In the eyes of those close to Andrew Cuomo, the way through the scandal that threatens to sink the three-term New York governor is to focus on the work that made him popular just a short time ago: combating the coronavirus crisis, getting people vaccinated and ensuring the state budget is approved.
As multiple allegations of sexual impropriety swirl around Cuomo, he showcased this strategy on Monday in a visit to a mass vaccination site in Long Island, where he did not comment on the accusations but instead focused on fighting the pandemic, the struggle that caused his approval ratings to skyrocket in 2020.
“He’s focused on the budget, he is focused on getting vaccines into arms and he is focused on continuing to reopen the economy and rebuild following this health and economic crisis,” said a Cuomo aide when asked about the governor’s headspace. “Those are his focuses, and he is working every day to advance the ball on those things.”
Those three issues are a convenient distraction for a governor who has fallen to arguably the lowest point of his decades-long political career just months after hitting his highest high. But people close to the Democrat argue that he knows the only way out of this crisis is by focusing on his job and hoping New Yorkers stand by that work.
That is why Cuomo, speaking before cameras on Monday, launched into a lengthy monologue about the coronavirus vaccine, how he plans to get his injection in a predominantly Black church to “make a point” and the importance of the state’s forthcoming budget. Cuomo even reminded New Yorkers about the impact of Hurricane Sandy, a 2012 superstorm that led to the deaths of at least 24 people, and how New Yorkers came together after a “dark, dark period for people.”
“Sometimes God comes and he knocks you on your rear end for one reason or another. Or life comes and knocks you on your rear end for one reason or another. Circumstances happen. Things happen,” he said, waxing philosophical. “The question is what you do when you get knocked on your rear end.”
The subtext here, according to his aide: Cuomo feels like the way for him to get back up is to lead the state.
“That has been a longtime ethos of his,” said the aide. “It’s something he always felt was important to remember: that sometimes you get knocked down and you have to get back to work.”
Cuomo’s determination to focus on the job is butting up against a Democratic establishment in New York that is largely eager to toss him out of office, with the majority of the state’s congressional delegation and a large contingent of the State Assembly already calling for his resignation.
To those Assembly members who have seen Cuomo refuse to resign and march ahead like nothing has changed, the strategy is clear.
“It is on brand for his nature. … I am not surprised that is the stance he has taken,” said Jonathan Rivera, a Democratic freshman Assembly member from the Buffalo area who has called on Cuomo to resign. “But I think there is an obligation that the State Assembly and State Senate has … do everything we can to instill trust in government. I just think this administration has lost the trust of the people.”
And while the calls for Cuomo’s resignation reflect a growing unease among Democrats in the state about him staying on the job, the prospect of actually forcing him out of office has been drawn-out and uncertain. Democratic leaders in the State Legislature are content to wait for a pair of investigations, one tasked by State Attorney General Letitia James and the other about to be empaneled by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, to run their course before formally beginning the impeachment process.
“I did say that I do think that it should be done expeditiously,” Heastie said. “But I think to say that you have to come back with a decision in a week or two weeks or a month will be unfair to the process of an investigation.”
The possibility of those investigations running weeks, maybe months, could allow Cuomo to continue to plow ahead focused on passing a budget and distributing vaccines, while the accusations against him fade from the front page. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Tuesday that she believes most of her members want Cuomo gone but that she would not pressure the investigations to move faster.
“I can’t opine on what the Assembly is, you know, what their process is or how long it should take. I really can’t,” Stewart-Cousins said, before conceding that the myriad of scandals is making the job of governing difficult. “I made my opinion clear that I think the governor should resign because, again, there was just so many allegations – whether it’s the nursing home data or sexual harassment. I mean there’s unfortunately so many things that really would under any circumstance be extremely distracting.”
But Cuomo’s strategy got an assist from the state’s Democratic Party on Monday, when Chair Jay Jacobs urged members to focus on the critical matters at hand, namely the budget and the pandemic, even as many in Albany are calling for Cuomo to go.
“We have to understand that we’re at an impasse but yet government has to continue to run,” Jacobs told CNN. “You can jump up and down and yell and scream that you want him to resign, but he just doesn’t have to do that.”
Jacobs, who has talked with Cuomo since the allegations were made, described the governor’s strategy of forging ahead as the only thing he can do. The party chair said Cuomo was “concerned” about the allegations and “not taking this lightly,” but “doesn’t feel that he’s done anything wrong.”
“If you don’t want to resign and you don’t feel that you should, then I don’t see any alternative but demonstrating to the people of the state that you can do the job, and you’re doing the job,” Jacobs said.
Pamela J. Hunter, a Democratic Assembly member from the Syracuse area, attested to the fact that Cuomo, at least in some calls with lawmakers, is forging ahead without focusing on the allegations against him. Hunter said she had spoken with the governor about a week ago about vaccination sites in her district. During that conversation, she recalled, she brought up her stance on the allegations: that he should not resign until an investigation is complete.
“I did reach out and he did not ask me for anything,” she said. “We were having a conversation about vaccination sites in my district, and actually before he even could say anything … I said to him, this is my stance and this is where I am.”
Hunter added that Cuomo said “OK” but “asked me for nothing” and didn’t “offer any information about things going on.”
“The work has not stopped,” Hunter said. “The constituency still has needs.”