As Cuomo Fights for Survival, He Revives His Combative Image

ALBANY, N.Y. — Over the past few weeks, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has crisscrossed New York, promoting the state’s vaccine rollout and economic reopening, heralding the end of pandemic-era curfews and capacity limits.

It is not as though he is oblivious to the numerous sexual harassment accusations lodged against him; his denials have grown increasingly defiant. He adamantly refuses to step down, no matter the findings of ongoing investigations into the claims.

“I did nothing wrong, period,” Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said last week. “I’m not resigning and I’m doing my job every day.”

As New Yorkers await the outcome of investigations that might determine Mr. Cuomo’s fate, the governor seems to be recalibrating his political strategy, intent on shoring up support among voters and projecting an image of nose-to-the-grindstone leadership.

He has focused his public remarks on New York’s recovery, almost as if the state’s comeback might buoy his own, seeking to demonstrate he is still in command as a rebuke to critics who suggested he had lost the capacity to govern, according to interviews with half a dozen people close to Mr. Cuomo.

If the governor was downbeat and isolated in March, when he faced a drumbeat of accusations and a barrage of resignation calls, a moment immortalized in a photo of him swaddled in a blanket alone outside his Albany residence, people close to him now say he is back to his pugilistic self.

Charlie King, who was Mr. Cuomo’s running mate during his failed bid for governor in 2002, said that for Mr. Cuomo, the chaotic days in March were “like vertigo,” and it took some time to adjust.

“The first marker is to do what you’re sent to do, which is to govern,” he said. “Governing makes a difference: Put your head down and work.”

For Mr. Cuomo and some of his closest aides, that work also includes attacks on perceived threats. Recently, the governor and his team have begun to publicly undermine Letitia James, the state attorney general, who is overseeing an investigation into the sexual harassment claims.

Last month, after Ms. James said she would open a separate investigation into whether Mr. Cuomo used state resources to write his pandemic memoir, a senior adviser to the governor said that Ms. James did so “to further political self-interest,” citing her apparent interest in running for governor. (As attorney general, Mr. Cuomo investigated Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s administration’s handling of State Police travel records, and conducted initial reviews into two matters concerning Gov. David Paterson.)

Last week, Mr. Cuomo cautioned against having “faith in anything” that Ms. James’s independent lawyers might uncover related to the sexual harassment claims, weeks after he had initially praised Ms. James as a “very competent” investigator and urged voters to “wait for the facts.”

Even his recent blanket denial of any wrongdoing was a subtle departure from an apology two months ago, in which he acknowledged that his behavior may have made women feel uncomfortable.

“When you’re faced with these kinds of allegations and you believe, as he believes, that they’re unfair,” said Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the state Democratic Party and one of Mr. Cuomo’s staunchest allies, “you have to make a determination that you’re going to fight them, which is what he did.”

The allegations began in late February when Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official, accused Mr. Cuomo of giving her an unsolicited kiss on the lips. A few days later, Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide, told The Times that Mr. Cuomo, 63, made sexual overtures, asking her whether she had sex with older men. In April, an unnamed female aide accused Mr. Cuomo of groping her after being summoned to the Executive Mansion.

The accusations prompted the state’s most prominent Democrats, including a bevy of state lawmakers and most of the congressional delegation, including Senator Chuck Schumer, to press Mr. Cuomo to resign. They also sparked a broad impeachment investigation in the Assembly, which is also looking at Mr. Cuomo’s handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, as are federal prosecutors.

Mr. Cuomo’s closest supporters said the contents of the attorney general’s report will ultimately determine how much public support the governor retains, not only to remain in office, but to run for a fourth term in November 2022. Previously unreported accusations of sexual misconduct could prove more damaging, they believe, than a rehash of the allegations already reported in the press, no matter how irrefutable the evidence against Mr. Cuomo.

Some of his aides are confident that, while the findings might subject Mr. Cuomo to a few negative news cycles, Mr. Cuomo has a viable path to re-election, especially if there’s a fractured primary field, according to an official briefed on the conversations.

The governor’s recent maneuvering has been buttressed by recent polls that found he has maintained support among older New Yorkers, as well as Hispanic and Black voters, important constituencies as he eyes re-election.

His favorability ratings have plummeted, yet a majority of voters surveyed don’t believe he should immediately resign and most continue to approve of his overall pandemic response.

“The thing he’s done best is to govern and to continue to press forward on the things that he knows matter to voters,” said Jefrey Pollock, the governor’s longtime pollster. “Right now, most importantly, that’s been the coronavirus, where he has remained seen, from a polling and voter perspective, to be doing a good job.”

On the basis of that polling data, Mr. Cuomo and his advisers are dismissing resignation calls from elected officials as purely political and out of step with most of the electorate. Mr. Cuomo’s allies insist left-leaning politicians turned on the governor because they long opposed him ideologically or derided him personally, feelings that many Democrats harbored, but rarely spilled into public view when Mr. Cuomo ruled with a tighter grip over Albany.

“The voters elected the governor ‎to do a job and — just like every day for the past 10 years — he’s spending every waking moment doing it and delivering for the people of New York,” said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor.

Democrats could move to remove Mr. Cuomo from office based on the results of the Assembly’s inquiry, which has moved much more slowly than Ms. James’s investigation. If an impeachment vote materializes, it is likely months away.

In the meantime, Mr. Cuomo has had time to rally his base of support — mostly older and minority voters in the downstate area — ahead of a potentially vicious Democratic primary.

Left-wing activists are eyeing that as their opportunity to unseat Mr. Cuomo, even as rivals have yet to emerge. Still, the governor has a massive campaign war chest and, even amid crisis, he has not lost support from the state’s powerful labor unions, longtime allies whose members have helped elect him time and again.

Some of those labor leaders have stood with Mr. Cuomo at various news conferences over the last several weeks, as have many Black leaders and public officials.

At most of these events, Mr. Cuomo has sought to keep reporters from asking questions in person, a notable shift for a politician who was once America’s most visible governor, holding more than 100 consecutive daily briefings in 2020 and sitting for multiple television interviews a day.

Only recently did Mr. Cuomo allow reporters to attend his news conferences after months of virtual briefings in which his team handpicked the reporters who asked questions.

Still, the governor is being selective about his news appearances; he has not been on CNN or MSNBC since late January, when his political troubles began to surface. Even when Mr. Cuomo announced that the state would move to largely reopen on May 19, he did so at his own news conference, not on cable news shows.

Instead, it was left to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the governor’s intraparty rival, to trumpet the city’s plans to reopen on July 1, appearing on MSNBC and CNN. Mr. de Blasio spoke of how it would be the “summer of New York City,” but he also took the opportunity to ding the governor.

“I’ve been clear about it,” the mayor said on CNN, referring to the governor’s political turmoil. “He should not remain in office after the things that he has done.”

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