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On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors

The Democratic governors of two of the largest states in the country are facing the most intense scrutiny of their respective political careers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as both grapple with missteps and allegations of wrongdoing that threaten their future.

But in their hours of need, the responses that California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomNPR journalist discusses home affordability in California California Democrats weigh their recall options California opens vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and up MORE (D) and New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoNew York AG asked to investigate if Cuomo used state resources on his book On The Money: Treasury creates hub to fight climate change | Manchin throws support behind union-backed PRO Act | Consumer bureau rolls out rule to bolster CDC eviction ban Cuomo: Congress must include SALT cap repeal in future legislation MORE (D) have received from allies in their own states could not stand in starker contrast — a reflection, those watching the unfolding sagas say, of the way the two very different governors built and maintained their power.

Newsom, facing a recall effort that is likely to force him onto the ballot sometime later this year, enjoys the collective support of California’s large, well-organized and well-funded Democratic Party.

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Though some Democratic legislators have chafed at his handling of the pandemic — and particularly after he was photographed at one of America’s priciest restaurants enjoying a maskless dinner — they have remained supportive in general.

The legislature last week approved a measure that would send mail-in ballots to every registered voter, removing a substantial barrier in a campaign in which Newsom’s main task will be expanding the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.

“His challenge is not the party,” said California Sen. Steve Glazer (D), himself a political strategist for decades before entering electoral politics. 

Cuomo faces federal investigations into his administration’s handling of nursing home residents who contracted the coronavirus, allegations of bullying legislators and journalists, and allegations of sexual harassment leveled by two former aides. Far from rallying around an embattled leader, many New York Democrats are sharpening the long knives.

Cuomo has denied wrongdoing. Cuomo’s office specifically rebutted the allegations of harassment leveled by Lindsey Boylan, who said Cuomo had suggested a game of strip poker while on a flight between Western New York and Albany in 2017. 

“As we said before, Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false,” Cuomo spokeswoman Caitlin Girouard said Wednesday. 

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Cuomo did not deny allegations by another aide, Charlotte Bennett, that he asked her questions about her personal life, though he did say he did not make advances toward her. In a series of interviews with The New York Times, Bennett said Cuomo had hinted at a sexual relationship.

“I tried to be supportive and helpful. Ms. Bennett’s initial impression was right: I was trying to be a mentor to her,” Cuomo said in a Saturday night statement. “I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate. The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported.”

Cuomo’s bullying tactics have long been an open secret in Albany. When Assemblyman Ron Kim (D) accused Cuomo of a ten-minute tirade filled with threats unless Kim rescinded criticisms of Cuomo’s handling of nursing home patients, other Democrats were all too willing to share their own stories.

“There’s a lot of people who are looking to dance on his grave. Because the guy has spent many years making life very difficult for a lot of folks,” said one Democratic strategist who, like others interviewed in recent days, requested anonymity to avoid heat from Cuomo.

Though Newsom is likely to face a recall election, he enjoys advantages that his predecessors have not: There are nearly twice as many Democrats registered to vote in California as there are Republicans. Newsom’s job approval ratings are relatively positive, and far stronger than were former Gov. Gray Davis’s (D) when he was successfully recalled in 2003. The trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic looks promising, for the first time in months, meaning the onerous restrictions that have fueled the recall are likely to be lifted months before he faces voters.

“It is a massive emergency that has dragged on, so you do build up some scars along the way,” Glazer said. “The governor needs to continue his hard work to deal with the pandemic. His performance will be the number one criteria for guaranteeing success against the recall.”

Cuomo’s position is far more tenuous. During his two and a half terms, he has consolidated power in the governor’s office and feuded with members of his own party.

Members of the New York state Senate believe he schemed first with Republicans and then with members of the independent Democratic caucus, a rump faction of senators who caucused with the GOP, to deny Democrats a majority in order to bolster his own standing.

“Cuomo’s a guy who, by his own admission, says he doesn’t believe in friends, he believes in interests,” said one Democratic New York legislator who requested anonymity. “There’s a long history of people who are desperate for friends who can’t find any.”

The investigations and the allegations have almost certainly ended Cuomo’s potential for a prominent position in President BidenJoe BidenObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Biden, Harris commend Mondale in paving the way for female VP Mondale in last message to staff: 'Joe in the White House certainly helps' MORE’s administration. The swirling scandal will almost certainly embolden a potential challenger if he decides to seek a fourth term in 2022, four years after he beat progressive activist and actor Cynthia Nixon by a nearly two-to-one margin in the Democratic primary.

Instead of an activist, Cuomo’s troubles may invite a stronger challenge next year. One prominent New York Democrat mentioned Attorney General Letitia James (D), who has come to prominence in her first two years in office, as a potential challenger.

“He’s teetering on the edge, and one more allegation could topple him,” the legislator said, hours before Bennett became the second former aide to accuse Cuomo of untoward behavior. “If there’s nothing more to be learned, I think he just hobbles along in a weakened state.”

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The two embattled governors recall another pair of executives who came under fire during their tenures not so long ago, with potentially instructive outcomes.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) faced the white-hot fury of Democratic activists and union members when he signed legislation limiting collective bargaining. Democrats collected enough signatures to force a recall election in 2012. 

Walker — who worked closely with the tight-knit group of Republican leaders in the upper echelons of state government — enjoyed the unified support of his party. He became the first governor in American history to survive a recall election, with 53 percent of the vote.

In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) ruled by fiat, made enemies among members of his own party. A physician by trade, Kitzhaber earned the nickname Dr. No.

Shortly after winning an unprecedented fourth term in 2014, Kitzhaber came under fire for work his partner, Cylvia Hayes, had done as a paid consultant for the state. During the scandal, Democrats controlled more seats in the legislature than at any other time during his 13 years in office.

But it was those Democrats — Treasurer Ted Wheeler (D), House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D) — who finally forced Kitzhaber out when they issued coordinated calls for his resignation.

The controversies in both states have dimmed two men who became bright stars of the resistance during former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE’s tenure. The support they have found, or lacked, in their times of need has illustrated the divergent approaches Newsom and Cuomo took to get and hold their power. 

To emerge from their darkest hours, both men will reap what they have sown. Newsom’s garden has grown. Cuomo’s is wilting.