NY Democrats pressure Cuomo as investigation kicks off
New York Democrats are putting pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to leave office in the midst of mounting scandals over his personal and professional conduct.
The state’s Attorney General Letitia James (D) said Monday she had received the authorization to investigate allegations of sexual harassment leveled against the governor last week by two female former employees, and would make her findings public.
State legislators are equally furious at the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home patients treated for the coronavirus in the early weeks and months of the pandemic.
And a growing number of legislators and journalists have come forward to accuse Cuomo of bullying tactics, including angry tirades shouted down a phone line at all hours. In conversations with half a dozen legislators and political strategists over the weekend, most said they had received such a call.
“There’s an ongoing pattern here of abuse of power. It’s making the working relationship with the governor a real distraction from the work we have to do for the people,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara (D), who represents Schenectady. “I firmly believe that the governor’s resignation is for the good of the state at this point.”
Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Most legislators say Cuomo is almost certain to draw a strong primary challenger in 2022, if he decides to seek reelection to an unprecedented fourth term in office. But most also said they did not believe Cuomo would run for another term — and that if more allegations of improper behavior emerged, even finishing his current term may be a stretch.
“The governor has had his time. Three terms is long enough,” said Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D), who represents Westchester County. “I believe that the governor should not be seeking a fourth term, and if any more complaints arise, he may not be able to finish this term.”
The cascading crises began last month, when Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, acknowledged to legislators that the administration had withheld data about the number of coronavirus deaths that had occurred in nursing homes. Days later, Assemblyman Ron Kim (D), a Cuomo critic, said he received an angry late-night phone call from Cuomo in which the governor threatened him. And days after that, former aide Lindsey Boylan, now a candidate for borough president in Manhattan, said Cuomo had harassed her and kissed her in an unwanted advance.
On Sunday, The New York Times published allegations of a second former aide, Charlotte Bennett, who said she too had been harassed — and that she had reported the harassment to senior Cuomo advisers, who subsequently moved her to a different job on the opposite side of the Capitol building in Albany.
The allegations have hobbled a governor whose approval rating soared at the beginning of the pandemic, when he issued lockdown orders in a desperate effort to stem the deadly tide that rolled over the state and conducted daily, nationally watched press conferences. But even then, Cuomo opened new feuds with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), whom he openly despises.
In a radio interview Monday, de Blasio said the latest allegations that Cuomo harassed Bennett left him sickened.
“Just disgusting, creepy,” de Blasio said.
Asked in a press conference later that day if Cuomo should step down, de Blasio responded, “If someone purposefully tried to use their power to force a woman to have sex with them, of course that’s someone who should no longer be in public service.”
Cuomo said late Sunday he had not intended to offend or cause harm in his remarks to Bennett. He acknowledged that what he termed “being playful and mak[ing] jokes” may have been misconstrued.
“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. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” Cuomo said. “To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
Bennett said in a statement Monday that Cuomo had failed to take responsibility for his actions, and that he had tried to influence the investigation even before it began.
“It took the governor 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation. These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice,” Bennett said.
In Albany, legislators described a frustrating atmosphere of stagnant morass, at a moment when members are set to vote on major legislation involving nursing homes and the budget. Few were willing to defend a politician who has never gone out of his way to make friends and allies.
“The best-case scenario for him is that he did something really creepy,” said one Democratic legislator, who asked not to be named discussing Cuomo’s plight. “He doesn’t have a lot of people who are dying to believe him.”
The two sides have barely concealed their mutual hostility over the years. Democrats have accused Cuomo of working to maintain Republican control of the state Senate over his first two terms, at times with the aid of a faction of rebellious senators who called themselves the Independent Democratic Coalition.
A few members like Santanbarbara and Kim have called on Cuomo to quit, though the groundswell has not yet reached a crescendo.
“This governor clearly does not want to answer to anyone. What it boils down to is he’s not willing to be a part of a coequal branch of government,” Santabarbara said. “Everybody knows that he bullies members of our legislature. Not everybody talks about it, but it’s happening.”
Attention now shifts to James, who in her two years in office has become one of the most prominent attorneys general in the nation, an antagonist of the Trump administration and major corporations alike.
“Letitia James has a well-earned reputation for being thorough and independent and operating always with the best of intentions. That is a good thing. She has truly a solid reputation and has for many many years,” said Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D), who represents Nassau County. “There is a measure of confidence in Attorney General Tish James overseeing an independent investigation.”
James is seen as a potential candidate for governor herself, following a path from the prosecutor’s office to the executive suite trod by recent predecessors Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer. Her office said Sunday she would appoint a special deputy to conduct an independent investigation.
“This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously,” James said Monday.