Cuomo Scandals Dim Luster of Man Dubbed ‘America’s Governor’

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, less than a year after bravura performances in daily coronavirus briefings led to talk of a presidential run, instead finds himself facing multiple scandals and rumblings of a primary challenge.

Revelations that his administration hid the number of people who died from the coronavirus in nursing homes, and by doing so underreported New York’s death toll, undercut his central claim to fame and have led to efforts to strip him of pandemic-era emergency powers.

They’ve also raised questions about Cuomo’s leadership, especially after a Democratic state assemblyman accused him of threatening to destroy the lawmaker’s career for raising questions about the issue.

Adding to that are two allegations of sexual harassment. In the first instance, Lindsey Boylan, a former economic-development aide, accused Cuomo in a Medium post of giving her an unwanted kiss, inviting her to play strip poker on a taxpayer-funded flight, and other abuse that led her to quit her job.

On Saturday, a second former aide accused Cuomo of harassment, according to the New York Times. Charlotte Bennett, a former health policy adviser, said Cuomo had asked her questions about her sex life and made what she interpreted as sexual overtures. Bennett didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg News.

Boylan tweeted early Sunday that Cuomo should resign, saying “his abuse of power never ends.”

Cuomo has denied his call to Assemblyman Ron Kim was threatening, and rejected the harassment allegations as false. Four other state officials who flew with Cuomo when Boylan was present issued a statement through Cuomo’s office saying no such conversation happened.

In a statement on Saturday, Cuomo said he had “tried to be supportive and helpful” when Bennett “opened up about being a sexual assault survivor.” Cuomo called for “a full and thorough outside review.” A former federal judge has been named to lead that process.

The cascading incidents add to the political weight around Cuomo’s neck. In a statement on Saturday, Republican Representative Elise Stefanik of New York joined the calls for Cuomo to resign.

The controversy for Cuomo, 63, comes after a long career that includes stints as a U.S. Cabinet official, state attorney general, and three terms as governor.

The reviews were glowing for Cuomo in the early months of the pandemic, for his must-see briefings and heated rebukes of then-President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The hashtag #PresidentCuomo was trending even as Joe Biden was struggling to campaign under pandemic restrictions.

But recently, State Attorney General Letitia James released a report on Jan. 28 alleging the Cuomo administration undercounted Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%, and may have obscured data available to assess the risk to patients.

The state revealed that thousands of nursing-home deaths occurred in hospitals or outside the facilities, information that had been left out of state counts. More than 12,300 patients from New York nursing homes, assisted living, and adult care facilities have died since March 2020, according to Feb. 25 state data. Another 3,000 patients are presumed to have died of the disease, but their causes of death have not been confirmed.

New York trails only California for the total number of people who have died from coronavirus, with 46,000, but its current case rate per million residents is in the middle of U.S. states.

Now Cuomo is facing intense questions over whether his administration’s policies led to an unnecessary increase of virus deaths among elderly nursing home residents.

Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s spokesman, rejected the criticism in an emailed statement.

“New Yorkers know it was the governor who worked night and day to get them through the worst of this pandemic,” Azzopardi said. “From the strongest gun safety laws in the nation to a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition, he has a nationally significant record of progressive accomplishments that Washington is trying to match.”

Still, Democratic circles are already abuzz with talk about who might run against Cuomo in the 2022 primary, an unthinkable concept when he was topping the charts for his Covid response. There’s no limit to the number of consecutive terms a New York governor may serve.

‘Earned’ Primary

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who’s been approached to run against Cuomo in a primary, said he’s been pretty explicit with his criticism of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic and his administration’s performance.

“As I’ve said, the governor has earned himself a primary for a number of reasons -- most of which we’ve known about for a long time, but now the worst of the governor is coming out at a time when New Yorkers need the best of their government,” he said in an emailed statement. Williams said he remains committed to his city post.

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant who worked on some of Cuomo’s campaigns, called the governor’s downfall “Shakespearean.”

“The compassionate new Andrew that was created suddenly became a fraud,” he said. “The very thing that made him the hero made him the villain.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when New York was the nation’s Covid epicenter, Cuomo held daily briefings that were aired nationally. He shared data, he answered reporters’ questions, he told stories about his family.

Leadership Lessons

The briefings, a stark contrast to the tone and substance to those coming from Trump’s White House, drew millions of viewers, earning him the nickname “America’s Governor.”

In October, Cuomo released a book offering leadership lessons from the pandemic, and held up New York’s response as a national model. The next month, his televised briefings received an Emmy award.

That was premature, said New York state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, a Republican.

“As we learn more, I think history may tell a different story about this response and we may look at this years from now or even months from now and we may have a different view,” Ortt said. “It’s not the person who’s winning in the first quarter, it’s the person who’s winning in the fourth quarter.”

Cuomo’s job performance rating, which hit 63% at the height of the pandemic, has cooled to 56%, according to Siena College polls. A Marist poll released Feb. 23 showed approval of his handling of the pandemic had dropped to 54% from 72%, with a majority of voters saying Cuomo did something wrong in his handling of nursing homes.

‘No Heart or Ears’

Critics have seized on the moment, even though the approval numbers are hardly fatal. Bills that attempt to strip Cuomo’s emergency powers have failed to take hold as lawmakers worry about the fallout from revoking his authority.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat who heads the health committee, said he and other lawmakers have long criticized the governor, especially for keeping his inner circle small and what he said was a focus on politics over policy. Rivera described the administration as “all brain and guts, and no heart or ears.”

Sheinkopf said Cuomo’s troubles show that the high-profile job of governor of New York -- the launching pad to the White House for four presidents, most recently Franklin D. Roosevelt -- has become too politically fraught to lead to higher office.

The last Democratic governor of New York who was considered a serious contender for the presidency was Cuomo’s father, Mario, whose famous indecisiveness led him to not run in 1988 and 1992 and to later turn down a Supreme Court nomination that was a safe bet for confirmation.

Ultimate Survivor

The younger Cuomo seemed destined for big things as well, serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, marrying a member of the Kennedy dynasty, and bouncing back from a failed bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002 with a headline-making turn as attorney general.

Since being elected governor in 2010, Cuomo has picked up critics among progressive Democrats by cutting deals with Republicans and working closely with a group that helped keep the state Senate in GOP hands from 2011 to 2019.

Still, he’s fought off challenges from the left before, including an attention-grabbing but ultimately lopsided primary contest with “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon in 2018.

But while Sheinkopf said things look pretty bad for Cuomo now, he may still win a fourth term, a feat even his father couldn’t pull off.

“I’ve worked in American politics in 44 states, governors, congressmen, you name it,” said Sheinkopf. “If anybody could survive this, it’s Cuomo.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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