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Cuomo in Context: His Career and Personality Set the Stage for Scandals

After years of leading through intimidation, New York's Democratic governor faces sexual harassment allegations and charges of covering up thousands of deaths.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS)
Andrew Cuomo is in serious political trouble. Over the weekend, a 25-year-old former aide accused him of harassment, saying he’d asked her if she ever slept with older men. That followed an account published last week by another former state official who said Cuomo had repeatedly harassed her.  

Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, asked state Attorney General Letitia James to appoint a private attorney to investigate the charges. On Sunday, he issued a statement apologizing for his behavior, while still insisting he meant no harm.

"I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended," he said. "I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation."

That wasn't enough to stop calls for Cuomo’s resignation, including from Democrats. “@NYGovCuomo, you are a monster, and it is time for you to go. Now,” tweeted Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat who chairs the New York Senate’s ethics committee. 

Cuomo’s problems keep compounding. Last month, a top aide admitted that the administration underreported coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes by the thousands, for fear of investigation by the federal Justice Department. Amidst those revelations, Cuomo was accused of routinely bullying and threatening others, including Democratic state Rep. Ron Kim, who said Cuomo had threatened to “destroy him” if he didn’t back him up in regard to the nursing home scandal. Kim has called for Cuomo's impeachment.

Cuomo became a national media darling thanks to his handling of the pandemic last spring and has been planning to run for a fourth term next year. Now, it’s a real question whether he will survive his current term.

“After three terms of hardball, you make a lot of enemies,” says Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “You build up enemies more than you build up friends.”

Cuomo: More Feared Than Loved

The opinions of New York progressives about Cuomo have ranged from skepticism to outright hatred, despite his ability to deliver on many of their top policy goals. Whatever the left thought of him, Cuomo easily turned aside progressive primary challengers on his way to easy re-election victories in both 2014 and 2018.

Still, there’s long been an undercurrent of suspicion regarding the governor. Cuomo shut down an ethics commission in 2014 that his aides had sought to steer around troublesome areas of an investigation. In 2018, a former top Cuomo aide was convicted on corruption charges

The charges didn’t touch Cuomo directly. Cuomo’s aggressive style and mastery of the legislative process meant that, while there’s been plenty of grousing, he’s suffered few direct challenges. He didn’t shy from picking up the phone and screaming at those who crossed him. “Machiavelli said it’s better to be feared than loved,” Muzzio says. “Cuomo is a practitioner of the art of being feared.”

With the pandemic, Cuomo found himself being loved. His daily news conferences were masterpieces of crisis communication – fact-based but full of compassion. Other governors held daily news conferences that became appointment viewing in their states but, given that New York is the media capital of the country, Cuomo received outside attention. His numerous appearances with his brother Chris on CNN may have been the definition of incestuous media relations, but Andrew Cuomo came across in that context as warm and fond.

Even when he wasn’t likable, the danger and fear involved in the pandemic’s early stages made him seem like the kind of leader the state needed. “In ordinary times, Mr. Cuomo’s relentlessness and bullying drive New Yorkers crazy,” The New York Times noted a year ago. “In the age of the coronavirus, they soothe our battered nerves.”

No Longer Lauded

New York was the initial epicenter of COVID-19 in this country, but then the aggressive approach Cuomo took helped drive down caseloads and deaths. In October, Cuomo published a book about “leadership lessons” from the pandemic. It seemed presumptuous, especially at a time when COVID-19 numbers were climbing back up.

For months, Republicans have been using nursing home deaths in New York as a talking point against Democratic handling of the disease. Early on, Cuomo blocked nursing homes from refusing to accept patients infected with the coronavirus.

That policy was not unique. Other governors took a similar approach in hopes of preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed. Republicans have frequently pointed out that the death toll in Florida remains lower than New York’s, attributing that in part to GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision not to force nursing homes to take back infected patients from hospitals. 

“Governors have prerogative to do what they need to do,” DeSantis himself said last June. “If that is done, please don’t quarantine Floridians in nursing homes in New York.”

Cuomo’s nursing home directive was issued on March 25, when the seriousness of the coronavirus threat was just starting to be understood. It may have been the wrong choice, but given the early “flatten the curve” concerns about keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed, it was justifiable, or at least debatable. And, again, Cuomo wasn’t unique in making that particular call. 

But his administration’s efforts to hide the number of nursing home deaths became an immediate national scandal. And, doubtless, it emboldened Cuomo’s critics to come forward with other kinds of complaints.

The Nature of Sex Scandals

Cuomo became governor thanks to a sex scandal. Or at least the opportunity became available to him.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was a star in Democratic politics when his career was brought to a grinding halt in 2008. He was just over a year into his first term when he abruptly resigned, having been caught in a prostitution ring

That was Cuomo’s chance. He’d run unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 2002, then rebuilt his career by winning the attorney general’s race in 2006. Spitzer was immediately succeeded by Lt. Gov. David Paterson, but Cuomo elbowed him aside on his way to winning the office in 2010. 

Cuomo managed his father Mario’s first run for governor back in 1982. Mario Cuomo was defeated in 1994, when he sought a fourth term. It now seems unlikely Andrew Cuomo could be elected to a fourth term.

Last Wednesday, Lindsey Boylan – a former New York economic development official now running for Manhattan borough president -- published a Medium post in which she detailed numerous instances in which Cuomo had gone “out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs,” asked her to play strip poker on a government plane, or kissed her on the lips.

She suggested that her experiences were common, but that women knew Cuomo and his staff would intimidate and harass those who came forward. “Andrew Cuomo abused his power as governor to sexually harass me, just as he had done with so many other women,” Boylan wrote.

On Saturday night, The New York Times reported that Charlotte Bennett, a former executive assistant and health policy adviser, had received unwanted advances from Cuomo. She said that during the early days of the pandemic, the governor complained to her that he hadn’t been able to hug anyone and asked her about her sex life, including her openness to sleeping with older men. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett said. 

The news fell like a bombshell. Cuomo denied the accusations from Boylan and Bennett, but announced Saturday he’d asked Barbara Jones, a former federal judge, to investigate the matter. His critics quickly pointed out that Jones had once worked at a law firm with Steve Cohen, a former top Cuomo aide who had already publicly defended Cuomo against Boylan’s allegations.

Feeling the pressure, on Sunday Cuomo issued his call for Attorney General James to hire a private lawyer to look into the matter. That appears highly unlikely to satisfy lawmakers and others calling for an independent investigation.

“The allegations of sexual harassment against Gov. Cuomo are abhorrent,” said Democratic state Sen. Samra Brouk. “I believe survivors, and I admire their courage to speak out against unjust situations."

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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