On Wednesday, in his first public statement after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, including from two former aides, he appeared chastened and sounded repentant, words normally not associated with the governor.
He described the allegations as “an incredibly difficult situation for me as well as other people.” He said he “never intended” any of it. He said he was “sorry for whatever pain I caused anyone.” He also said he would not resign. Instead, in character, he means to fight. “I work for the people of the state of New York,” he said. “They elected me.”
The allegations of sexual harassment come on top of accusations that he mishandled the coronavirus crisis, that he and his administration covered up the number of deaths in state nursing homes. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) has said the administration’s undercount numbered in the thousands. A federal investigation in the Eastern District of New York is ongoing.
Cuomo’s fall from grace has been stunningly swift. Scroll back to March and April 2020 and the story was 180-degrees different. Cuomo was called America’s grown-up leader, offering a contrast to President Donald Trump by delivering straightforward analysis of the coronavirus crisis at a time when Trump’s handling was erratic and contentious as he sought to play down the threat.
Democrats swooned when they saw Cuomo at his daily briefings, which included lengthy monologues, all carried out live on cable. The sessions were regarded as must-see TV. Cuomo was lucky to be the governor of New York and therefore in the center of a media world that can be noticeably parochial. Was his leadership really more impressive than that of other governors who toiled outside of that spotlight, or who did not seek it in the same way, governors like Ohio’s Mike DeWine (R) or Maryland’s Larry Hogan (R)?
The exposure he enjoyed was enough to cause some Democrats to lament the fact that Biden, who at the time was largely out of sight, was their likely presidential nominee amid talk that maybe, maybe Cuomo would jump into the race. It was fanciful then and looks even more so today.
Last fall, Cuomo published a memoir entitled, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Cuomo seemed to laud his own leadership, and the book landed briefly on the New York Times bestseller list. The full story of his handling of the crisis was not fully known then. Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who worked against Cuomo in his last gubernatorial election, said, “He wrote a ‘mission accomplished’ book before the mission was accomplished.”
Late last year, Cuomo received an Emmy from the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for his performance at his daily news conferences. “The governor’s 111 daily briefings worked so well because he effectively created television shows, with characters, plotlines, and stories of success and failure,” Bruce L. Paisner, the International Academy president and chief executive, said in a statement at the time. “People around the world tuned in to find out what was going on, and ‘New York tough’ became a symbol of the determination to fight back.”
Today “New York tough” has another meaning, as in tough it out. Cuomo is taking a page from the playbook of Bill Clinton, who when besieged by scandal during his 1992 presidential campaign and facing calls that he quit the race, decided to fight on, successfully. “Never quit” was his motto then and throughout his presidency. Other politicians have taken notice over the years. Some, not all, have been successful in weathering the storm around them. Cuomo hopes to be the latest.
Three women have accused Cuomo of sexual impropriety. He has denied some specific allegations by one of his accusers, but he has not denied that he questioned a young aide, Charlotte Bennett, about her sex life and about having sex with older men, and that he would be interested in have a relationship with a woman in her 20s, which Bennett is. Bennett, who told her story to the New York Times, did not accuse the governor of sexual assault.
In a written statement over the weekend, Cuomo said that some of his comments might have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.” He said that at work he sometimes thinks he is “being playful” and that he means no offense. He said he now realizes that his comments were “insensitive or too personal.”
He said at that point that he welcomed an investigation, though it took a bit of time to work out something acceptable to the attorney general. He said he would have no further comment. That changed by Wednesday, as the pressure was rising around him and he needed to reassert himself, if with a dose of humility.
Leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have called the charges serious and worthy of a thorough and independent investigation, which the attorney general will oversee. But only a few Democrats, who have been quick to pounce on Republicans accused of sexual misconduct, called directly for him to resign.
Cuomo’s appearance on Wednesday seemed to show a politician shaken by the experience, though coming years after the #MeToo movement gained force, the reaction to the allegations should have come as no surprise.
Cuomo described himself as someone who likes to joke around with staff and others, but that is not the reputation he has developed over his years in public life. Demanding is the kindest way to describe his management style; bullying is another. With his tenure as housing secretary in the Clinton administration and three terms as governor, he has lived with and exercised power freely.
Cuomo comes from a celebrated political family. His father, Mario Cuomo, a gifted orator and thinker who was talked about as a future presidential candidate until he blinked unexpectedly at a moment when he was prepared to announce his candidacy, served three terms as governor. The Cuomo brand has been strong in New York for many years.
Cuomo spoke on Wednesday after a day in which no one came forward with a new allegation of sexual harassment. His apology probably bought him some time, and his vow not to resign could quiet, for now, some of that talk.
His hope must be that no more women come forward, that he can survive the investigation into the charges, that the investigation into the nursing home scandal will not end up crippling his governorship and that he can run and win a fourth term in 2022.
The governor has survived other scandals. No one can say whether that will be the case here. But a look back to the spring of 2020 shows how far he has fallen and why he faces a struggle both to survive and to rebuild.