'The knives come out': Cuomo fights for political survival as pressure mounts

For decades, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has maintained an iron-clad grip over his public image, bolstered by the unflappable loyalty of longtime allies and the trepidation of his biggest political foes.

He wanted to show that he was in control of the pandemic in his state, and held daily news conferences that made him nationally famous in contrast to a floundering federal response. He wanted to show he was in control of his state’s biggest city, and spent years belittling New York City’s mayor to prove it. He even wrote a book touting his "leadership lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic" while cases were still climbing.

And on Wednesday, facing his worst political crisis, he tried to give the perception that he was in control of very serious charges of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, even though it was far from clear that he really was.

He publicly apologized to the women who said they were sexually harassed by him while letting those who've been calling for his ouster know he's not planning on going anywhere.

"I'm not going to resign," he said at a press conference, his first public appearance since the allegations came out. The state, he said, needs him to be in charge. "We have a full plate. We have Covid, we have recovery, we have rebuilding, we have a teetering New York City, we have a terrible financial picture, we have to do vaccines. So no, I'm going to do the job that people of the state elected me to do," he said.

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York political strategist, said Cuomo's remarks Wednesday were designed to let his rivals know he's still "in control." "The message was to [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio and to his enemies overall - I'm not going easy, and time is on my side," Sheinkopf said.

The three-term Democratic governor has faced heat before, but nothing akin to the storm of controversies that have buffeted him in the past several weeks, which have prompted calls for his resignation from over a dozen Democratic state lawmakers, strong rebukes from even his closest allies and news that state legislative leaders would be stripping his emergency coronavirus powers.

Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist who's worked for de Blasio, said "Andrew Cuomo’s never been under this kind of scrutiny. This is the first time his scandals are leading the news," which he's likely well aware of.

"Nobody follows Andrew Cuomo’s press coverage more closely than Andrew Cuomo," Katz said.

"It's no understatement to say he's facing his toughest test as governor," said Siena College pollster Jonathan Greenberg.

His problems began in late January, when state Attorney General Letitia James' office issued a report that found the state Health Department had underreported the Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, and a top Cuomo aide told Democratic lawmakers that his administration took months to release data on the death toll among nursing home residents in part because of worries the information was “going to be used against us" by the Trump administration.

Cuomo was then accused in mid-February of threatening to "destroy" a Democratic lawmaker who'd charged the administration had "covered up" the numbers. Cuomo denied threatening the outspoken assemblyman, Ron Kim, who was also calling for Cuomo's emergency pandemic powers to be revoked. The governor also denied there had been a cover-up, but said the state should have moved faster to release information.

Over the course of the past week, Cuomo has also been hit with allegations of sexual harassment by three separate women - two who'd worked for his administration and one who said he'd harassed her at a wedding.

The first woman, Lindsey Boylan, wrote in an essay on Medium that Cuomo repeatedly made inappropriate comments, including one suggesting they play strip poker, and once gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips. Cuomo press secretary Caitlin Girouard called Boylan's allegations "quite simply false."

Another former aide, Charlotte Bennett, told The Times in an interview published Saturday that Cuomo made several inappropriate remarks about her sex life, which she said she interpreted as an overture. Bennett, 25, has told NBC News that the Times report was accurate and declined to comment further.

Cuomo on Saturday denied making advances to Bennett, but acknowledged on Wednesday that, "I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional. And I truly and deeply apologize for it."

"I feel awful about it," Cuomo added. "And frankly, I am embarrassed by it. And that's not easy to say. But that's the truth. But this is what I want you to know, and I want you to know this from me directly. I never touched anyone inappropriately."

Another woman, Anna Ruch, 33, told The New York Times in an article published Monday that she felt "uncomfortable and embarrassed" when Cuomo, who she'd just met, placed his hands on her face and asked to kiss her at a wedding in 2019. The story included a photograph that appears to show the moment.

Cuomo said Wednesday "I didn't know I was making her uncomfortable at the time. I feel badly that I did." "My usual custom is to kiss and to hug and make that gesture. I understand that sensitivities have changed, and behavior has changed. And I get it, and I'm going to learn from it," Cuomo said.

That he's too friendly, however, is not the typical complaint about Cuomo.

"You reap what you sow. This is someone who’s governed through fear and bullying – it works until it doesn't. When you stumble, the knives come out,” said political consultant Bradley Tusk.

The bad press has already taken a toll on the governor's approval ratings, which hit record highs during the early months of the pandemic when viewers flocked to watch his calm and measured coronavirus briefings. A poll by Nexstar New York/Emerson College released Tuesday showed that only 38 percent of New Yorkers approve of the job he's doing, while 48 percent disapprove.

Tusk said it's unclear at this point if Cuomo will still try to accomplish what his late governor father Mario could not - get elected to a fourth term.

"A week and a half ago, some would have been scared to run against him," Tusk said.

Sheinkopf said the Attorney General's investigation into the harassment claims could work to Cuomo's advantage in the short run, because it buys him time. The probe is expected to last months, allowing Cuomo to focus on the coronavirus vaccine rollout and upcoming budget talks and rebuild his managerial image.

"His power is in the budget," Sheinkopf said.

He added that "If there’s a guy who can this sit out and win, it's Andrew Cuomo. But the problem is we don't know what else is coming."

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