Cuomo Adopts Campaign Tactics to Cling to Job as Probe Proceeds

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is approaching the fight to save his job like it’s another run for office, borrowing tactics typically used on the campaign trail to discourage the state legislature from removing him.

Cuomo faces multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and is under fire for under-counting the number of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes. But over the last two weeks, Cuomo has made broad promises on popular proposals like marijuana legalization and taxing the rich, cashed in long-held political favors with friends of his father, the former Governor Mario Cuomo, appealed to his party’s most loyal constituencies, and announced reopenings of businesses, sports and concert venues as Covid-19 death and hospitalization rates drop.

For now, the strategy seems to be working, even as new allegations surface almost daily. On Friday, current aide Alyssa McGrath told the New York Times about a series of interactions with the governor in which he would remark on her appearance and make suggestive comments.

Yet Cuomo has managed to stanch the flow of calls for his resignation. And as the state Assembly’s judiciary panel begins its investigation, it has quieted further debate over impeaching him immediately, which would remove Cuomo from office until a Senate vote and a ruling from the state’s highest court.

Still, polls show the governor’s future remains on a knife’s edge, with his popularity at all-time lows even as many voters say they’re willing to wait for the outcomes of the investigations before deciding whether he should quit or be removed from office.

On Thurday, a Quinnipiac University Poll showed two-thirds of voters don’t want Cuomo to run for a fourth term as governor in 2022. But roughly half don’t think he should resign or be impeached and removed from office.

Cuomo has survived scandal before, but he’s often worked behind the scenes to lessen its direct blow. “He’s running a campaign,” said longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He’s doing what a good crisis manager would have suggested from the beginning: take advantage of what you have in front of you as governor, don’t get involved in extraneous arguments, and control the message.”

In the current situation Cuomo has little control over the impeachment probe or the outside lawyer appointed by Attorney General Letitia James on the misconduct allegations, much less federal prosecutors and the FBI on the nursing home deaths.

Taking the Pulse

That’s left Cuomo to wage a very public campaign to save his career. In recent weeks, advisers and aides have been calling county executives, city mayors, and county Democratic chairs to gauge the support of the governor’s political base. Local leaders like Westchester County Executive George Latimer, for instance, posted on social media that the public should await the outcome of an investigation.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said other political leaders haven’t turned their back on Cuomo yet.

“I’ve spoken to a good number of county chairs and my conversations show Democrats would prefer to have the investigation go forward before any decision is made for the governor to leave office,” Jacobs said in an interview.

On Wednesday, Cuomo showed up in Harlem flanked by more than a dozen Black leaders, including former U.S. Representative Charles Rangel and past NAACP President Hazel Dukes, who thanked him for bringing more vaccines to predominantly Black neighborhoods.

In a classic move of political stagecraft, Cuomo then sat down at the vaccination site at Mount Neboh Baptist Church to get his own shot.

‘Second Mom’

Dukes, 89, an ally of Mario Cuomo, said she’s known the current governor since he was 12 and delighted in being called his second mother. Rangel, 90, repaid the kind words that Cuomo had for him at a controversial birthday party fund-raiser in 2010, held while the congressman was being investigated for a slew of ethical violations that led to the end of his own political career.

“I always like when you call me your second mom,” Dukes said to Cuomo at the church. “I’m proud of all your leadership on Covid, and the great things you’ve done for your state.”

Echoing other Cuomo allies, Rangel called for “due process,” arguing that voters should wait for the outcome of the investigations to make up their minds. He also said it made sense for Cuomo to come to Harlem during this time.

“I don’t care whether you’re clergy, politician, a business person, you go to your family and you go to your friends because you know that they are going to be with you,” he said.

Support ‘Tentative’

Cuomo, 63, has long courted Black voters, and their support is buoying him overall right now, just as it helped former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment that centered on sexual misconduct. A Siena College poll released earlier this month showed 69% of Black voters thought Cuomo shouldn’t resign, the highest of any demographic broken out by pollsters, and substantially more than the 45% of White voters who said the same thing.

But Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who studies African-American politics, said Cuomo’s support among the Black community could quickly evaporate, especially if damning evidence is turned up by James, the state’s first Black attorney general.

“A lot of his support looks pretty tentative,” she said. “People are waiting to see.”

Cuomo’s time of political peril has also refocused his attention on longtime progressive goals like legalizing recreational marijuana and raising taxes on the wealthy. That may blunt the challenges he would face on the left from progressive candidates seeking his ouster now, and to unseat him in a primary next year.

The governor has been more skeptical of pot legalization than some of his fellow Democrats, holding out on support for medical marijuana until reversing himself in 2014 and opposing legal recreational marijuana, which he called a “gateway drug,” until 2018.

‘Buffalo Billion’

This week, however, Cuomo revealed that he’d spent the past weekend on the phone with Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes discussing how to pass a legalization bill.

“We have to get it done this year,” he said. “There’s been too many young lives that have been ruined because of the marijuana laws.”

The second most powerful person in the lower chamber, Peoples-Stokes was one of 23 Democratic women in the state Assembly who broke with their Democratic colleagues and signed a statement asking to halt calls for Cuomo’s resignation and instead allow investigations to go forward. She also presides over a district that includes Buffalo, which received $1 billion in key development aid by a program spearheaded by Cuomo called “Buffalo Billion.”

Peoples-Stokes said she wasn’t swayed by any feeling of friendship toward the governor, nor by the Buffalo funding. She said she’s seen too many people from her community felled by unproven accusations and wants to reserve judgment for now. “I don’t want to be the one who makes a decision on the governor’s fate before all the facts are in,” she said.

Stimulus Funds

Cuomo has also become more amenable to raising taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, which he’d earlier contended would drive them from the state at a time when New York needs their tax dollars.

In his proposed budget, he suggested an income tax hike on higher earners that could be forgiven, in part, if they remain in the state. That fell short of the higher wealth taxes advocated by the state’s more progressive legislators.

After the federal government said it would direct more than $12 billion in direct aid as part of Congress’ recent coronavirus pandemic aid package, reducing the need to raise taxes to fill budget gaps, some thought Cuomo would back down from his tax proposals. But Cuomo said wealth taxes were still “on the table.”

Recent polls have showed broad support for both legalizing marijuana and taxing the rich among New York voters.

Sheinkopf said Cuomo was talking more about policy now as a way to drive up his poll numbers among Democrats as well as to placate progressives in the state legislature, who were among the first to lash out when the latest scandal erupted.

“He’s got to throw them a bone to get them off his back for the time being,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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