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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a breathtaking variety of scandals right now. First there were the accusations that Cuomo covered up COVID-19 nursing home deaths. That evolved into a scandal over workplace bullying, which then became a crisis about sexual harassment. To date, three former members and one current member of his staff have come forward with allegations of his misconduct, ranging from inappropriate comments to unwanted kissing and touching. Prominent Democrats in the state and on Capitol Hill are now calling for Cuomo’s resignation or impeachment. But Jimmy Vielkind, a Wall Street Journal reporter who covers New York politics, has heard from someone close to the governor that Cuomo has no intention of going quietly: “He will never give up. He will never surrender. He is not rolling over.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Vielkind about the governor’s response to the scandals and the prospects for his removal. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: When that first accusation came out, it was really just deny, deny, deny. Aggressive pushback. Then, as more and more allegations surfaced, in early March the governor had a press conference where he apologized. But then more recently, he’s been saying that voters know the difference between a real allegation and “cancel culture.” And he even went so far as to say, “I am not part of the political club,” which is a weird thing to say when your father was governor of New York and you are now governor of New York. Can you talk about the governor’s evolution here?
Jimmy Vielkind: His response has shifted as the world around him has shifted. It became clear that, on the one hand, he’s responding to accusations that were made and are floating in the public sphere. But then it became a question of those accusations prompting a political response that he needed to address, the political response being this impeachment investigation and calls for his resignation from elected officials. And with respect to those latter two things, he has been defiant. He has pushed hard. He has said that lawmakers calling for his resignation are motivated by politics. He has said that he will not resign because of accusations, mere allegations. And he said he’s not part of the political club—Andrew Cuomo has been working on political campaigns since before I was born.
He is the political club in New York, or has been.
It was a statement that struck many people, I will say. He’s doing all of this at the same time that he is also expressing some level of contrition over how he behaved toward his accusers and how he, in his office culture and demeanor, comported himself. It is a dissimilar approach, and it’s an approach that I know from my reporting has moved people to come forward and react.
There is a fourth woman who’s not been named publicly who said that the governor touched her inappropriately during an encounter at the state executive mansion in 2020. And my reporting reveals that this woman, who currently works on the governor’s staff, watched his apology press conference on March 3 and became upset by it, and that her story came to light to her colleagues when they saw her get upset in her office watching the governor speak about this. So at this point, Gov. Cuomo’s responses to the accusations against him are in some instances prompting more people to come forward.
The reporting is that the governor put his hand under her blouse, right?
That’s what the Albany Times Union has reported, yes.
To me, that allegation is a step beyond some of the allegations that came out beforehand about language in the workplace and feelings that women had that they were being demeaned.
Yes. Many lawmakers have said exactly that. And I don’t think it’s any accident that that fourth allegation, when it was first publicized by the Albany Times Union, that’s when you heard Democrats who control the state Assembly say they were launching an impeachment investigation. And it’s after that fourth allegation that you heard top leaders in Washington, including Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and members of the state’s congressional delegation, Democratic members, say that Gov. Cuomo needed to step aside.
You’ve had your own run-ins with Cuomo where he’s sort of knocked you around publicly at press conferences, not physically but verbally. Is the kind of behavior you’re hearing about now behavior that you and other reporters have known about for a long time?
I think it’s been clear that Gov. Cuomo drove his staff to work very, very long hours. It’s been known and clear and reported that he raises his voice at times, I will say diplomatically.
But is the sexual harassment new? I know that a former reporter for Politico talked about a similar instance at a Christmas party where the governor touched her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, and she even joked with other reporters about it afterwards. So it seems like even that was known earlier. And it just made me wonder, why wasn’t it reported on until now?
In my reporting what’s happening now is people are willing to speak with detail and depth about the effects on them of this behavior. And while there was some knowledge, be it specific knowledge or general knowledge about some of these behaviors, I think what’s happening now is that people are describing the effects in a way that is recontextualizing these behaviors for the public and sort of fueling the moment that we’re now in.
Cuomo seems to be in the fight for his political life, but he’s making this point that there’s a difference between losing the confidence of politicians around you and losing the confidence of your constituents. There was this poll that came out on Monday finding that the governor’s favorability rating had gone down, but only 35 percent of New York voters said he should resign. I wonder whether you think that kind of information is going to prevent impeachment efforts, calls for the governor’s resignation, from moving forward.
That poll was seen by the governor’s allies as not terrible news. In particular, it showed that 69 percent of Black voters surveyed did not feel that the governor should resign, and he keeps appearing with Black and Latino clergy at events, usually to talk about the coronavirus and to talk about coronavirus vaccinations. But the subtext, political observers and state lawmakers say, is quite clear. He’s showing that he has support in this community which is, of course, a critical constituency in the state, but also in Democratic politics in the state. So I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to give Andrew Cuomo fuel to continue his fight and to keep pushing. And we have to wait and see exactly where that’s going to lead.
There are multiple layers to what’s going on right now. The attorney general is investigating the harassment allegations, and the state Legislature could act, but I think there’s been some back-and-forth about whether there’s foot-dragging here, whether some members, especially the Democratic caucus, want to surge ahead and move forward quickly with impeachment, and others don’t. Can you explain what’s going on?
Yeah, the Democrats who control the state Assembly are divided about this issue. First, just to go into math, there are 150 members of the Assembly, there are 107 members of the Democratic conference, and of them, we know that 40 signed a letter calling for Gov. Cuomo to resign. Twenty-one members signed a letter saying Attorney General James’ investigation should be allowed to continue. Eight of them are on record saying that Gov. Cuomo should be impeached and saying that they support his impeachment. And so Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has to manage all of these constituencies, and he’s put forward what some people have described as a middle ground in which he is having this impeachment inquiry, it’s gathering fact. As of Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day, the Assembly announced it had hired a Manhattan law firm, Davis Polk, to lead its investigation. And it’s unclear how long that investigation will take or what will be yielded at the end. So in the one way, the Assembly is marching toward impeachment, but there are questions as to how fast it is marching and whether it is marching fast enough.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about how what’s happening in New York is revealing fault lines in the #MeToo movement. Some people look at what’s alleged about Cuomo and say, well, I don’t know if that’s something that someone should leave a job for, and other people see something really different. But I wonder, too, if in New York it’s really revealing the fault lines in the Democratic Party. For years, Cuomo fought off a kind of progressive surge and really kept the Legislature under his control. And he lost that battle. And now he’s dealing with a Legislature where there are a lot of progressives, but they’re not in charge of the Democrats entirely. And so what you’re seeing is a little back-and-forth as the Democrats figure out where they stand here.
There definitely seems to be overlap between these progressive lawmakers who are, first of all, newer to arrive in Albany and, generally speaking, younger people. And they seem to have a different perspective on these allegations than people who are older, who were elected with more support from the party establishment and who are generally more willing to give the governor a little bit of breathing room.
This is a question, this question between the progressives and the institutionalists, that the Democratic Party has been playing out in elections for, well, you could trace it back to 1968. But of course, the contemporary spats are between people like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. And Gov. Cuomo is very clearly in that Joe Biden wing of the Democratic Party and of the Democratic constituency.
Here in New York, what we saw were the progressive wing of the party make serious legislative gains in the 2016 and particularly in the 2018 elections, and again this past year in the 2020 elections. What we haven’t seen is, on a broad, statewide basis, progressive challengers to Gov. Cuomo and his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul. We haven’t seen success on that scale and on that level. So to the extent that this is a question about impeachment, which is driven by lawmakers each responsible to a smaller subset of individual constituents, I’m loath to predict exactly what’s going to happen and exactly what response there will be.
Joe Biden was asked about it this week, and he said he thinks Cuomo should resign and that Cuomo will “probably be prosecuted” if these allegations are found to be true by independent reporting. It made me wonder about the Democrats in New York and whether they’re painted into a corner here where enough of them have come forward and said Cuomo should resign, Cuomo should be impeached, that the relationship with the governor is now pretty broken. You know, there’s that line from The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Once you’ve gone this far, it’s really hard to reel things back in. If you don’t move forward and get him out of office, then you have a pretty bitter guy that you’re having to work with in the executive suite.
That’s exactly right, and March in Albany is normally about the budget. It’s normally about decisions that will impact taxation, that impact how many teachers local schools can have, that impact what kind of health care is available to people who don’t have the means to pay for it themselves. It’s going to be an uncharted dynamic to see how leaders of the Legislature will work or not work with the governor to make those decisions, make those important governmental decisions. But lawmakers with whom I’ve spoken say that there are continued challenges in working on real policy with Gov. Cuomo, given the situation that he’s in. Some of the people who have called for the governor’s resignation have explicitly said it’s not a question of the allegations and whether or not it’s believed that the allegations are true or not true, but simply that at this point they feel Gov. Cuomo is just too distracted to govern. And at the end of the day, that seems to be an argument: whether or not he can just do the job that he was elected to do. That strikes me as very salient and is something that more and more people, even those who don’t want to necessarily say they’ll support an impeachment or even call for the governor’s resignation, are repeating.