New York State

The other shoe drops for Cuomo

Sexual harassment allegations by a second accuser means scandal will shadow the governor for months – if not longer.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was fighting for his political life over the weekend.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was fighting for his political life over the weekend. lev radin/Shutterstock

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was fighting for his political life over the weekend following new allegations of sexual harassment and the imminent naming of an independent investigator by Attorney General Letitia James. 

A former gubernatorial aide, 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett has said that Cuomo made sexually suggestive comments to her last June. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” she told The New York Times in an article published Saturday. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.” The bombshell allegations came days after another former aide, Manhattan borough president candidate Lindsey Boylan alleged Cuomo forcibly kissed her years ago and made numerous inappropriate comments during her time working for his administration. Cuomo has not appeared in public since. 

“I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to,” Cuomo said in a Sunday evening statement following a whirlwind weekend when his apparent efforts to control probes of his personal conduct fell flat with James and Democratic lawmakers. “ENOUGH. New York State has now lost the talents and ambition of yet another woman, whose safety and integrity were eliminated to serve a powerful man’s desires,” reads a Feb. 27 statement from the Sexual Harassment Working Group, former legislative staffers who have led efforts to challenge sexual abuse in Albany. “Andrew Cuomo must resign now.”

The governor has not appeared in public in nearly a week – the most glaring sign yet of his mounting political problems following a year when his handling of the coronavirus pandemic had stirred talks of a dark horse run for the presidency. His handling of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes though have led to calls by Democrats in recent weeks for new investigations and his possible impeachment. Having the Office of the Attorney General – led by a possible rival for the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor – handle a probe into sexual assault allegations could even mean the end for Cuomo before his campaign for a fourth term in office even gets started.

“This is not a responsibility we take lightly,” James, who recently downplayed any interest in becoming governor, said in a Sunday statement. “We will hire a law firm, deputize them as attorneys of our office, and oversee a rigorous and independent investigation.” 

State legislators such as state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, and a litany of Republicans, have already called for Cuomo to resign. Some on the political left and right are also floating impeachment. Most political notables, however, are focusing on seeing an independent investigation get underway after rejecting successive proposals by Cuomo for a probe led by a former judge and an investigation where Chief Judge Janet DiFiore – who Cuomo appointed – would share oversight with James. This includes State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastive, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and state party Chair Jay Jacobs. 

Even if no additional people come forward making allegations against Cuomo, any investigation will likely take weeks, months, or possibly even longer depending on the amount of evidence that might exist to prove or disprove the the respective allegations by Boylan and Bennett. Then there is the ongoing scandal surrounding his handling of COVID-19 deaths in nursing home deaths. A federal probe is ongoing. State lawmakers are calling for the repeal of the sweeping emergency powers they granted him last spring. Everything has seemingly been going downhill for the governor since James released a damning report on nursing home deaths in late January. 

That appeared to have marked the beginning of the end of the days when Cuomo was a national hero during the pandemic. Even his longtime buddy Joe Biden is distancing himself from the governor who once months ago had a primetime spot at the Democratic National Convention. Yet, Cuomo has survived scandals before and the latest polls continue to show his approval ratings remaining high before the recent sexual harassment allegations became public. Metrics like web searches suggest outrage in the media and state political circles does necessarily equate public interest. The race for the 2022 gubernatorial race will not begin for many months more. Cuomo already has a big war chest. And he crushed the last two challengers sent by the political left. State lawmakers whisper about how – for all their outrage about nursing homes and sexual harassment – they worry about how these scandals will distract from their legislative work in the short-term and possibly cause longterm damage to their party. 

Members of the state Senate and Assembly have yet to strike a deal on how exactly they would increase legislative oversight over the state response to the pandemic. Some want to repeal the extra emergency powers approved in the first days of the pandemic. Others want to let them sunset next month. Democratic state senators have floated the idea of a 10-member panel that would review gubernatorial decisions on public health moving forward. A few lawmakers confided to City & State how they worry about moving too fast with replacing the current system, which has resulted in executive orders affecting everything from alcohol sales to hospital capacity. 

Still, things are obviously not going well for the governor. No matter what happens with the sexual harassment allegations, nursing home deaths or anything else, he appears to be on the brink of losing whatever popularity boost he still enjoyed from the pandemic. He might yet emerge relatively unscathed. He could dominate state budget negotiations and lead the Empire State through a successful vaccine distribution effort and conclusion to the pandemic. But the sexual harassment allegations, and the three-term governor’s well-known penchant for bullying state lawmakers, journalists and others, is increasingly out of place in a state Capitol undergoing generational change. His ways of governing are no secret to people in politics, and a growing chorus of critics say that is exactly the problem they got with Cuomo as he continues efforts to survive the growing political storm. “For better or for worse is that you're seeing a classic Cuomo in a compressed timeline,” said Erica Vladimer, a former Capitol staffer and co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group. “Sometimes it takes this kind of reckoning for people to realize what's been happening all along. It's because the man who was in charge of the system that protects him is the one that we are finally shining a spotlight on.”