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'The knives come out': Cuomo fights for political survival as pressure mounts

The embattled New York governor let rivals who have called for his resignation know he's not planning on going anywhere.
Image: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo walks through a vaccination site after speaking in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 22, 2021.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo walks through a vaccination site after speaking in Brooklyn on Feb. 22.Seth Wenig / Pool via Reuters

For decades, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has maintained an iron grip on his public image, bolstered by the unflappable loyalty of longtime allies and the trepidation of his biggest political foes.

Wanting to show that he was in control of the coronavirus pandemic, he held daily news conferences that made him nationally famous in contrast to a floundering federal response. He wanted to show that he was in control of the state's biggest city, and he spent years belittling New York City's mayor to prove it. He even wrote a book touting his "leadership lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic" while case numbers were still climbing.

And on Wednesday, facing his worst political crisis, he tried to give the perception that he was in control of very serious allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, even though it was far from clear that he really was.

He publicly apologized to the women who said he sexually harassed them while letting those who've been calling for his ouster know he's not planning on going anywhere.

"I'm not going to resign," he said at a news conference, his first public appearance since the allegations came out. The state, he said, needs him to be in charge.

"We have a full plate. We have Covid. We have recovery. We have rebuilding. We have a teetering New York City. We have a terrible financial picture. We have to do vaccines. So no, I'm going to do the job that people of the state elected me to do," he said.

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York political strategist, said Cuomo's remarks Wednesday were designed to let his rivals know that he's still "in control."

"The message was to de Blasio and to his enemies overall — I'm not going easy, and time is on my side," Sheinkopf said, referring to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo, who is in his third term, has faced heat before, but nothing like the storm of controversies that have buffeted him in the past several weeks, which have prompted calls for his resignation from over a dozen Democratic state lawmakers, strong rebukes from even his closest allies and news that state legislative leaders would be stripping his emergency coronavirus powers.

Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist who has worked for de Blasio and worked on actress Cynthia Nixon's 2018 run against the governor, said: "Andrew Cuomo's never been under this kind of scrutiny. This is the first time his scandals are leading the news," which he's likely to be well aware of.

"Nobody follows Andrew Cuomo's press coverage more closely than Andrew Cuomo," Katz said.

Steven Greenberg, a pollster at Siena College, said, "It's no understatement to say he's facing his toughest test as governor."

His problems began in late January, when state Attorney General Letitia James' office issued a report that found that the state Health Department had underreported the Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent. A top aide told Democratic legislators that Cuomo's administration took months to release data about the death toll among nursing home residents in part because of worries that the information was "going to be used against us" by the Trump administration.

Cuomo was then accused in mid-February of having threatened to "destroy" a Democratic lawmaker who had alleged that the administration "covered up" the numbers. Cuomo denied having threatened the outspoken Assembly member, Ron Kim, who was also calling for Cuomo's emergency pandemic powers to be revoked. Cuomo denied that there had been a cover-up, but he said the state should have moved more quickly to release information.

Over the past week, Cuomo has also been hit with allegations of sexual harassment by three women — two who had worked for his administration and one who said he had harassed her at a wedding.

The first woman, Lindsey Boylan, wrote in an essay on Medium that Cuomo had repeatedly made inappropriate comments, including one suggesting that they play strip poker, and that he had once given her an unwanted kiss on the lips. Cuomo's press secretary, Caitlin Girouard, called the allegations "quite simply false."

Another former aide, Charlotte Bennett, told The New York Times in an interview published Saturday that Cuomo had made several inappropriate remarks about her sex life, which she said she interpreted as an overture. Bennett, 25, has told NBC News that the Times report was accurate and declined to comment further.

Cuomo on Saturday denied having made advances to Bennett, but he acknowledged Wednesday: "I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional. And I truly and deeply apologize for it.

"I feel awful about it," he added. "And frankly, I am embarrassed by it. And that's not easy to say. But that's the truth. But this is what I want you to know, and I want you to know this from me directly: I never touched anyone inappropriately."

Another woman, Anna Ruch, 33, told The Times in an article published Monday that she felt "uncomfortable and embarrassed" when Cuomo, whom she had just met, placed his hands on her face and asked to kiss her at a wedding in 2019. The story included a photograph that appears to show the moment.

Cuomo said Wednesday: "I didn't know I was making her uncomfortable at the time. I feel badly that I did.

"My usual custom is to kiss and to hug and make that gesture. I understand that sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed. And I get it, and I'm going to learn from it," he said.

That he's too friendly, however, is not the typical complaint about Cuomo.

"You reap what you sow. This is someone who's governed through fear and bullying — it works until it doesn't," political consultant Bradley Tusk said. "When you stumble, the knives come out."

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The bad press has taken a toll on Cuomo's approval ratings, which hit record highs during the early months of the pandemic, when viewers flocked to watch his calm and measured coronavirus briefings. A poll by Nexstar New York/Emerson College released Tuesday indicated that only 38 percent of New Yorkers approve of the job he's doing, while 48 percent disapprove.

Tusk said it's unclear at this point whether Cuomo will still try to accomplish what his late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, couldn't — get elected to a fourth term.

"A week and a half ago, some would have been scared to run against him," Tusk said.

Sheinkopf said the attorney general's investigation could work to Cuomo's advantage in the short run, because it buys him time. The investigation is expected to last months, allowing Cuomo to focus on the coronavirus vaccine rollout and coming budget talks to rebuild his managerial image.

"His power is in the budget," Sheinkopf said. "If there's a guy who can sit this out and win, it's Andrew Cuomo. But the problem is we don't know what else is coming."