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Embattled Cuomo Pursues Strategy For Survival

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a visit to a new COVID-19 vaccination site, Monday, March 15, 2021, at the State University of New York in Old Westbury.
Mark Lennihan
Associated Press
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a visit to a new COVID-19 vaccination site, Monday, March 15, 2021, at the State University of New York in Old Westbury.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come under fire for limiting the media’s access and ability to ask him questions as he faces a number of scandals. So far, the strategy has delivered some benefits to the embattled governor.

The restrictions on the media began shortly after several current and former female aides accused the governor of sexual harassment, and in one case, sexual assault. Federal prosecutors also were investigating Cuomo and his top aides for a potential cover-up of the number of nursing home residents who died in the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also allegations that the governor offered coronavirus tests to family and friends when the vast majority of New Yorkers could not get them, and that he used his staff to help him write a book.

Cuomo, in early March, addressed the sexual harassment charges in a briefing with reporters, saying he understood that he had behaved in ways that made some people feel uncomfortable.

“I truly and deeply apologize for it,” Cuomo said on March 3. “I feel awful about it.”

Cuomo, who just a year ago was widely known for his daily in-person coronavirus briefings with journalists that were broadcast around the world, started holding events that were closed to the media, saying that the pandemic forced him to limit attendance. The closed press events came as more New Yorkers were vaccinated, the infection rate was going down, and more venues began opening up to larger groups of people.

Most of the state’s top politicians, including U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, said Cuomo should resign. So the governor invited to these events those allies who continued to stick with him, including longtime Cuomo family friend and NAACP President Hazel Dukes, former Congressman Charlie Rangel, some hospital executives and even the owners of the New York Mets.

Many of the events, which resembled campaign-style rallies, were held at vaccination clinics. At them, Cuomo signaled a willingness to fight the controversies. He frequently talked about standing up to the struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic, but his words could also apply to the governor’s own turn of fortune.

“When you get knocked down on your rear end … you see the world from a different perspective,” Cuomo said.

He said what’s important is what you do next, and that is what “separates winners from losers."

“That is the moment that decides who you are,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo continued to take a limited number of questions from the media on Zoom calls or telephone conference calls, but he rarely answered ones from journalists who are assigned to cover him.

Steve Greenberg, spokesman for Siena College polls and a political analyst, said Cuomo’s actions are classic damage control tactics, and so far they have benefited the governor. A poll released in mid-April found that though the governor’s personal popularity has dropped, and nearly half of New Yorkers believe the sexual harassment charges are credible, he’s still widely admired for his handling of the pandemic, with the exception of how he handled nursing homes.

“Right now, it is working for Governor Cuomo,” Greenberg said. “Voters think he’s doing a good job on the pandemic, so he continues to want to focus attention on the pandemic.”

In recent days, the governor has begun revising his approach after several articles and editorials criticized his restrictions on the media.

On Monday, he held an event in Syracuse that for the first time since last year was open to in-person media. When questions turned to the scandals, Cuomo’s tone was defiant.

He denied any wrongdoing and turned the tables when asked about a couple of lengthy articles that detailed alleged acts of bullying by him and his staff, calling it “slander."

“People say a lot of things in politics,” Cuomo said with a chuckle. “People are venal, people want attention, people are angry, people are jealous. Who knows why people spread rumors?” The governor seemed ready to continue the fight.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.