Cuomo comeback talk chilled with former New York governor sitting out Democratic primary

The deadline to launch a long-shot Democratic primary bid for governor or state attorney general has passed, and Cuomo — despite repeated hints and rumors — ultimately chose not to take the necessary steps, including the collection of thousands of signatures, to challenge either Gov. Kathy Hochul or, as had been floated, state Attorney General Letitia James.

Cuomo’s decision follows weeks of scattered public appearances, statements from his team that pointed to positive notes in public polling, and an expensive television ad campaign that sought to revive his public image. Still, the doors are not completely shut on a bid this year. The former governor has until May 31 to file to run as an independent, a decision that could potentially insert him in a spoiler role for the general election in November.

But there is a prevailing view among New York political strategists that, despite Cuomo’s ramped-up efforts to rewrite his political legacy, a run on a third party line is unlikely, doomed or some combination of the two.

“Among Democratic voters, you would have the sexual harassment (as an issue),” said a Democratic consultant, who is not working for either Hochul or James and requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The entire argument for being an independent is you get moderates and Republicans to vote for you … but Republicans aren’t going to vote for him because of the nursing home issue, which they were all over. So on both sides of the coin, he has his challenges.”

Apart from the allegations of sexual harassment that drove him to resign, Cuomo and his administration have come under fire for the release of misleading statistics about the number of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes during the early stages of the pandemic in New York. He is also suing the state’s top ethics commission, which has ruled that he should turn over the profits from his 2020 book about leading the state during the pandemic on the grounds it was written and promoted with the help of official staff. Cuomo has denied the accusations of sexual harassment or that he inappropriately used state employees to help with the book project, while also, defending his handling of Covid-19.

But Cuomo’s tone has shifted since his initial announcement, in August 2021, that he would leave office. While he initially described the probe by James’ office into the sexual harassment allegations as politically motivated, he also acknowledged that some of the interactions in question might have been the result of “generational or cultural” differences with younger women.

More recently, Cuomo has taken a more aggressive position. In remarks last month at a church in the Bronx run by Democratic former state Sen. Rubén Díaz Sr., a vocal opponent of abortion rights with a history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, Cuomo pinned his downfall on “cancel culture.”

“Stand up to the ignorance and intolerance, stand up to the bullies. Stand up to the extremists. Cancel the cancel culture,” he said in the March 17 speech, comparing the “mentality today” to “modern day stonings.”

Speaking to reporters afterward, Cuomo continued to tease a more formal re-entry into the political fray.

“I have a lot of options open,” he said.

But not everyone sees it that way.

Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, which frequently clashed with Cuomo, described the “will he, won’t he?” narrative around the former governor as “a means to distract people from the series of scathing reports that have come out from the comptroller’s office (on nursing home deaths), from independent investigations, from the attorney general’s report.”

“The whole cancel culture piece,” she said, “is a very convenient, safe space for leaders who act completely without accountability and who, in trying to redeem themselves, act as though their political marginalization is of no fault of their own.”

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi defended the former governor’s event with Díaz — who as recently as 2019 drew fierce criticism when he claimed that the city council, on which he served at the time, was “controlled by the homosexual community.”

“We don’t tolerate intolerance of any kind, but what separates the public servants from the politicians is being able to work with people who we don’t always agree with. No one can credibly question this Governor’s commitment to the LBGTQ community,” Azzopardi said, before ticking off Cuomo’s successful efforts in New York to legalize same-sex marriage, ban conversion therapy and pass the state’s Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.

Less than two weeks after Cuomo’s controversial speech, Azzopardi had touted the results of a March 20-24 Siena College poll, which found that a majority (52%) of African Americans polled “do not believe the allegations” against him. The shift, from a similar poll earlier in the year, was meant to signal a broad move in his direction.

But the poll also contained less promising news for Cuomo. 

Though he only trailed Hochul by 8 percentage points in a hypothetical contest (38%-30%), just a third of New York Democrats wanted Cuomo to run in the party primary and 54% said he should stay away from the 2022 race altogether. Only 8% of Democrats said he should pursue an independent bid. Among independents, the numbers were also damning. Fourteen percent backed an independent Cuomo bid, while 71% said he should not run for his old office this year.

His overall unfavorable rating stood at 60%. 

Though Cuomo has retained a loyal, though small inner circle of close confidants, his ability to stand up a broad political operation has also come under scrutiny — this despite his considerable campaign funds, which clocked in at more than $16 million, per records released in January. A recent Politico report detailed Cuomo’s difficulties in recruiting consultants and pollsters wary of attaching their businesses to his tainted political brand and concerns over how it might affect their ability to recruit and maintain other clients.

One Democratic strategist told CNN that someone close to Cuomo had recently reached out to their firm about polling work, but the conversation was quickly shut down.

“There were lots of things not to like about working with or around Andrew Cuomo (in the past) and people did it very happily. But that was because he was in power. Now you would be up against a sitting governor (Hochul), with clients who have business in front of her,” the strategist said. “I couldn’t do my job on behalf of most of our firm’s clients in New York state if I was working for Cuomo.”

Azzopardi denied that anyone in the former governor’s “orbit” had contacted a pollster that turned them down.

The shift toward Hochul by the New York Democratic Party’s official and unofficial political apparatus — even amid a controversy over her support for hundreds of millions dollars in public funds being directed to help build a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills — has contributed to Cuomo’s isolation. 

Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Committee and a longtime Cuomo ally, endorsed Hochul soon after she took office and balked, in an interview with CNN, at any suggestion that he was trying to create space for a Cuomo return. Jacobs is facing backlash for his plan to add another party line to the state ballot as part of New York’s fusion voting system, which allows candidates to run on multiple ballot lines.

“I haven’t spoken to the former governor in many months,” Jacobs said. “The conversations that I’ve had with the former governor since he left office have not been amicable or pleasant.”

Jacobs said his ballot effort is only an attempt to level the playing field with Republican candidates, who often appear on both the GOP and Conservative Party lines as part of the state’s fusion voting system. The Working Families Party typically plays that role for Democrats, but Jacobs said he could not be sure the progressive party, which has endorsed New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in the governor’s race, would do the same this year.

“There is no circumstance where I would be supporting Andrew Cuomo’s reemergence in political life in this election year,” Jacobs said. “I’ve advised him and I’ve stated publicly, again and again, that I thought it would be a very bad idea both for him politically and for the Democratic Party, more importantly, for him to decide to run in this race at this time, or any race.”

Quoted from Various Sources

Published for: The Bloggers Briefing