Democrats and Republicans alike are expressing outrage following a bombshell report in the New York Post about why it took Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration so long to release data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. State Senate Republicans are calling for new investigations. Fourteen Democratic state senators have joined calls to roll back the sweeping emergency powers granted to the governor during the pandemic. “It’s being thrown around a bit,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos told City & State on Friday of making Cuomo the first governor to be impeached in more than a century.
Removing Cuomo from office appears to be a remote possibility at this point, but the governor is facing political heat like never before. What ultimately happens to the governor could hinge on the extent to which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins end up taking the most dramatic action pushed by Democratic legislators as outrage grows over the governor’s handling of nursing home deaths.
Cuomo has had his share of scandals over three terms in office and has faced plenty of criticism throughout the pandemic over public health restrictions, unemployment benefits and the slow rollout of the vaccines. State lawmakers, however, say they have never seen a scandal quite like the current uproar over nursing home deaths. “Thousands of people died who did not have to die,” state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi tweeted Friday. “We’re furious – with extremely good reason.”
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa reportedly apologized to Democratic legislators at a Feb. 10 meeting where she explained why the administration had delayed for months responding to requests for more information on the full extent of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents across the state. “We were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, what we start saying, was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” she said at the meeting, according to a transcript released by the governor’s office Friday. “We could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked,” DeRosa said in a statement Friday. “But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”
Efforts by the administration at damage control have yet to quiet increasingly vocal calls for new investigations. “It sounds to me like there’s potential obstruction of justice,” state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt told reporters at a Friday virtual press conference. “We don’t know if there is a crime, but we certainly have enough smoke here to warrant an investigation.” Impeachment remains an option, Ortt added, that could only be pursued once such an investigation concludes.
The only governor to ever be impeached and removed from office in modern political history was Gov. William Sulzer, whose efforts to reform state politics conflicted with the political priorities of the Tammany Hall machine that wielded great influence at the time. A majority of the Assembly would have voted in favor of impeachment for a trial to be held by the Court for the Trial of Impeachments, which includes members of the state Senate, judicial officials and the lieutenant governor in some circumstances. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer faced likely impeachment more than a decade ago, but resigned from office before the Assembly could vote on the matter.
Democratic legislative leaders say they will take their cues from their members on what comes next. “We will be discussing next steps as a conference,” Stewart-Cousins said in a Friday statement. Assembly Democrats were scheduled to meet Friday as a spokesperson for Heastie pushed back on claims by DeRosa about how much the administration informed legislative leaders before a federal inquiry into the state’s handling of nursing home deaths became publicly known. The governor notably headed to the White House on Friday rather than holding his regularly scheduled press briefing.
The new revelations about nursing homes are the latest sign that 2021 is going to be a tough year for the governor, who is expected to run for reelection next year. A January report by state Attorney General Letitia James revealed new information about how the state undercounted thousands of deaths of nursing home residents, while also underscoring her independence from the governor who helped elect her. This past week also saw the release of data by the state Department of Health after months of legal wrangling and a formal health department response to a letter sent by state lawmakers months ago that listed 20 questions about nursing homes during the pandemic. Efforts by the administration to help smooth things over with state lawmakers this week have only made things worse for the governor.
What comes next for Cuomo remains unclear, though the chances are better than ever that his handling of the pandemic will continue to be investigated and that state lawmakers will formally withdraw their deference that began at the onset of the pandemic. The days of #PresidentCuomo, the all-powerful crisis leader, appear to be coming to an end no matter how well he demonstrates his political survival skills in the weeks to come. “The New York State Constitution calls for the Legislature to govern as a co-equal branch of government,” reads a joint statement from the 14 Democratic state senators. “While the executive’s authority to issue directives is due to expire on April 30, we urge the Senate to advance and adopt a repeal as expeditiously as possible.”