How N.Y. Gov. Cuomo’s fall from grace throws Democrats off message

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden gave an 18-minute statement speaking about COVID-19, the surge of the delta variant and the importance of vaccination. Yet the first question he faced from reporters was about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Earlier that day, independent investigators appointed by New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report saying their nearly five-month investigation revealed Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women. 

That report marked another milestone in the spectacular fall from grace of the three-term governor, who just a year ago had become a national figure, praised for his calm leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. Now, many of the same Democrats, including the president himself, who had lauded Cuomo’s performance are calling for him to resign. 

Some political strategists suggest his continued presence on the national U.S. stage will provide an unwanted distraction for Democrats. 

Kills ability to stay on message

“It kills your ability to stay on message. And that is the albatross for Democrats, the messaging issue,” said Evan Siegfried, a New York-based Republican strategist. “He doesn’t let them … talk about positive things or whatever the message they’re trying to get out there.”

“You’re going to have more and more questions asked of sitting lawmakers at press conferences, and just random public events [about] Andrew Cuomo. And [what] if more shoes drop, if there’s a criminal prosecution?”

Independent investigators appointed by New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report this week showing their nearly five-month investigation revealed Cuomo sexually harassed nearly a dozen women and worked to retaliate against one of his accusers.  (Ted Shaffrey/The Associated Press)

Democratic strategist Kevin Walling said the investigation proves Cuomo is unfit to serve and his continued presence on the national scene sucks up media oxygen that could go to highlighting the Biden administration’s accomplishments.

“We saw an incredible jobs report out from the Commerce Department indicating nearly one million new jobs were added in the month of July, and yet so much of the national news coverage is focused on Cuomo, because frankly it’s sensational,” Walling said in an email to CBC News.

“We have a job to do as communicators in support of the Democratic agenda, and that certainly becomes more difficult with these kinds of distractions.”

In the early stages of COVID-19, Cuomo drew something of a national following in the U.S. with his daily news conferences praised for providing sombre and straightforward updates to the crisis.

Biden hailed Cuomo as the “gold standard” for COVID-19 management and praised his “leadership.” There were rumblings of a presidential bid, and a Canadian poll suggested Cuomo would be a top Democratic contender for 2024 if Biden declined to seek a second term.

“He spoke very frankly and in detail about what was happening. And it was such a sharp contrast to Donald Trump,” Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, said of Cuomo’s initial pandemic performance.

“That really highlighted Cuomo at his best because Cuomo was honest with the people of New York. And even though you could still see signs of sort of the arrogance and the sort of patting himself on the back for things, he spoke in detail. And it was his best moment as a leader in a time of crisis.”

Won Emmy for COVID leadership

His leadership won him an International Emmy and helped lead to his book American Crisis.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked for and against Cuomo, said the governor understands how to find opportunity in a crisis.

“He seized the moment.”

Lindsey Boylan, a former state economic development adviser for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaks at a rally in Manhattan on March 20. Boylan alleged unwanted touching and kissing from the governor, as well as retaliation efforts from his office. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/The Associated Press)

However, cracks began to form in his COVID-19 leadership narrative. Questions were raised about his administration’s role in releasing thousands of recovering coronavirus patients in New York state from hospitals into nursing homes. He was then accused of covering up the true death toll of nursing home residents.

Meanwhile, allegations began trickling in about his behaviour in office with women coming forward with accusations of sexual harassment.

Those allegations culminated in Tuesday’s report, leading more Democrats to distance themselves from the governor. Months earlier, in the wake of the harassment allegations, New York’s two U.S. senators, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, along with a majority of New York congressional Democrats, had called on Cuomo to resign.

This week, Biden agreed.

“Virtually every Democratic leader I can think of has not only decried and deplored what Cuomo has done, but has called for his resignation,” said Spitzer, the political science professor.

While Cuomo could face potential criminal charges, his political career is certainly in jeopardy. A majority of state assembly members said they support beginning impeachment proceedings against him. Yet so far, Cuomo has shown no signs of caving in, and has denied he acted inappropriately.

‘Will not go easy’

“He will not go easy, if at all,” said Sheinkopf. “He will do whatever he can to stay. He will ultimately … believe no matter what happens, that there was a way to fight back.”

If Cuomo digs in his political heels and refuses to leave office, Democrats’ ability to get anything done at the state level in New York will be called into question, said Siegfried, the Republican strategist. The governor is also a potential liability for the 2022 midterm U.S. congressional elections, he added.

“Some of those swing districts that Republicans want to pick up are in New York,” he said.

WATCH | New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo denies findings of sexual harassment:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has denied the findings of a nearly five-month-long investigation that found he sexually harassed several current and former employees. Cuomo said that, in the case of one complainant, his actions had been unfairly characterized. (Credit: AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez) 0:43

But Spitzer believes impeachment is likely, and if that happens, “I do not see a circumstance where he can persuade more than a third of the members of the state Senate to stick with him and keep him in office.

“When the final votes are held, I think both houses are prepared to vote against him.”

And if somehow he stays, he will be politically hamstrung, Spitzer said.

“I think that hurts the Democratic Party. And I think that’s where most Democratic leaders, even those who are true Cuomo loyalists, will say ‘You’re just going to drag down the whole party in 2022 [midterms.]'”

Sptizer said Cuomo reminds him of a “Democratic Nixon”, in reference to the scandal-plagued Republican president, in the way he treats his opponents and allies.

“He has a long memory. He’s vengeful. He’s petty, he’s very, very tough,” he said. “And that’s partly why nobody’s running to his defence now. I think he just he has no reservoir of goodwill, even among his own party.”

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