Why This Time Is Different for Andrew Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus honeymoon with voters was already fading as his administration’s pandemic policy on nursing homes—and the alleged effort to hide the corresponding data on deaths—came into public view after a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James in January.

Then came the sexual harassment accusations. In December, a former state economic development official, Lindsey Boylan, alleged Cuomo harassed her in a series of Twitter posts. Her claims earned renewed attention after she detailed them further last week on Medium. Then, last weekend, a former aide, Charlotte Bennett, told the New York Times that Cuomo had harassed her, too; she said Cuomo asked her a series of inappropriate questions about her sex life and spoke of his loneliness. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” she told the Times. On Monday night, a third woman came forward to say Cuomo had made an unwanted advance at a wedding in 2019.

Cuomo denied the allegations, and said in statement, “I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended.” James, the attorney general, will oversee an investigation.

As the fallout deepened on Monday, I called Jon Campbell, a longtime political reporter in Albany, where the governor has a reputation for bare-knuckled political operations. I asked Campbell, who reports for the USA Today Network New York, including several local papers, how the governor’s image as a telegenic national face in the pandemic squared with the politician he’s been covering for the past decade—and whether the new allegations could bring down one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Aymann Ismail: You have been in Albany as a reporter covering Andrew Cuomo since 2011, his first year as governor. The sexual harassment allegations are not the first serious controversy he’s faced. Does this one feel different to you as a reporter?

Jon Campbell: Unquestionably, undoubtedly so, for a couple of different reasons. One: the previous scandals—the Moreland Commission scandal, the Joe Percoco scandal—those didn’t cross into the line of sexual harassment or anything of that nature. They were, quite frankly, difficult to explain sometimes in a sound bite, or in a way that could keep people interested. This one’s very different. The conduct is easy to describe. It’s post-Me Too, and people have a better understanding of why the conduct that’s alleged is problematic. Then add on top of all of that, the governor’s national profile is so much bigger now after his popular COVID briefings than it ever was at any other point during his office, so that attention is magnified tenfold.

It’s been an interesting experience in 2020 and 2021 because the audience is so much bigger. There are so many more eyeballs on the governor because he built up his profile so much, and he experienced the benefits of that when he was on cable news every single day, and his briefings were getting just enormous viewership. But now he’s feeling the wrath of that too as he falls out of favor with some and faces these allegations. It’s live by the audience, die by the audience in some ways.

I notice now that there was this tale of two Cuomos happening simultaneously. There was the guy on TV with the PowerPoints that everybody loved; I have a close friend who was one of those who called herself “Cuomosexual” at one point. And then there was the Cuomo embattled in controversy that was emerging in the newspapers. Did you notice that divide yourself in real time?

Yes, to a certain extent. There were a lot of people who were tuning in every day to the briefings, but maybe weren’t reading the coverage at the same time. The nursing home scandal that’s come about—for months and months and months, reporters and lawmakers and other people were pushing for that data and they were trying to tell people, “They’re only telling you half the story. They’re only telling you the number of people who died in nursing homes themselves, not in hospitals, and there’s more to this story.” You could feel it at the time. But on the other hand, when his briefings were being broadcast in their entirety on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News even, that platform was bigger than anybody’s platform, aside from the president of the United States. The folks that you’re talking about, who watched every single day and really became enamored with the governor, they were seeing his presentation the way that he wanted to present it. They weren’t necessarily seeing the rest of the show.

How did you see it in Albany?

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The presentations were undoubtedly effective in terms of communication. There was a good amount in the presentations that was factual, and it’s what people were looking for at the time. They wanted to know how many cases; they wanted to know how many deaths; they wanted to know if it was getting better, or if it was getting worse. And he really, really effectively did that at the beginning of his presentation each day. On some level, I understand why that resonated with people. But the press is there to question public officials and to scrutinize their choices. In a pandemic like this, there are plenty of choices to scrutinize. Now you’ve seen that come to the forefront.

Do you think the national press gave Cuomo a pass initially on these more troubling stories because of his popularity?

Well, I would never want to criticize other reporters, but what I would say is you saw a lot of stories in recent weeks about the governor’s aggression and the phone call he had with Ron Kim, the assemblyman, where Kim alleges that Cuomo threatened him. I think that’s one of the things that for people who have been following the governor very closely for 10 years, that wasn’t surprising even in the least. I think that might shock somebody who was only watching the governor’s COVID presentations, where he puts on a very, very different face, but for somebody who’s covered the governor for a long time, they know that his aggressive manner, his phone calls and threats—they know that that’s not a new development.

Do you have any memorable stories of your own from when you started covering Cuomo that showed you how he operates?

Early on in 2011, you saw the governor take up the cause of same-sex marriage right after he got into office. He made it his mission to convince the Senate Republicans to allow it to come to the floor for a vote and to get the votes necessary. He needed four Republican votes to make it happen. And he cajoled and he twisted arms and he met with people incessantly to make it happen. I remember State Senator Mark Grisanti was on the fence about voting for same-sex marriage. At that time, we were waiting outside of the governor’s office every single day for anybody who’s coming in or out, trying to get any sort of morsels of information about whether this thing’s going to pass, whether he’s going to get the support he needs. Maybe you catch the governor coming in and out, something like that. And I remember Senator Grisanti came down with Senator Tom Libous—he was a Republican who’s since passed away—who was actually pretty close with Cuomo at the time. They came out of the office and I remember Mark looking just downtrodden, and Tom Libous shepherded him through the media crowd and they walked away. I just remember thinking, “What that was about?” Years later we found out that Mark Grisanti had previously told the governor that he was going to vote for same-sex marriage, then went down to tell him he was having second thoughts. The governor just tore into him. And I remember the look on the senator’s face very well as he was walking away.

In that sense, that’s instructive. But really it was Albany as a whole—the aggression, the angry phone calls—it’s not just limited to the governor. For a long time—and it’s getting less so, quite frankly—that was the way of life in Albany. And Andrew Cuomo is from that old school of Albany, and never quite shook it.

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Has Cuomo or his office ever yelled at or threatened you?

I mean, I’ve had many, many, many unpleasant phone calls. Whether that’s with Andrew Cuomo’s staff or Senate staff or the attorney general’s—across a wide array of officials in Albany, I wouldn’t want to limit it to Cuomo. There’s been a wide array of unpleasant phone calls, but it’s part of the job, and you live with it, and you got to stand your ground.

How has Cuomo maintained such a tight grip on his staff despite these well-reported tactics, and his well-reported aggression?

He keeps a very tight circle of people who he trusts. He has people who have been with him for a long time. They are very tight when it comes to leaks and expressing dissatisfaction or anything like that, because they know that’s a path to trouble for them within the Cuomo administration. Now will that change as he’s faced with the biggest scandal he’s seen yet? Some within his administration are quite upset by the revelations from the second accuser in particular. I don’t know, but they’ve run a pretty tight ship in terms of leaks over the last 10 years. Especially in the last four or five.

When did the political high of the past year really start falling apart for Cuomo?

Jan. 28 was the turning point, there’s no doubt about it. That’s the day where the attorney general, Letitia James, put out a report on COVID-19 in nursing homes in New York. And that’s where she, using data from nursing homes themselves, came up with an estimate that the Cuomo administration essentially undercounted nursing home deaths by 50 percent. Now the Cuomo administration quibbles with the word “undercount.” They did within hours put out the number of nursing home residents who died in hospitals. But that was really it. Letitia James put out a report that accused him of undercounting by a significant margin. I mean, it was close to 50 percent. That was the turning point, really, because then you had a huge round of coverage and he took a beating in the press. The turning point was the first nursing home report, and it just has built and built and built. Then you add the sexual harassment on top of that, and it’s even surpassed the nursing home report and become this major scandal that has attracted national attention.

Where do you think things are headed for Cuomo right now? Do you think Cuomo’s response to the sexual harassment claims will change? Because I read his statement. He said he was being funny, right?

Yeah. He put that statement out Sunday. It was remarkable in the sense that Cuomo for years had never really shown contrition for anything. Apologizing was not the Cuomo way. So the fact that he did apologize for anything was remarkable in a sense, but his apology left a lot to be desired, according to lawmakers, in part because it seemed to put the onus on the accuser for misinterpreting his remarks, his funny jokes. That seems to have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. What will the investigation show? You have at least one accuser in Charlotte Bennett who is pledging to cooperate fully. I presume that Lindsey Boylan, the first accuser, will cooperate as well. Cuomo will be in very, very big trouble. He’s already in political peril, but that gets ratcheted up if there are more accusers that come forward. [Note: I spoke to Campbell hours before the third accuser emerged in the New York Times.] We’ve seen the two so far, but Charlotte Bennett just put out a statement literally right before we started talking, basically encouraging others to come forward too. If there are more who come forward, that political peril just gets ratcheted up exponentially.

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