On Friday, it looked like the end.
More former staffers had come forward, detailing how Governor Andrew Cuomo treated female subordinates. The number of women who claimed that he had sexually harassed them was now up to six, and in one case, the Albany County district attorney was investigating. Almost the entirety of the state’s congressional delegation had called on him to resign. And on top of this mounting crisis, there continued to be reporting that New York’s governor has mismanaged the state’s COVID-19 response, potentially contributing to tens of thousands of preventable deaths.
By nightfall, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer had joined the chorus, which already had in it State Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, most of her colleagues in the State Senate, and more than 40 Democrats in the State Assembly, to say nothing of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, four of the candidates vying to replace him, and assorted Democrats from up and down the state.
But Cuomo didn’t go, and hasn’t gone yet, and the political class in New York is now turning to a new question: What if he doesn’t? And, perhaps more to the point, could the governor hold on until next year, win a Democratic primary, then a November general election, and achieve what has been his long-held ambition, to best his father Mario and win reelection to a fourth term?
People close to the governor say there has been no talk of resigning, but no talk of running for reelection either; rather, the focus is on dealing with the immediate fallout, especially keeping Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie from joining Democratic leaders and calling for the governor to step down. Impeachment begins in the Assembly, a body Heastie controls, and were he to come out publicly against the governor, it would surely spell the end of Cuomo’s reign. The Assembly Speaker has not gone as far as his counterpart in the State Senate, only saying that “I think it is time for the governor to seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York” and telling reporters on Monday that his caucus favors “due process” for dealing with Cuomo’s swirling scandals.
People close to the governor remain wary that there is more to come out about the governor’s behavior, and they fear that publicly punting Cuomo’s fate to State Attorney General Letitia James, whose office is investigating the governor’s behavior, will only delay the inevitable. But there is also a sense among them that after several weeks, after every reporter in town has been chasing down current and former Cuomo staffers — the Washington Post recently published an article in which the reporters reached out to 150 former Cuomo staffers — that the fact that nothing has come out that has yet forced the governor to resign may mean that the worst of the allegations against him are already public.
Meanwhile, a Siena poll out on Monday showed that half of New Yorkers do not think the governor should resign, including 61 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Black voters. The poll was conducted before Schumer and Gillibrand had called for the governor’s resignation, but it also showed that Cuomo had a roughly even favorability ratio, similar to the one he had in February 2020, before COVID.
“This is no longer a political game,” said one person close to the governor. “Legislators and others are going to have to decide if they want to ignore the will of Democratic voters, especially Black and brown voters. The backlash is going to be real.”
In recent days, Cuomo has been relying on voters of color to buoy his standing. He has taken to holding live-streamed events without the press present at COVID vaccination sites where Black New Yorkers make up a large proportion of the people surrounding him. This week, he said he planned to get his own COVID vaccination soon at a “pop-up center in the Black community.”
“There are tons of people in this country who have suffered from a decision by the public that they are guilty of something that they were not, and many people have suffered in our judicial system as a result of that,” Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo lawmaker and the first African-American to serve as Assembly majority leader, told CNN. “In my estimation, this is not about Mr. Cuomo. This is about a fairness process.”
The governor is trying to refocus the public’s attention on his management of the rollout of the COVID vaccine and the state’s recovery from a year of COVID lockdowns. The governor’s advisers believe that his numbers will improve further as the weather changes and life in the state gradually returns to normal. Even if James’s investigation reveals troubling new details, months from now the public’s attention may have turned elsewhere.
Cuomo will head into next year with nearly $17 million in the bank and the most famous last name in New York politics. The most formidable opponent for him, his supporters and detractors agree, would be Tish James, but while detractors think a James candidacy could convince Cuomo to not seek reelection, his supporters doubt that if the governor’s poll numbers have rebounded, James would give up a safe seat for a grueling fight against the incumbent. Several state lawmakers have said that people close to James have been regularly checking in on the efforts to remove the governor legislatively, aware that she would need to pivot to run for governor if Cuomo were impeached. Meanwhile, operatives associated with other potential candidates have been suggesting that James is too close to Cuomo and have signaled that if there there is an open primary next year, they will try to tie her to some of the same scandals that have ensnared the governor. “Where was she on nursing homes this whole time?” said one person close to a potential 2022 candidate. “That is the kind of thing she will have to answer.”
Cuomo advisers have been quick to note that even as the governor has faced weeks of bad headlines and declining political support, he has remained more popular than Mayor de Blasio. A recent Emerson poll showed that Cuomo faced the lowest approval ratings of his tenure but still had a favorability twice as high as the mayor’s in New York City. And supporters of the governor’s have been delighted to see de Blasio lead the charge in criticizing the governor, something the mayor has been doing on national television programs as often as he can, telling Face the Nation on Sunday that Cuomo “should resign right now because he’s holding up our effort to fight COVID” and that the governor was “literally in the way of us saving lives right now.”
“The more de Blasio attacks the better,” said one person close to Cuomo. “The public always goes the opposite way of Bill de Blasio.”
As much as the state’s elected leaders have called on Cuomo to resign, longtime allies, particularly among labor-union heads and within the business community, have largely stood by him and could prove critical should he mount another campaign, even as many on Cuomo’s left continue to believe that there is no way he can make it until November of next year, not with the attorney general’s investigation, a federal investigation into nursing-home deaths, and a Albany DA’s investigation into claims that Cuomo groped a staffer at the governor’s mansion.
Over the last two election cycles, the progressive opposition to Cuomo rallied around law professor Zephyr Teachout and actor Cynthia Nixon. Neither were able to raise much money or meaningfully rally support in nonwhite precincts, and Cuomo dispatched both of them by 30 points. Although several left-leaning potential contenders have begun making calls about running in 2022, most of the conversations presume that Cuomo will not be running, even as he has given no indication that he won’t.
In 2014 and 2018, the Working Families Party reluctantly gave Cuomo their ballot line to save their own electoral viability and to prevent a Republican from winning against a Democratic field split between one Democratic candidate and another WFP one. That seems less likely this time around.
“We are clear that we need to enter into a post-Cuomo landscape,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, executive director of the state Working Families Party. But when asked if the party was prepared to run against Cuomo again in 2022, Nnaemeka paused for several seconds before answering. “Only the governor knows if he will seek reelection next year,” she said. “The vision does not change whether he is in or out of the race.”