view from the bunker

Andrew Cuomo’s Last Play to Hold Onto Power

“He is not resigning,” said one ally. “It is just not in his nature to ever do that.”

Photo: George Etheredge
Photo: George Etheredge

There is almost no one left in Democratic politics in New York or across the country — not from the president of the United States to the lowest local ward heeler — who is on the record saying that Andrew Cuomo should remain as governor of New York. His longtime backers in the state’s business community have abandoned him, as have the labor unions that kept his Democratic challengers at bay over these past dozen years.

But more than a half-dozen allies, advisers, and others close to Andrew Cuomo say that the governor is in no hurry to step aside, and is determined to tell his side of the story in the wake of a report from Attorney General Letitia James that detailed 11 separate allegations of sexual harassment. Cuomo’s desire to push back comes after the governor’s initial response — a 14-minute direct-to-camera video, in which he challenged one accuser to take him to court so he could defend himself, and said another former underling had misunderstood his inquiries into her previous sexual assault as flirtation, when they were actually about concern — was widely panned in the press.

“He is not resigning,” said one person who has been in regular contact with the governor. “It is just not in his nature to ever do that.” That perspective was underlined by a comment released late Thursday by Cuomo’s director of communications Rich Azzopardi: “The Assembly has said it is doing a full and thorough review of the complaints and has offered the Governor and his team an opportunity to present facts and their perspective. The Governor appreciates the opportunity. We will be cooperating.”

There remains a belief in Cuomo-world that James’s report was political, the product of someone eyeing the governor’s office herself, and largely put together by Joon Kim, a former federal prosecutor who led the case against Joe Percoco, a top Cuomo aide convicted on corruption charges. As one supporter of the governor’s said, Kim “has been trying to get to the governor for the past decade.”

While even the closest of Cuomo’s aides were shocked and surprised at the allegations in the attorney general’s report that the governor had sexually harassed a state trooper assigned to his protective detail, there was a feeling among many that much of what the investigators detailed had been publicly aired before, only this time it was given the weight of an official government report. They generally feel that the governor has been unable to give his side of the story, and while some of the behavior was admittedly boorish, none of it rises to the level of impeachment.

“This is the first sex scandal in history in which there wasn’t any sex,” said one Cuomo adviser. “I am sorry that all of these women felt awkward, and felt like something was going to happen, but nothing actually did. So let’s talk about what we are actually talking about here.”

People who have spoken with the governor say that he recognizes that the chances of him surviving this are very slim. “It’s like the building collapsed on top of him and there is a tiny ray of light you can still see through,” said one. “It’s fading, but it is there.”

Time is Cuomo’s best asset. If the Assembly moves slowly on impeachment, it will give Cuomo time to make the case that he is being railroaded. Back in March, when allegations of wrongdoing first surfaced, Cuomo’s team were buoyed by the fact that his poll numbers, especially among older Democrats, remained strong. The more time that elapses after James’s press conference on Tuesday, the more his numbers will have time to recover, as new political stories and scandals fill the news cycle and the state battles a new resurgence of the coronavirus.

The speed of the Assembly’s inquiry will be a matter decided by Carl Heastie, the body’s Democratic leader and a longtime Cuomo ally. Cuomo’s camp is certainly hoping that Heastie moves the process along at a deliberate pace. Heastie, however, is in charge of a body that has overwhelmingly signaled that it would like to move on impeachment as soon as possible.

As much as Cuomo wants to fight it out now, he is not likely to fight an impeachment in the Assembly and a trial in the Senate, which puts further pressure on him to tell his side of the story now. If an impeachment referral was sent to the Senate, Cuomo would have to temporarily step down from his perch and vacate the governor’s mansion.

“Can you imagine the humiliation?,” said one longtime friend of Cuomo’s. “What is he going to do, move into a hotel in Albany while the Senate sorts this out?”

Back in 2002, Cuomo embarked on an ill-advised primary run for governor against State Comptroller Carl McCall, who had the bulk of the state’s party Establishment behind him. Facing certain defeat, Cuomo dropped out just one week before Election Day, claiming that he was taking the high road, after attempting to negotiate concessions in exchange for his withdrawal from the McCall camp, who summarily rebuffed the underdog’s entreaties.

The episode was brought up a few times by Cuomo advisers, as they face another unwinnable situation and look for a way out. Cuomo is going to fight, they say, but only as long as it makes sense, and will try to engineer the situation to make it at least seem like he is leaving on his terms.

“This is a guy who is always looking to fight,” said one longtime adviser. “But he is not going to get into something that he doesn’t think he can win.”

Andrew Cuomo’s Last Play to Hold Onto Power