Andrew Cuomo was riding high during COVID. Now he’s facing scandal of his own making.
The decision by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration to withhold the true COVID-19 death toll at nursing homes faces new scrutiny as a self-inflicted political wound that is contributing to the Democratic governor’s potential downfall.
Political observers suggested Cuomo should have acted sooner to release the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 at hospitals last year as requested by lawmakers and reporters, thus avoiding the scandal of undercounting the deaths to seemingly boost his popularity and fend off political attacks from the Trump administration.
“Much of it is more about refusing to take ownership and refusing to acknowledge you may have made mistakes,” said Boris Heersink, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, referring to the nursing home secrecy.
“You can certainly imagine a governor who’s more open to sharing power and more transparent being ahead of this,” he added.
Further, Cuomo’s public criticism of one of his most vocal nursing home policy critics, Queens Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, seemed to embolden other lawmakers, reporters and government officials to share their own tales of facing verbal abuse at the hands of Cuomo and his aides.
It culminated over the last week as three women, including two former aides, have since accused the third-term governor of sexual harassment.
“The bullying situation with Kim opened up a media narrative where the people felt more comfortable coming forward to tell their stories,” Heersink said.
Meanwhile, Cuomo apologized Sunday for any comments that have made female aides feel uncomfortable, saying in a statement perhaps his actions at times “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
“To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that,” the statement said.
Cuomo’s statement, however, drew a quick rebuke from former aide Charlotte Bennett, whose story of working for Cuomo was published Saturday by The New York Times.
“The governor has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior,” Bennett, 25, said in a statement Monday issued through her attorney, Debra Katz.
Cuomo’s sexual harassment, nursing home scandals
Cuomo’s starkly different responses to the nursing home criticism and sexual harassment claims underscored the rapidly evolving political realities facing the governor.
The nursing home scandal erupted when Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, acknowledged pausing the release of nursing home COVID data because the governor’s administration feared it could be “used against us” after the Department of Justice sent a request for information.
DeRosa’s comments came in a private meeting on Feb. 10 with state lawmakers and were reported by the New York Post; Cuomo’s office later released a transcript.
Just nine days later, Cuomo vowed at a media briefing to call out political opponents for lying to the people of New York, defending his criticism of Kim while conceding the administration’s only misstep was not releasing the nursing home data earlier to dispel misinformation that harmed those who lost a nursing home resident to COVID-19.
Craig Burnett, an associate professor of political science at Hofstra University, said Cuomo’s characteristically hard-charging response to the nursing home scandal appeared to be a calculated risk.
“They did have some plausible coverage that that the Trump administration was threatening (Cuomo),” Burnett said, adding aspects of the scandal were “so inside baseball kind of stuff it becomes a bit difficult for the general public to follow.”
Cuomo’s criticism of Kim also followed a history of the governor boasting of being a master of rough-and-tumble New York politics.
“Some of this is a combination of Cuomo having a very specific style of leadership and very specific dominant personality,” Heersink said, “which to some extent he has been using as a positive argument and saying, ‘If we’re going to get anything done, you need someone like me.’”
And while Cuomo appeared poised to steamroll ahead in the same style amid a federal probe of the nursing home scandal, he quickly changed course over the past week, culminating in ceding control to the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate the sexual harassment claims.
In response to the first sexual harassment accuser, Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo aide, the governor’s press secretary issued a statement that called the claims “simply false,” reiterating Cuomo’s previous denial when Boylan made more broad allegations in December of being sexually harassed by the governor.
But within four days, the second former aide had told her story to The New York Times and Cuomo issued the apology on Sunday.
“This is very different because being accused of sexual harassment is very personal and reflects on him as a person, and I think his response has not been great,” Burnett said, adding the governor’s statement seemed tone deaf in light of the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct.
Burnett noted the history of powerful New York politicians fallen by sexual scandals complicated the matter further, adding he cites the lengthy list of names for students heading to work in state government.
“I send them with the disclaimer to not socialize with the person you’re interning for because Albany has a pervasive air of sexual impropriety and a bad reputation,” Burnett said.
David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached email@example.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud