Cuomo takes heat from all sides on nursing home scandal
It’s a bad time to be Andrew Cuomo.
The New York governor has come under fire from all sides after admitting at least some responsibility in withholding data on coronavirus-related deaths in the state’s nursing homes.
State lawmakers from both parties are pushing forward with a measure to strip Cuomo of the emergency powers that have allowed him to control nearly every aspect of his state’s coronavirus response. Meanwhile, the FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have reportedly opened an investigation into the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo has gone on the attack against critics, using a Wednesday press briefing to hurl allegations of corruption against Democratic state Assemblyman Ron Kim (D), who was among several state lawmakers to accuse Cuomo of “obstruction of justice” in a letter published by the New York Post.
The controversies highlight a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a governor who was heralded for his leadership in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and who went as far as to publish a book last fall extolling his response to the outbreak.
“He has instincts that are self-destructive,” one New York Democratic consultant said. “Much of the time he keeps them in check. This is not one of them.”
Cuomo and his administration have faced questions for months over their policies surrounding nursing homes amid the pandemic. But the governor repeatedly dismissed critics’ concerns, brushing them off as partisan attacks from former President Trump and his Republican allies.
But the situation escalated last month after New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a report accusing Cuomo’s administration of undercounting coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes by declining to add to the total residents who had died in hospitals. Since then, the state’s official death count of nursing home and long-term care facility residents has almost doubled from about 8,500 to more than 15,000.
Making the situation worse for Cuomo and his administration was the revelation last week that the governor’s top aide Melissa DeRosa had privately admitted to state Democratic lawmakers that the administration had withheld the total nursing home death toll out of fear that it would be used in a potential investigation by the Justice Department under Trump.
That admission ignited an outrage among both Democrats and Republicans, who accused Cuomo of a cover-up. Cuomo has since acknowledged that the decision to withhold the data was a mistake and created a “void” in accurate information about the toll of the virus. But he has refused to apologize, insisting that neither he nor his administration did anything unethical or illegal.
“My administration created the void, and that I feel bad about,” he said on Wednesday. “Not illegal, not unethical. But just failed people in that moment.”
The fallout from the disclosure has been fierce. On Sunday, Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) said that DeRosa’s remarks were “beyond troubling and warrant a full investigation.” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) described a “bipartisan outcry” against Cuomo, declaring on Fox News that the “dam is breaking.”
On Tuesday, nine Democratic members of the New York State Assembly signed onto a letter published by the Post accusing Cuomo of federal obstruction of justice with his administration’s “conscious omission of nursing homes death data.”
In an interview with the newspaper, Kim, a Democratic assemblyman from Queens, described the governor’s administration as telling “lie after lie,” saying that Cuomo “cares more about his own political and personal well-being than the most vulnerable members of our community.”
Those remarks were met with fury by Cuomo. Kim said that the governor berated and threatened him in a private phone call last Thursday night — a charge that Cuomo’s office has denied. Cuomo also tore into Kim during a Wednesday news conference, describing a “long and hostile relationship” between his administration and the state lawmaker, and accusing Kim of running a “racket” by soliciting donations from nail salon owners.
State lawmakers are also gearing up to take legislative action to reel in Cuomo’s powers.
Democrats in the state Senate are preparing to move on a measure that would rein in the governor’s emergency powers when they go back into session next week. The bill would limit Cuomo’s ability to override state laws amid the pandemic and establish a panel of state lawmakers to review the governor’s future directives.
Deputy New York state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, a Democrat, said that state lawmakers had been working on proposals to rein in the governor’s emergency powers even before the revelation that Cuomo’s administration had undercounted the nursing home death toll.
“We’re simply reestablishing the legislature’s role in policymaking,” he told The Hill in an interview on Thursday. “A year ago when the emergency powers were granted, we were all grappling with the pandemic in ways that required the government to be fast-acting, nimble and flexible, and the normal legislative process just doesn’t allow that to happen.”
Gianaris acknowledged, however, that the events of the past few weeks have only hastened legislators’ desire to move on the proposal, saying that doing so would help address the state’s “need to reestablish public trust.”
“This was an unprecedented situation over the past year. Mistakes were going to be made. I think everybody understands that,” he said. “But what we can’t understand is when someone refuses to admit a mistake, which then takes us down a rabbit hole of greater and greater problems, as we’re seeing.”
Lawmakers in the New York State Assembly have introduced their own oversight proposals, though it’s unclear if the Senate proposal will have the support to pass through the lower chamber. If it does, the bill would still have to go to Cuomo’s desk to be signed into law.
Cuomo still has his defenders. One Democratic operative in New York brushed off the proposals to restrain the governor’s emergency powers, calling it a “flex” by state lawmakers.
“There are members of the legislature who have sort of felt like they were under the governor’s thumb or going unseen,” the operative said. “They’re essentially doing a flex right now.”
The operative also suggested that by pushing the proposals, state lawmakers are seeking political cover ahead of 2022, when Cuomo himself is expected to be on the ballot vying for a fourth term in the governor’s mansion.
Whether Cuomo’s recent woes get in the way of his reelection, however, remains an open question. The governor has weathered controversies before, and recent polling suggests that his support remains relatively steady despite his recent difficulties.
A survey from the Siena College Research Institute released on Tuesday, before the news of Kim’s allegations, showed the governor’s approval rating dipping to 51-47 percent from 56-42 percent in January. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s favorability remains virtually unchanged at 56-39 percent.
“We’re still a ways off from 2022 and that midterm election,” the operative said. “Cuomo is sitting on not only a foundation in New York, but also on that bulwark of goodwill. He’s also sitting on a lot of money in terms of his campaign coffer. There is still a lot of time between now and a campaign to right the ship.”