Cuomo leans on crisis management playbook as walls close in

“Go buy some time, and hope that things calm down” was how the official described the administration’s current approach to overcoming the scandals. The strategy was reflected in a call Cuomo held with reporters on Sunday, in which he said state government has work to do and pledged he is “not going to be distracted.”

Cuomo, who got his start in politics on his father’s campaigns for governor in the 1980s, is well aware of the mortality rates of wounded politicians. As the New York governor himself acknowledged in his recent — and now widely mocked as premature — book about “leadership lessons” from the coronavirus pandemic, “dead politicians don’t usually come back to life.”

But a Quinnipiac Poll last week showed some cause for hope for Cuomo: A majority of New Yorkers don’t want him to resign.

Indeed, for most of his governorship, Cuomo operated as if made of Teflon — seemingly impervious to scandal. And it wasn’t just his overbearing temperament that New Yorkers and Democrats across the country were willing to overlook. Among the catalogue of controversies Cuomo weathered: his former aide’s bribery conviction, “Buffalo Billion” and his office’s meddling in a high-profile corruption probe.

The sexual harassment accusations and claims that Cuomo concealed the number of coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes have hit him harder than any of those past controversies. The two scandals are mushrooming at the same time, and the issues they touch — the coronavirus and mistreatment of women — are both readily digestible and at the top of voters’ minds.

In Albany, legislators have already moved to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers related to the pandemic (which Cuomo on Wednesday characterized as the result of a mutual negotiation, something lawmakers bidding to reassert their authority amid Cuomo’s self-destruction quickly refuted).

Cuomo has not said whether he still plans to run for a fourth term.

One looming problem for him is that the fallout has metastasized far beyond New York. In Washington, the sexual harassment accusations are squeezing Democratic lawmakers who have been leery to interject — but for whom Cuomo has become a test case of fealty to the #MeToo movement. Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida recently held Cuomo up as a joke, while Bill de Blasio, the progressive mayor of New York who is his nemesis, has been skewering his alleged behavior as “terrifying” and “perverse.”

Cuomo, once accustomed to being asked whether he planned to run for president, was reduced last week and again on Sunday to telling reporters he won’t resign.

“With Andrew, it’s a cumulative thing,” said George Arzt, a Democratic strategist in New York, noting that the nursing home and sexual harassment scandals are attracting constituencies from across the political spectrum. “The two together … it’s his twin nightmares.”

Still, Arzt said: “If anyone could get through it, it’s Andrew. The man is a master tactician.”

Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House staffer who helped to manage the fallout from his impeachment proceedings, said that for a politician beset by scandal, the immediate priority is less to mount a full-throated defense than to ensure that “whatever position you establish early on” is sustainable for the duration of the saga.

“Your North Star’s ultimately going to be credibility. Can you earn back trust?” he said. “If you effectively do that, then you want to be able to buy yourself some time by using the processes that are available that, in effect, extend the time window on this.”

Lehane wasn’t speaking specifically about Cuomo. But that’s exactly what Cuomo’s done. While expressing contrition for acting “in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” he said last week that he “never touched anyone inappropriately” and that he “never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable.”

In his book about leadership and the pandemic, Cuomo wrote that he viewed himself as living a rare “second life” following his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2002. He planned to serve, he said, “as long as the people will have me.”

But that will largely depend on whether he can hold his grip on the party’s power grid and maintain relationships with establishment Democrats who have so far calculated that getting along with the overbearing governor was preferable to getting on the bad side of a man who’s been known to hold grudges for decades. And much of his fate will hang on an investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James into the sexual harassment accusations.

Cuomo’s standing appeared to worsen significantly over the weekend. Before Stewart-Cousins and Heastie came out against him, the governor had the friable backing of almost all the state’s top Democrats, who have said they’ll wait for a report from the state attorney general before judging his political future. While neither Stewart-Cousins nor Heastie have had reputations as particularly strong Cuomo allies, they necessarily work with the governor to keep New York running. The state budget is due at the end of March, and it is typically negotiated by the two legislative leaders and Cuomo, who has in the past held outsize advantage in those talks.

Calls for resignation have come from dozens of rank-and-file members in both chambers, and it is possible that Stewart-Cousins’ statement will open the door for even more legislators to speak up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take formal action against the governor before his term is up, said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist who has advised Cuomo in the past.

“Legislative leadership responds to Senate and Assembly members and must appear independent of the governor,” he said. “Thus Stewart-Cousins and Heastie are doing exactly what they must do. Added benefit: they both will appear unified and tougher during budget negotiations. Their play is tactical. You’ll know it’s over if impeachment proceedings start.”

It’s possible Cuomo’s call with reporters on Sunday, in which he said “there is no way I resign” and noted that he was elected by people, not politicians, was a preemptive strike to the statements he knew or suspected were coming, Sheinkopf added.

In the meantime, coverage of his dual scandals has been nonstop. Rebecca Katz, a consultant who advised Cynthia Nixon in her primary campaign against the New York governor in 2018, called it “the worst press he’s ever gotten.”

In the past, Katz said, negative publicity “never stuck” to Cuomo. But with the avalanche of news about the nursing home and sexual harassment scandals, “People get it now. …They know he’s a bully.”

“Andrew Cuomo is one of the meanest, most vindictive public officials in America,” Katz said. “If there’s a way to use his power to hurt or squash people, he will. The question remains, does it backfire now?”

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Clinton had feminist Gloria Steinem on his side. Northam had timely controversies surrounding two other Virginia Democrats, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, to deflect attention from him. And both of those politicians had friends.

“With Northam, you know, it was a little rocky for him at the beginning, but a lot of people liked Ralph and stuck with him. He was a likable guy,” said James Carville, the former Clinton strategist. “Andrew doesn’t have anybody who wants to get in the foxhole with him.”

Even so, this year’s political climate may be uniquely conducive to a rehabilitation. More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, conditions are on the upswing in a state that was marking close to 1,000 Covid-19 deaths per day during spring 2020’s peak infection weeks. The vaccine rollout has been clunky, but Cuomo’s office is heralding advances in the effort daily.

Running for a fourth term, however, will be “problematic,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

“He’s not likely to resign,” Miringoff said. “But I think it might make a reelection campaign a more steep climb than it probably already would have been.”

The 2022 primary, if Cuomo runs, is still a year off. The Quinnipiac poll found only 36 percent of New York voters want Cuomo to seek a fourth term. But 50 percent of Democrats want him to run again.

That number isn’t great. But it isn’t dig-his-governorship-a-grave bad, either.

“People say his career is over, but by what standard?” Sheinkopf said. It’s possible Cuomo’s career will wither if the attorney general’s findings are dire, he said, but “we haven’t seen a report yet.”

For now, Sheinkopf said, “He’s not going anyplace.”


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