World·Analysis

He won an Emmy for his COVID performance. Now the critics are out for New York's governor

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerged as a national star during the early days of the pandemic for his informative and calming daily briefings. But the shine is wearing off as multiple scandals, stemming from missteps around nursing homes, are bringing renewed focus to a darker side of Cuomo's leadership style.

Andrew Cuomo, once lauded for his crisis management, now faces harsh criticism for pandemic missteps

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on September. Once considered to be a shining example of government management during the pandemic, he's now facing multiple scandals over his handling and oversight of nursing homes. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

For anxious New Yorkers enduring the darkest period of the pandemic last spring, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's daily briefings were a moment of calm, offering stability in a tumultuous and uncertain time. 

The clear, authoritative and informative sessions became appointment viewing and boosted Cuomo's national profile. His confident style, mixed with multiple PowerPoint slides and dad jokes, stood in stark contrast to the confusing and contradictory information trickling out of the White House. 

But now, almost a year later, Cuomo's image as a pandemic star has come crashing down to earth. He's engulfed by a scandal over his handling of nursing homes. The qualities of "clear communication and utter decisiveness" that won him praise during the pandemic are now, critics say, being shown to be more akin to the bullying governing style that's marked his career in politics. 

"A lot of it was very performative," New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim, a vocal critic, told CBC News in an interview. "It's very micromanaged and it's about him being in the middle." 

Cuomo, who wrote a book about his success in managing the pandemic, and won an Emmy for his media briefings, now faces a daily barrage of tough questions — and where once he was being talked about as a possible Democratic presidential contender, now he's being parodied on Saturday Night Live.

His efforts at damage control have sparked accusations of abusive behaviour from within his own party, which was followed by an allegation of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour from a former senior aide.

Emergency medical technicians wheel a patient out of the Cobble Hill Health Center in New York in April. A report from the New York State Attorney General says the state government undercounted deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 per cent. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"Strong managerial style is one way to put it. Being a tough guy in ... the most toxic way is another way to put it," said Casey Seiler, editor-in-chief of the Albany Times Union newspaper, who covered the New York state capital from 2008 to 2017. 

Nursing home scandal

For months, Cuomo had faced questions about a decision made early in the pandemic to force long-term care homes to accept COVID-positive patients from hospitals. The thinking, back in March 2020, was that hospitals could be overrun, so every bed was needed.

Cuomo defended the move as being consistent with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and had dismissed criticism as politically motivated. At the time, President Donald Trump often cited nursing homes in his attacks against Cuomo. 

The issue boiled over last month when New York State Attorney General Letitia James released a report that said the Cuomo administration vastly undercounted the number of deaths in long-term care homes by as much as 50 per cent.

Patients who were transferred from nursing homes to hospital and later died were not counted in the nursing home total. They were still counted in overall totals, but critics say it exposes Cuomo's poor handling and oversight of nursing homes during the pandemic. The FBI and federal prosecutors are now investigating. 

The attorney general's report also added to another controversy over access to those numbers. For months, when state legislators and policy groups sought details on nursing home deaths, the governor's office held back. A senior aide admitted recently that they were afraid the numbers would be politicized against them. 

"It really does, unfortunately, speak to the governor's mania for information control, especially when it involves something that might reflect negatively on his past performance," Seiler said. 

Accusations of abuse 

Kim, the Democratic state assemblyman, has been openly critical of Cuomo and recently went public claiming the governor called him at home and threatened to "destroy" him politically. 

"It's extremely abusive and it's an indication of someone who is accustomed to abusing his powers," Kim said.

Kim has also been critical of a move by Cuomo last year to provide legal immunity to for-profit long-term care facilities during the height of the pandemic. 

New York Assemblyman Ron Kim, shown during a media briefing in Albany, N.Y., says Cuomo vowed to 'destroy' him during a private phone call for criticizing his handling of COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes. (Hans Pennink/The Associated Press)

Cuomo "chose to protect business profits over people's lives, and now the whole world is paying attention to that decision and he needs to be held accountable for that," Kim said. 

'Who cares ... they died'

Cuomo, the son of Democratic Party stalwart and former New York governor Mario Cuomo, has led the state since 2011. He easily won re-election twice and is serving his third term.

Seiler said his reputation for sharp elbows and scheming to destroy enemies goes back to his days as secretary for housing and urban development in the Bill Clinton administration.

In light of numerous questions about nursing homes — questions not unfamiliar to Canadian premiers facing similar issues — Cuomo has responded to the accusations by brushing aside the criticism.

"But who cares ... they died," Cuomo said during a Jan. 29 media briefing, saying it didn't matter where the deaths occurred since the overall count was correct. 

Seiler said Cuomo likes to project an image of strength and action in times of crisis and does not handle criticism well.

"He is a micromanager, and he is also someone who is just pathologically unable to apologize for anything. His mode of response to criticism is to attack any critic."

Kim said the governor on display now is closer to reality than the one who garnered headlines for his attacks on Trump

"Everything that I experienced, even before this pandemic, is about control and portraying an image of authority,' Kim said

Cuomo, who said in late January that he didn't trust experts, has seen an exodus of health officials from his administration in recent months.

Harassment allegation surface

This week, Lindsay Boylan, a former state official and later special adviser to Cuomo, accused the governor of kissing her in his office in 2018 and other harassing behaviour. She said Cuomo would often keep track of her whereabouts and once invited her to play strip poker during a government flight.

Cuomo denied the allegations, and on Thursday a longtime associate held a conference call with reporters to defend the governor.

"His conduct has always been in my presence with the members of other staff appropriate, not that it is always fun-loving and a good time, but it is always appropriate," said Steven Cohen, a former senior adviser to Cuomo. 

On the questions of verbal abuse and bullying tactics, Cohen said it's no secret that Cuomo can be tough. 

"He has never shied from giving those around him accurate, blunt feedback," Cohen told reporters.

Political fallout? 

Republicans and conservative media have seized on Cuomo's missteps, saying they're a sign that the left-leaning media chose to gloss over the mistakes of Democratic politicians while focusing solely on Trump. 

An effort is underway among state legislators to strip Cuomo of the emergency powers granted to him during the pandemic, and there are calls for his impeachment. 

A recent poll found that 54 per cent of New Yorkers support the governor's handling of the pandemic, down from 72 per cent in July. It also found that 60 per cent of respondents say Cuomo was wrong in how he handled the nursing home situation, but most didn't think he did anything illegal. 

Cuomo speaks during a news conference at a vaccination site in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Feb. 22. Critics say Cuomo likes to project strength in times of crisis but is too controlling of information. (Seth Wenig/AFP via Getty Images)

Seiler said it's too early to assess the fallout from the sexual harassment allegation as it's still relatively fresh. 

He noted that Cuomo isn't up for re-election until next year and that he is in his third term — the same point when his father, Mario, lost his job to a relatively unknown Republican.

"Third terms are when the world turns on you, at least in New York state government. The third term is when people get sick of you, when past scandals, controversies, grudges, they begin to kind of stack up into a critical mass."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.

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