Democrats across the country celebrated New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as the face of governing competence as President Donald Trump fumbled his administration’s response to the exploding pandemic last year.
Now, the Democratic governor is struggling through a sexual harassment scandal that’s testing the limits of his party’s support as Democrats grapple with one of the first political headaches of the post-Trump era.
So far, few Democrats have come to Cuomo’s rescue. But they haven’t explicitly condemned him, either.
Both of New York’s Democratic U.S. senators have publicly embraced the state attorney-general’s nascent investigation into Cuomo’s behaviour. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday described the allegations as “deeply troubling and deeply concerning.”
And on Monday, President Joe Biden, a long-time Cuomo ally, declined to stand behind the embattled governor.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the President supports the state attorney-general’s probe. She noted that Biden requires people to be treated with civility and respect in his administration.
“The president’s view has been consistent and clear,” Psaki said when asked about Cuomo. “Every woman coming forward should be treated with dignity and respect.”
The scrutiny of Cuomo comes at a delicate moment as Democrats work to project unity and competence in contrast to four years of near-constant scandal and norm-shattering behaviour under Trump. Cuomo’s scandal also threatens the moral high ground Democrats have sought on issues related to gender and sexual harassment – which are top of mind to many women who abandoned Republicans in droves last fall to help fuel Biden’s victory.
While Democrats across the country are not rallying behind Cuomo, few are calling for him to step down. For now, Rep. Kathleen Rice is the only Democrat from New York’s congressional delegation to explicitly call for Cuomo’s resignation.
That’s in contrast to the treatment of former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who ultimately bowed to pressure from within his own party to step down in 2018 after facing accusations of sexual impropriety from several women.
At that time, New York Sen. Kisten Gillibrand was the first Democrat to call on Franken to resign. On Sunday, Gillibrand called the allegations against Cuomo “serious and deeply concerning” and called on State Attorney-General Letitia James to conduct “a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power.”
Republicans highlighted the relatively cautious response from some Democrats, although the GOP’s criticism of Cuomo directly was somewhat muted given the long list of sexual harassment allegations against Trump.
A Trump spokesman declined to weigh in when asked Monday. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel offered a written statement seizing on Biden’s unwillingness to condemn Cuomo more forcefully.
“Biden claims he is this unifying leader, but if Cuomo is not worthy of his criticism, then who is?” McDaniel said, noting that Biden last year described Cuomo as the “gold standard” for his leadership through the pandemic.
Cuomo was already facing criticism for his administration’s undercounting of pandemic-related nursing home fatalities last week when a former aide, Lindsey Boylan, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and comments about her appearance.
Calls for an investigation mounted when a second former aide went public Saturday with harassment claims.
Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in Cuomo’s administration until November, told The New York Times Cuomo asked questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men, and made other comments she interpreted as gauging her interest in an affair.
Cuomo acknowledged for the first time Sunday that some of his behaviour with women “may have been insensitive or too personal,” and said he would co-operate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the state’s attorney general.
In a written statement, he said he had teased people about their personal lives in an attempt to be “playful.”
Cuomo, the 63-year-old son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, is in the midst of his third four-year term as the top elected official in the nation’s fourth most populous state. He has been expected to seek another term next year; New York has no term limits for governors.
Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefings brought him into the living rooms of millions of voters across the country last year, but he has long been viewed more as a regional player in Democratic politics. Still, he briefly considered a presidential bid before the last election and currently serves as the chairman of the National Governors Association.
A spokesman for the National Governors Association did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
“The notion that this has some larger ranging political impact beyond those who read the insider tip sheets I think is misguided,” said Cuomo pollster Jefrey Pollock.
And at least for now, Cuomo’s team doesn’t see any risk to his 2022 re-election.
“Anytime you have to deal with chaos, it always has the potential to impact a race,” Pollock said. “But right now, there is no race. There is nobody running against him. And in the past when there’s been much excitement about challengers, each one of them has been vanquished by a large margin.”
Cuomo’s challenge underscores a stark political reality well-known across New York: the Democratic Party’s far-left wing has never liked him very much.
At least two Democratic lawmakers have called on Cuomo to resign, but the most aggressive early criticism has been confined to progressives who have tried and failed for years to defeat him.
His last primary challenge from the left came from actress Cynthia Nixon, whom Cuomo defeated by more than 30 points. On Monday, Nixon encouraged Cuomo’s critics on social media and called out Gillibrand for not delivering a stronger rebuke.
“Cat got your tongue SenGillibrand???” Nixon tweeted.
Gillibrand’s office had no immediate response.
Meanwhile, James, the state attorney-general, said she’s moving forward with an investigation into the the allegations against Cuomo after receiving a letter from his office Monday authorizing her to take charge of the probe. The referral letter allows James to deputize an outside law firm to conduct the inquiry with full subpoena power.
When the investigation is finished, the findings will be disclosed in a public report.
“Cuomo has been untouchable for a really long time,” said New York-based progressive strategist Sophie Ellman-Golan, of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which has called for Cuomo’s resignation. “Our state deserves so much better.”
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