Politics Cuomo's political future in question as fallout grows

20:20  24 october  2021
20:20  24 october  2021 Source:   thehill.com

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is trying to survive a political gauntlet - including multiple criminal investigations, impeachment proceedings and potential primary challengers - after the release of a bombshell report detailing allegations of sexual harassment against him by nearly a dozen women.

a man standing in front of a window with a city in the background: Cuomo's political future in question as fallout grows © The Hill Cuomo's political future in question as fallout grows

The report, released Tuesday by state Attorney General Letitia James (D), set off a flood of calls for his resignation and spurred an impeachment committee in the state Assembly to ramp up its investigation into the same claims - a process that could lead to Cuomo's ouster. And even if Cuomo runs through those headwinds and remains in office, he heads into a reelection race in 2022 more vulnerable than at any point during his time in public office.

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Though Cuomo hails from a storied New York family and has built a solid power base in the Empire State after serving in various federal and state roles since 1993, Democratic observers in the state say his time in office may be approaching its conclusion, be it by his own will, a booting by lawmakers or a decision from voters next year.

"He's at death's door," said state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris (D).

Cuomo's political fortunes began to drop earlier this year after a wave of women publicly and anonymously accused him of sexual misconduct, including groping, unwanted kissing and inappropriate comments in the workplace. He was also hit with negative headlines after it was revealed his administration intentionally undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

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While he kept his head down and ultimately was able to put the negative headlines behind him, his future was thrown into even deeper jeopardy Tuesday with James's announcement.

The independent inquiry that was authorized by James's office after the initial claims were leveled found that Cuomo harassed several women, including some who worked in his office, and violated state and federal laws. He and his aides also retaliated against at least one woman who came forward.

The report contained shocking and graphic details, including how he subjected one woman identified as "executive assistant #1" to "repeated physical violations," including hugging her and reaching under her blouse to grab her breast.

It was graphic details like that that ripped the scab off the scandal and made Democrats at the pinnacle of power from Albany to Washington call for him to resign.

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"This report highlights unacceptable behavior by Governor Cuomo and his administration. As I said, when these disturbing allegations first came to light, the Governor must resign for the good of the state. Now that the investigation is complete and the allegations have been substantiated, it should be clear to everyone that he can no longer serve as Governor," said state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

"I think he should resign," President Biden added to reporters. "I'm sure there were some embraces that were totally innocent. But apparently, the attorney general decided there were things that weren't."

Despite that avalanche, Cuomo remained defiant Tuesday, insisting that he never treated anybody inappropriately and that "the facts are much different than what has been portrayed."

Those who have worked with Cuomo predict that defiance to continue and that a resignation is not forthcoming.

Video: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo facing new probes in fallout over state AG's report (CBS News)

"He's not someone who walks. It's pretty clear from anybody who knows him that he's figuring out how to fight every day and every way," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked both for and against Cuomo. "So don't expect for him to leave."

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That strategy has left observers scratching their heads given the political island on which Cuomo finds himself. But beyond sparking confusion, his refusal to resign also moves his political future largely out of his own hands and into those who have advocated for his ouster - be it lawmakers or voters.

An impeachment investigation into the sexual harassment claims that was sparked earlier this year is now expected to ramp up after James's announcement. And while four county district attorneys are launching their own inquiries into the allegations, it is the state Assembly's impeachment investigation that could pose the largest risk to the governor.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D), an erstwhile Cuomo ally, said in a statement Tuesday that "it is abundantly clear to me that the Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office" and that Democrats "will move expeditiously and look to conclude our impeachment investigation as quickly as possible."

An impeachment of Cuomo would require a majority vote from the 150-member Assembly, and a conviction would take a two-thirds vote, or 46 affirmative votes, out of a 69-member body consisting of the state Senate, minus the majority leader, and the judges of the Court of Appeals.

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While Cuomo's ouster via that route is not certain, lawmakers say the math for both is virtually baked in.

"We now have 36 members of the majority, of Democrats in the Senate, who have called for his resignation. That's not even including the Republicans," Gianaris said, before emphasizing that political considerations would not sway a trial. "So we already have more than [46 people] who have called for his resignation, if you count Republican senators."

Democratic strategists say removing Cuomo quickly could help the party before ties to him become a drag for lawmakers in the 2022 midterms.

"Right now, it looks like it's Cuomo against the world," said George Arzt, a strategist who has advised Cuomo in the past. "He has no backing in the Democratic Party, and the Democrats fear that this will be an issue in the midterm elections. So, it's better to get rid of him now."

Should he somehow resist calls for his resignation and beat an impeachment effort, Cuomo would still not be out of the political woods.

The three-term governor is up for reelection next year and has yet to give any signs his scandals will force him off the campaign trail. But polling released in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's bombshell cast a pall over his chances for a fourth term.

A Marist poll conducted Tuesday evening found that 63 percent of registered New York voters believe Cuomo should resign, and only 12 percent think he deserves reelection, including just 18 percent of Democrats. Pollsters say those are the types of numbers that could open the floodgates for primary challengers.

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"If I was thinking of running, I'd certainly be a candidate who will look at that 18 percent reelect figure among Democrats and say that there's a wide-open path for a challenge," said Lee Miringoff, who conducted the poll. "He was challenged the last two times, not by well-known people or not by people who had political chops. But this would be a very different challenge, presumably because it's someone who would step up with the wind at their backs."

Republicans are also chomping at the bit to take on Cuomo, hinting a strong contender against the scandal-plagued governor might be their best shot at winning the governor's mansion in deep-blue New York.

"Voters are quickly realizing it's time to bring respect and dignity back to the state capitol, and the RGA looks forward to seeing a Republican knock Cuomo off of his perch in 2022," said Republican Governors Association spokesman Will Reinert.

That kind of confidence has Democrats worried about a Cuomo nomination.

"It's important that we put forward our best candidates so that we don't give them a chance to run the state," Gianaris said. "And Andrew Cuomo is not that person."

Still, Cuomo has built a substantive political base over his decades in politics both in New York City and upstate, and with his broad name recognition, he's still not a dead man walking. And with the GOP brand in the Empire State tarnished by Republicans' ties to former President Trump, observers say he could still fend off both a primary and general election challenger.

"Absent an indictment or expulsion through impeachment," Sheinkopf said, "this guy may just tough it out."

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