As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country last year, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo launched an Emmy-winning daytime television show, using his daily briefings to channel the nation’s grief, showcase how he was taking charge and share the secrets of his family’s spaghetti dinners. He published a best-selling book about his leadership, saw his state approval numbers rise to 66 percent and repeatedly denied any interest in the next logical step: running for president.
Now, cases of covid-19 in his state are receding, and so are the glory days of Cuomo’s third term as governor.
A former adviser has accused him of sexual harassment, fellow Democrats are publicly condemning what they describe as bullying backroom behavior, and federal investigators are probing the state’s handling of nursing home data amid allegations that Cuomo’s administration withheld the extent of deaths caused by the virus.
The sudden shift in fortunes for Cuomo, which has potentially clouded what looked to be an easy reelection campaign next year, comes as an abrupt turnabout for those who first encountered the governor during his daily news conferences. He was widely praised for offering the country the sort of strong leadership many saw missing from the White House under President Donald Trump. The International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gave him an Emmy for “his masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world.” He even welcomed the term “Cuomosexual” used by some of his online fans.
But for those steeped in New York politics, little is surprising about the recent turn of events, save perhaps how many people have publicly turned against the governor. The rough edges Cuomo once sold as an asset — “My natural instinct is to be aggressive,” he wrote in his last book — are now emerging as a liability.
“This is not just an aggressive politician. This is someone who has a narrative, and if you do not publicly agree with that narrative, he will threaten you,” said Monica Klein, a liberal activist who previously worked for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a fierce rival of the governor. “What that means is dissent is silenced.”
Aides to Cuomo have denied the sexual harassment allegation and defended his administration’s handling of nursing home data.
“New Yorkers know it was the Governor who worked night and day to get them through the worst of this pandemic and, 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,” Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said in a statement.
But public dissent is now spreading through New York political circles — and notably within Cuomo’s own party — as a growing number of rising politicians calculate that they can succeed without the help of the governor’s machine. Assemblyman Ron Kim (D) of Queens, who has been critical of Cuomo’s handling of nursing home data, said the governor threatened to “destroy” him earlier this month if he did not retract his comments.
Cuomo’s advisers denied Kim’s description of the call, and Cuomo attacked the lawmaker personally, suggesting at a news conference that Kim had improperly raised money from small businesses in his district whose legislative priorities he supported.
Kim has denied any impropriety and repeated his account of the call from Cuomo during an appearance on ABC’s “The View.” Other Democrats, including de Blasio, spoke up to defend Kim and condemn Cuomo’s conduct.
“The bullying is nothing new,” de Blasio said in an appearance last week on MSNBC.
Several people close to the governor described him as privately frustrated — and wanting to punch back against his critics — even as his team tries to tamp down stories about the various crises. A number of lawmakers, advocates and other political strategists in New York spoke on the condition of anonymity Thursday out of fear of Cuomo and because the full scope of the nursing home investigation and the extent of the sexual harassment allegations are unclear.
“The governor’s reaction has elevated this into a national story. Ron Kim gets on ‘The View’ and on CNN, and it’s self-inflicted,” a person close to the governor said. “We have to get those kinds of people back on the fringes.”
A second adviser in touch with a number of Cuomo administration officials said: “People feel like they are under siege from all sides. Who knows what’s coming next?”
The governor sees the nursing home problem as more of a political one than a legal one, according to two advisers. And Cuomo remains in fairly strong standing among Democrats in recent polls, and no clear primary challenger has emerged to take him on.
“If the vaccine keeps getting out there, and the weather gets warm and people go outside, and businesses start opening up and people feel good about it, he will get credit, and his numbers will go up,” said Josh Vlasto, his former chief of staff.
Still, that task has been complicated by the sexual harassment claims of a former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a Democratic candidate for Manhattan borough president, who alleges that Cuomo suggested a game of strip poker once when she flew with him on a plane and kissed her on the mouth on another occasion without consent. She also produced an email from another Cuomo aide documenting that the governor said she looked like the “better looking sister” of someone he was rumored to have dated.
A Cuomo spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday that “Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false.”
Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas (D) of Queens has called for an independent investigation of the harassment claims. A group of former legislative staffers from Albany, who formed a working group to combat workplace harassment in politics, has echoed that call.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading Democrat in New York, called the sexual assault allegations “extraordinarily serious” and said in an interview with CBS on Thursday that they deserved to be investigated, along with the “nursing home situation that’s unfolding.”
The Democratic-led legislature is contemplating a removal of the broad emergency powers that Cuomo won at the start of the pandemic, after New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report last month that found the state had understated the nursing home deaths from covid-19 by nearly 50 percent. The state had previously not publicly accounted for the deaths of nursing home residents who were transferred to hospitals before dying, she reported.
A top aide to Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, told state legislators this month that the full data had not been released after a request for it from the Justice Department and a fear that the Trump administration would politicize the numbers.
“Basically, we froze,” said DeRosa, according to a transcript of her remarks to lawmakers.
Cuomo has privately defended DeRosa, who is viewed as his top aide and most fierce protector, and has told others she will remain in her job, according to two people close to Cuomo.
Steven M. Cohen, a former top aide and current ally, released a statement Thursday defending the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes amid the pandemic. He also defended the decision to not release the full mortality data out of concern that Trump would use it politically.
“Even a casual observer would be entitled to conclude that the motivation for the DOJ request was political and had all the hallmarks of ‘a game of gotcha,’ ” Cohen wrote. He said the state had ultimately shared the requested information with the Justice Department.
The governor’s advisers have said that the administration is cooperating with the federal investigation.
Cuomo had argued for months, including in his October book, that New York had performed better than 45 other states in its percentage of nursing home deaths — a claim that relied on numbers that Cuomo now admits were incomplete.
“I didn’t hold back any information because I thought it was too difficult or frightening,” Cuomo also wrote in his book, a claim that has now been called into question. “It’s not my place to filter or edit the truth.”
Those words could come back to haunt him in a reelection campaign. Several advisers said Cuomo was determined to write a book early in the pandemic, even as some expressed concern that cases would rise again this fall.
The governor said Feb. 15 that the delay in releasing the full nursing home death numbers had been “a mistake” that had created a “void” of public information.
In July, 72 percent approved of his handling of the pandemic, and that has dropped to 54 percent now, according to a Marist College poll this month. His overall approval rating has dropped to 49 percent, according to the poll. The polling was conducted before Boylan publicly detailed her sexual harassment claims against the governor.
The nursing home issue has clearly contributed to the drop, with 41 percent of New Yorkers in the poll saying he had done something unethical but not illegal in his handling of the issue. An additional 19 percent believed he had done something illegal.
“This is reverting back to his pre-pandemic numbers, back in the 40s, where he’s been,” said Lee Miringoff, who leads the college’s polls. “His handling of the economy is right side up, his handling of the pandemic is right side up, and people still see him as a good leader. It’s just the numbers have come precipitously down since his record numbers in July.”
Cuomo remains in a relatively strong place inside the party, however, with about half of Democrats saying he deserves reelection and no clear primary rival. He has been moving to shore up support with African American leaders in Queens and Brooklyn, advisers said.
But the current damage-control effort is a far cry from the self-congratulatory tone Cuomo embraced last year. A poster his administration released in July — sold to voters for $11.50 including shipping — cast the spring hospitalization curve as an island mountain festooned with his own inspirational and comforting quotes.
“Wake up America! Forget the Politics, Get Smart,” he quoted himself saying at the top of the poster.
Last year, in awarding Cuomo a special Emmy for his daily press briefings, the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences president, Bruce L. Paisner, said Cuomo’s covid briefings “worked so well because he effectively created television shows, with characters, plotlines, and stories of success and failure.”
Now that celebrity is turning against him. People magazine, which anointed him one of the sexiest men alive (over 50 category) in 2010, has been covering Boylan’s claims. Even NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” devoted its cold open on Saturday to mocking Cuomo’s bullying behavior.
President Biden, who had previously praised Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic, has been silent as scandals have enveloped the governor. White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly declined to say in an interview Sunday whether Biden still considered Cuomo “the gold standard,” as Biden once referred to him.
“I’m not here to give new labels or names from the president,” Psaki said on ABC News’s “This Week.”