ANALYSIS 2021

Silent Cuomo Mired in Twin Scandals

"You can’t make three enemies a week for 10 years and hope to survive. People who were close to him are like, ‘Andrew Cuomo, who’s that?’”

by

Andrew Cuomo has never been weaker. 

In conversations with elected officials, political operatives, labor leaders, donors, and those who have waded in and out of the Albany muck for the last decade, this has been the overriding theme. Besieged by two separate scandals, one related to multiple sexual harassment allegations against him and another tied to his oversight of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo is increasingly unlikely to seek a fourth term and could be forced from office if opposition continues to grow against him. 

Few of his traditional allies have spoken up in his defense. At the highest echelons of state politics, there is chatter about how long Cuomo can really hang on, with a state budget deadline in less than 30 days. At the most critical time of year, when tens of billions of dollars in state spending are usually dictated by Cuomo, his position is growing untenable. 

“Andrew Cuomo is definitely going to try to hold on as long as he can. He’s going to be clinging onto the office by his fingernails but he may not be able to,” says one influential labor leader, who asked to remain anonymous. “He’s not going to be able to recover. The thing is, even when he doesn’t see it, other people already see it, they’re already accepting that. I heard people talking about who’s going to be lieutenant governor, the presumption being that such a question will have to be dealt with shortly.” 

“I think he’s done,” says another high-ranking Democrat. “All I get are phone calls about his done-ness. You can’t make three enemies a week for 10 years and hope to survive. People who were close to him are like, ‘Andrew Cuomo, who’s that?’” 

These days, Cuomo consults with Bill Mulrow, a Blackstone advisor who once served as secretary to the governor and remains a close confidant. The fear in Cuomo’s orbit is that more stories about sexual assault allegations are coming. Another allegation — another damning anecdote or photograph — could quickly end his career. 

If Cuomo is forced to resign, he will be the second governor to do so since 2008. It was then that Eliot Spitzer, just one year into his tenure, resigned in the midst of a prostitution scandal. When a governor exits, a lieutenant governor takes over — in this case, the next governor, through 2022 at least, would be Kathy Hochul, a little-known Buffalo politician with no base in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, where most Democratic voters reside. 

In such a scenario, Hochul would likely be a caretaker governor, pressured out of running for re-election just like David Paterson, Spitzer’s successor. The leading contender for next year, at this point, is Letitia James, the state attorney general now investigating Cuomo. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has also been floated as a possible candidate. 

Cuomo’s downfall has been swift and remarkable. The most powerful governor in New York since Nelson Rockefeller, Cuomo dominated the affairs of his state like few others, drawing on an endless reserve of loyalty, admiration, and fear. 

State elected officials do not have term limits. And Cuomo, famous and undeservedly popular after presiding over the second largest coronavirus death toll in America, seemed as close to immortal as any politician could be. He had, at various points in the last year, appeared on the covers of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, won an Emmy award, and been feted by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, who all declared themselves “Cuomosexuals.” 

Not only was Cuomo running for a fourth term in 2022, he was all but guaranteed to win it, surpassing his father, Mario, who led the state for 12 years. His favorability ratings were declining from their pandemic-induced high — he had neared, in one poll, a soaring 80 percent — but he was still, as of January, trundling onward, banking almost $17 million, with far more expected in the coming months. 

These days, Cuomo is in hiding. He has no public schedule and hasn’t taken questions from the press in more than a week. He is reeling from three credible sexual harassment allegations, two from former aides. 

One said he forcibly kissed her, which he denies. Another said he had inappropriate conversations with her this year, asking whether she was having sex with other people, whether she would have sex with older men, and telling her that he was lonely. Cuomo issued a statement affirming at least some of her account, acknowledging “some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent that anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.” (The woman, Charlotte Bennett, rejected the quasi-apology.)

A third woman, who had never met him before, said he made unwanted advances on her at a wedding in 2019, placing his hands on her cheeks and asking if he could kiss her. The interaction was photographed, the woman clearly uncomfortable. Cuomo has not issued a specific comment in response. 

As James, the state attorney general and an erstwhile ally of Cuomo, probes the allegations — the governor was rebuffed when he requested a former federal judge, who had served as a law partner with an old top aide in his administration, investigate them — Cuomo is facing down calls for his resignation. 

At the minimum, Cuomo is likely to hang on as long as James is investigating. Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the State Democratic Party, an entity Cuomo wholly controls, said on Tuesday that “it is both premature and unfair for anyone to opine on the outcome until that investigation is completed and the results reported.” Voice requests for comment sent to Governor Cuomo’s press office have gone unanswered. 

But most people in Albany expect the report, when issued, to be deeply damaging to Cuomo. It is not known when it will be finished. 

The sexual assault allegations burst into view as Cuomo was already on the defensive from an unrelated, and equally serious, scandal: his decision to withhold data on nursing home coronavirus deaths from state lawmakers, which appears to have prompted a new FBI probe. A state legislator who had been leading the charge on the nursing home issue, Ron Kim, went public with wild threats Cuomo made against him over the phone, revealing for everyday people what political insiders had long known: Cuomo can be, and often is, a sociopathic bully behind closed doors.  

On Monday, a dam seemed to break, with a wide array of city, state, and federal elected officials calling for Cuomo to step down. On Tuesday, the progressive Working Families Party, a longtime enemy of Cuomo’s, said he should resign. 

“To me, the photo in the New York Times article was very damaging and particularly for those of us who are women, who have been in those similar situations, we know how terrible and small men make us feel with that dominant behavior,” says State Senator Jessica Ramos, one of the Democrats who called for Cuomo to step down. “The photo just shows how Cuomo sees women as accessories to his ego, how his narcissism really does go far and beyond the second floor [the executive chamber in Albany].”

Harvey Epstein, a Manhattan state assemblyman who says Cuomo “just has to step aside,” can’t imagine how Cuomo can effectively govern anymore, with negotiations over a pivotal, pandemic-era budget looming. 

“I have no idea how this budget gets negotiated,” Epstein says. “It is not good for Democrats, our city, our state, and our nation to have the governor involved in all this controversy.”

What can make Cuomo quit? In New York, power resides in a few overlapping sectors. There are the millionaires and billionaires who have lavishly donated to all of Cuomo’s campaigns, allowing him to shatter fundraising records. CNBC reported on Tuesday that many of these donors, concentrated in the real estate and financial sectors, are pausing their donations, waiting at least for the outcome of the attorney general’s investigation. 

If donations dry up for Cuomo, he will be severely impaired if he attempts to campaign for a fourth term next June. Beyond the corporate sector, there is organized labor and powerful interest groups, like the Greater New York Hospital Association, who have all been reliable, if transactional, backers of the governor. 

Major labor union heads have been silent publicly. So has GNYHA, which represents the wealthier private hospitals and designed, with Cuomo’s consultation, the controversial immunity protections they’ve enjoyed during the pandemic. 

If the heavyweight unions, particularly 1199 SEIU, the healthcare workers’ union that is the state’s largest, abandoned Cuomo, he would likely be hobbled to the point where finishing up his third term, let alone running for another, would be impossible. 

Finally, there are the two legislative leaders, Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Neither are overly fond of Cuomo—few in Albany are — but both have been deferential to him throughout the pandemic. That is changing, as each move to revoke his emergency powers

Heastie, the speaker of the 150-member Assembly, may be the most important Democrat of all, because it’s in his chamber where any impeachment proceedings would be initiated. A taciturn leader, Heastie has been calculating what, exactly, he should do next. When Spitzer resigned in 2008, it was partially over the threat of impeachment. The powerful speaker at the time, Sheldon Silver, informed the governor he had the votes to bring charges and end his career. 

The glue that bound Cuomo’s machine was fear. He operated, in the purest sense, from Machiavelli’s dictum that it is better to be feared than loved. Over the last decade, he publicly and privately denigrated many of the politicians and labor leaders who may now decide his fate, in part because he simply could—everyone, in Cuomo’s universe, always needed to be reminded of their place. 

But what will happen when none of these people are afraid of Cuomo anymore? There is no lingering goodwill, no loyalty tied to the implicit transaction — I am powerful, and I can choose either to help you or destroy you.

“I think he is going to see there is no future in Albany for him,” the labor leader says.   ❖

Highlights