a Cuomo nemesis, told city residents to prepare for a strict lockdown on March 17, Cuomo publicly vetoed him, only to announce the same decision five days later. The delay resulted in an additional 17,500 deaths in the New York City area, one study estimated.
The budget Cuomo introduced the following month proposed major cuts to the state’s Medicaid program and instituted new requirements for adversaries like the Working Families Party to maintain their ballot status. Critically, it also quietly shielded New York’s nursing homes from any legal liability for their failure to protect residents from COVID-19.
Hiding Nursing Home Data
In late March, as many New York hospitals were reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients, the governor issued an executive order barring nursing homes from turning away patients based on a positive coronavirus test. Nursing homes became the deadly epicenter of New York’s most-fatal-in-the-nation pandemic ordeal, prompting bipartisan criticism of Cuomo’s decision.
For months, Cuomo batted away the scrutiny with a variety of arguments. He blamed President Donald Trump, asymptomatic staff allegedly transmitting the disease and “mean” political opponents. State lawmakers, who in August demanded more data about the deaths, were met with obstruction.
Then, in late January, state Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James, who angered progressive allies with her decision to join Cuomo’s political slate in 2018, issued a report that faulted the state’s health department for undercounting the number of nursing home deaths by half. If, among other things, the state had counted nursing home residents who died in other facilities, such as hospitals, the total number of deaths would be over 12,700, rather than the 6,600 figure the state had counted as of mid-November, according to James. (The state has now officially revised the total estimate to more than 15,000.)
Cuomo’s new retort was that it didn’t matter where the coronavirus victims had died. “Who cares [if they] died in the hospital, died in a nursing home?” he said in response to James’ report. “They died.”
Two weeks later, the New York Post reported on a private call between top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa and state lawmakers in which she admitted that the governor’s office halted disclosure of nursing-home death data requested by legislators out of fear for how the Trump administration would take advantage of the information politically.
Kim, whose uncle is believed to have died of COVID-19 in a New York City nursing home in April, told the Post that Cuomo should issue a public apology for the decision.
Of course, that’s not usually how Cuomo does business.
An apology “requires admitting you’re wrong, which he can’t do because he sees it as a sign of weakness,” the Democratic strategist said.
“In between those press conferences there were very bad decisions being made.”
Instead, Cuomo responded with the kind of bullying that has become his trademark. He called Kim up and berated him, threatening to “destroy” the Queens Democrat.
Furious at Cuomo and perhaps sensing a political opening, Kim and other progressive Democrats have escalated their rhetoric, accusing Cuomo of a deliberate cover-up of the nursing home deaths.
“Basically, I saw a crime and he’s asking me to say that I did not see that crime,” Kim told The New York Times.
On Wednesday, Kim, state Sen. Jessica Ramos, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, New York City Council member Brad Lander and a number of progressive leaders and family members of dead nursing home residents held a press conference outside New York City Hall to call for accountability for the governor’s actions.
Perhaps more important than the lawmakers’ actual demands though was the diversity of the anti-Cuomo front they presented, a left-right coalition uniting against the centrist Democratic governor. Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean, whose mother- and father-in-law died in a nursing home, spoke. And Heshy Tischler, a right-wing provocateur, stood silently alongside the lawmakers. (When Tischler interjected to answer a reporter’s question at the end of the press conference, the lawmakers quickly disbanded rather than give him a platform.)
The roughly one dozen family members of people who died in nursing homes ranged from suburbanites who had driven into the city dressed in luxury winter wear to working-class immigrants from crowded city neighborhoods.
Haydee Pabey, whose mother, Ella, died in a nursing home in early April, declined to say whether she had voted for Cuomo in the past. Pabey, a law enforcement worker from Westchester County, did tell HuffPost after Wednesday’s press conference that she had initially admired Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic.
“I was a Cuomo fan,” Pabey recalled. “I thought his early press conferences were great.”
As Pabey saw more headlines about the nursing-home scandal though, she grew angrier, eventually creating a Facebook account so she could commiserate with other family members and join political protests over what had occurred.
Now she wants Cuomo to resign or face impeachment.
“I will not accept an apology anymore. It’s too much time. It’s too much pain,” she said. “He’s the one who created the void in our lives.”
Real Political Risk
The nursing home scandal has gained traction in a way previous Cuomo scandals have not. It’s easy to understand, even for apolitical New Yorkers. It strikes at the heart of Cuomo’s pandemic-era brand as a transparent leader.
And with Trump out of office, Cuomo has lost a convenient foil. New Yorkers’ views of the governor have worsened accordingly: 49% of state residents approve of his performance compared with 66% in July, according to a poll released by Marist College on Tuesday.
“People were looking for some kind of confident posture and so he provided that,” said Williams, the New York City public advocate. “But in between those press conferences there were very bad decisions being made.”
Williams, a Black Brooklynite and progressive stalwart, nearly defeated Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Cuomo’s running mate, in the 2018 Democratic primary. He is on the short list of potential challengers to Cuomo in 2022, though he declined to discuss his plans with HuffPost.
One asset that Williams has that Cuomo’s previous challengers lacked is a base in New York City’s Black community where Cuomo’s support has historically been strongest.
For the same reason, Tusk, the Yang consultant, suggested in a New York Daily News op-ed on Feb. 20 that James, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Rep. Antonio Delgado of the Hudson Valley, who are all Black and have mainstream credentials, could pose a formidable challenge to Cuomo. (Delgado, who, as a federal official, rarely wades into state politics, called for “answers and accountability” in the wake of the bombshell New York Post article earlier this month.)
James, the first Black woman to serve in the state’s top law enforcement post, is attracting perhaps the most speculation of any of the would-be contenders.
Her decision to release the damning nursing home report came as a surprise to some progressives who had written her off as a turncoat, but not to veteran Empire State politics watchers who praise her keen eye for changing political winds.
After spending her early career in politics as an aide and attorney for several establishment Democrats, James aligned herself with the WFP as she set her sights on elected office. She ran for, and won, an open city council seat in 2003 on the WFP ballot line, defeating the brother of a slain city councilman whose death had created the vacancy.
It’s those same instincts that informed her decision to turn on Cuomo.
“At some point she realized that the politics of defending Cuomo were worse than the politics of going after him,” said Tusk, a centrist who describes himself as satisfied with Cuomo’s overall performance.
James is not the only one who appears to be capitalizing on Cuomo’s weakness to seek accountability for long-standing issues with the governor.
“This is a measure of how good of a politician he is.”
Boylan, who is running for Manhattan borough president, had already accused Cuomo of sexual harassment on Twitter in December. But she only published a detailed account of her claims on Wednesday morning, alleging a pattern of crude comments and inquiries about her whereabouts that made her feel uncomfortable. On a flight back from western New York in October 2017, Cuomo joked to Boylan that they should play strip poker, Boylan wrote. Later, he gave her an unsolicited kiss on the lips, according to Boylan.
In response to Boylan’s account, four Cuomo aides who said they were on the plane with Cuomo and Boylan, released a statement denying that Cuomo had ever made the offending remarks.
“As we said before, Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false,” Cuomo press secretary Caitlin Girouard said.
Notably, the two Democratic leaders in the state legislature, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who generally align with Cuomo, offered short statements that all but affirmed the validity of Boylan’s remarks.
Heastie said they were “serious allegations,” and Stewart-Cousins called them “deeply disturbing.”
Given the strength of New York’s governorship, which gives Cuomo the exclusive right to introduce the annual budget, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins have generally been wary of picking public fights with a governor over whom they possess limited leverage.
But the pair of Democratic leaders may be less afraid now to use turning public opinion against Cuomo. And they command supermajorities in Albany that allow them to override the governor’s veto on progressive priorities.
In addition, Bennett’s allegation, first reported by the New York Times on Saturday, is likely to both increase pressure on the governor and make the public more receptive to Boylan’s claims as well. Bennett, who was a 25-year-old executive assistant, said that Cuomo, 63, asked her deeply personal questions during conversations in May and June, including about a previous incident of sexual assault she had endured, and whether she dated older men. He also shared with Bennett that he was fine dating anyone over age 22.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told the Times.
Bennet said she reported the incident to Cuomo’s chief of staff, who had her transferred to a role further from Cuomo on the other side of the Capitol.
Cuomo has not denied the facts of Bennett’s account, but instead asked for an independent investigation into the incident and for voters to wait for its findings before passing judgment.
“The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported,” Cuomo said in a statement.
It is not clear how Bennett’s allegation will affect Cuomo’s political future.
But even with trouble rising, Cuomo, who continues to capitalize on ties to big business for fat campaign contributions, has plenty of time to rehabilitate his damaged reputation. The Democratic gubernatorial primary is not expected to take place for more than a year ― a lifetime in politics.
Cuomo has some experience mounting an unexpected comeback. After withdrawing from the New York gubernatorial primary in 2002 two months before Election Day, Cuomo retrenched and won the attorney general race in 2006.
The question is whether Cuomo is willing to abandon his traditional reliance on browbeating and arm-twisting to get a second chance from the public and the lawmakers he needs on his side.
“This is a measure of how good of a politician he is,” Tusk said. “The good news for him is he has the talent to do it and the people around him who can help him do it, but their tactics may have to change. He may not be able to get through this purely through force.”