'There's power in that fear': Andrew Cuomo looms in the race to replace him

6 days ago 3

(CNN)More than three months after he resigned in disgrace, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo exists in political limbo -- not completely written off as a spent force, but sidelined as the campaign to replace him heats up.

Cuomo, who for a decade ran the Empire State and its Democratic Party apparatus, left his perch in August rather than face impeachment and removal from office following an inquiry by the state attorney general's office that found he sexually harassed multiple women and oversaw a toxic workplace.

His departure capped a stunning fall from the national political stardom he achieved during the nightmarish first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Cuomo's handling of the crisis, lauded then, has since come under withering scrutiny.

    On Monday, the state assembly released a report of its own -- broader in scope than the attorney general's -- which concluded there was "overwhelming evidence that the former Governor engaged in sexual harassment" and that Cuomo and his senior staff were "not fully transparent regarding the number of nursing home residents who died as a result of Covid-19." The misleading data, the investigators said, was then used by Cuomo to burnish his image in a now infamous book, which was written and promoted with the help of government staffers, that initially stood to make him about $5 million.

      Cuomo has denied the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, said he did not intentionally misstate the nursing home death count and insisted the book deal and publication process followed ethical norms.

        But 18 months on from Democrats semi-seriously chewing over his presidential prospects, Cuomo is now the subject of a criminal complaint in connection to one of the harassment allegations and grand plans for an easy election to a fourth term in office -- one more than his father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo -- have been replaced by a grittier calculus.

        Animating Cuomo's refusal to recede into retirement, or at least lay low in the aftermath of his resignation -- which was ultimately prompted by a state legislature that was poised to impeach, convict and remove him from office -- are twin struggles: to clear his name and, at the same time, make sure that New Yorkers do not forget it.

          'I don't know that he is powerful, but I think he is feared'

          Today, Cuomo's public voice is mostly limited to his email list and Twitter account, a running feed of broadsides by his lawyer, Rita Glavin, and spokesman Rich Azzopardi against the investigation overseen by New York Attorney General Letitia James into Cuomo's alleged sexual misconduct. Cuomo frequently retweets sympathetic opinion articles, including a Newsday op-ed from September that described his downfall as an "Albany coup d'état." There's also a picture of the former governor and his dog, Captain, on a boat.

          For many in New York politics, from operatives to lawmakers, Cuomo's swapping of the executive chamber for an online echo chamber has been a welcome one -- and created a new dynamic they are keen to maintain.

          State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who represents a swing district in southern Brooklyn, described an "era of good feelings" on the Albany scene, with new Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul openly speaking about collaboration and partnerships with lawmakers who had largely been frozen out by the Cuomo team.

          But even in exile from the capitol, Cuomo casts a long shadow.

          "There's always the possibility of mischief and mayhem, especially with someone who is hellbent on retribution," Gounardes said, "but I think that that will only get legs if we allow it to."

          A Democratic consultant without ties to any of the gubernatorial campaigns underscored Cuomo's unique, if increasingly tenuous, hold on the party.

          "I don't know that he is powerful, but I think he is feared," she said. "And there's power in that fear."

          James' entry into the gubernatorial primary earlier this month, where she is widely regarded as Hochul's most formidable challenger, has been used by the former governor's small team as a means of seeking to undermine her office's report, which found that Cuomo had sexually harassed at least 11 women.

          Inside the campaigns, and in public comments on the trail, discussion of the former governor's future plans has been limited.

          One Democratic operative who has spoken to multiple gubernatorial campaigns told CNN that Cuomo was a secondary issue in those discussions, with more tangible electoral issues -- like "How is Brooklyn gonna go?" -- taking up "90% of the conversation."

          "The one (Cuomo-related) variable that comes up is, 'What about the 18 million? Are we gonna see that 18 million? Are we going to see part of it? Where is that going to turn up?,'" the operative said, referring to Cuomo's warchest. "Because that's really the Cuomo question. He doesn't have a bully pulpit anymore. When he releases a statement, it gets less and less attention."

          Azzopardi, Cuomo's spokesman, dismissed the chatter and insisted the former governor's only priority was to clear his name.

          "Since the beginning of this ordeal, this has never been about politics for us it's been about getting to the truth," he said. "There's a ton of idle speculation out there but we can't help it if we continue to occupy vital real estate in people's head."

          A political comeback?

          One way for Cuomo to settle scores, re-enter political life in a more recognizable form and potentially raise even more money would be to launch a new campaign. Rumors about a potential bid for state attorney general, a job he held from 2007 to 2010, have been floating around for weeks. Though few are ready to fully dismiss the possibility, even some longtime Cuomo allies are doubtful.

          "When you're in a situation like (Cuomo's), I would imagine that you will continue to strive for not just relevance, but a role, and that's what he may want. Whether that's realistic at this time, or not, is something different," said Jay Jacobs, New York's state Democratic Party chairman. (Jacobs endorsed Hochul in October, when he said he last spoke to Cuomo.)

          There is also skepticism in some quarters over how deep Cuomo's pockets actually are -- or will be -- given his recent expenses.

          "I think he's got a lot less money than you and I think he has. Let's say he had 20 million or 19 million. He's now spent the last six months paying lawyers," said Chris Coffey, a New York political strategist and former co-campaign manager of Andrew Yang's mayoral bid. "So I think he would be lucky to break double digits (millions), which is still a lot of money, but if you keep going at that rate, he's going to spend that money pretty quickly."

          Monica Klein, a New York City-based progressive political consultant, said Cuomo's reliance on a barrage of alternately incendiary and inscrutable video and email statements underscored his difficult position.

          "This is a man who used his bully pulpit and the office of the governor to build and brandish his public image daily. Now, he can't rely on the constant coverage he once earned as the top state official," Klein said. "There is no beat for 'former governor angrily tweeting from Westchester.'"

          Glavin on a livestream last week from Cuomo's website repeated a familiar series of accusations and demands, repeatedly expressing frustration that James had not engaged with the Cuomo team's public criticism or responded to its letters (before sending two more), and pointed to a recent New York Post report that amplified rumors about Cuomo's mulling a campaign as reason for James to recuse herself from further investigations into the former governor.

          "There's widespread speculation that the governor may run, may attempt a political comeback," Glavin said. "I don't know what the answer to that is, but the very fact that there is speculation and people are talking about it, we have unnamed former advisors talking about it, means that it's in the head of anyone who's running for governor."

          But the story cited by Glavin said "several of Cuomo's confidants" had been floating the idea, meaning she was effectively using a report fueled by allies of the former governor as fodder for attacking James.

            In a statement, James' office offered its sharpest rebuke to date, deriding the press conference as "dramatics" and "faux outrage."

            "To be clear, we stand by the report into multiple allegations of sexual harassment against Andrew Cuomo and, more importantly, we stand by the women who were brave enough to come forward and speak truth to power," a spokesperson said. "If Andrew Cuomo didn't want to be accused of sexual harassment, he shouldn't have sexually harassed multiple women in the first place."

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