Last summer, the three-term New York governor Andrew Cuomo was considered, in political terms, dead and buried after one of the most spectacular falls from grace in modern US politics.
A year earlier, he’d been an empathetic pandemic hero, offering New Yorkers a measure of confidence in the state’s response to the early waves of Covid-19 while the US president, Donald Trump, floundered or blustered his way through daily briefings as the terrifying death toll mounted.
But then Cuomo was forced to resign from office, leaving wearing a cloak of scandals ranging from allegations of sexual harassment leveled by 11 women, including a member of his protection detail, to a cover-up of the number of elderly people who died in New York nursing homes from Covid-19.
Yet now – at 64 and out of office – Cuomo is trying to flip the narrative again and claw back his reputation and maybe, just maybe, his political career. “I’m not disappearing,” he told New York magazine last year and he might just mean it.
Over the past several weeks, Cuomo has accelerated a campaign of image correction that some believe is a prelude to efforts toward political rehabilitation. With $16m left over in his vacated governorship re-election campaign coffers, he’s got funds to finance the project.
At a Brooklyn church last week Cuomo gave his first public speech since leaving office. In an event that looked and felt a lot like old-fashioned retail politicking, Cuomo took aim at those that had brought him down. “The actions against me were prosecutorial misconduct,” the Bible-quoting Cuomo said in the speech. “They used cancel culture to effectively overturn an election.”
The speech came after the launch of a digital and television advertising campaign that is blaring the same message: Cuomo is the victim, unfairly driven from office.
In America’s topsy-turvy politics, where chaos and division seem common currency on both sides of the political divide, even his critics are loth to count him out.
“The country elected Donald Trump, so all bets are off,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of New York City’s National Organization for Women. “It’s the wild, wild west of politics right now across the country. In terms of personal redemption every human being is entitled to seek it.
“News coverage focuses on politics as a sport,” Ossorio added “which diverts attention from what matters: keeping our government honest.”
The question is, does anyone care besides Cuomo, and perhaps his brother Chris who was fired from CNN for his involvement in his elder sibling’s damage control efforts?
“The effort you’re seeing is more focused on a public rehabilitation than pursuit of a specific political audience,” said Evan Nierman, a crisis management expert. “The likelihood that New Yorkers are going to jump back on the Cuomo train after it was derailed in such an explosive fashion is unlikely.
“Andrew Cuomo is the kind of person who doesn’t like not being in control. He likes directing things, shaping policy and outcomes, not being on the receiving end of that. So he’s looking for opportunities to influence his own future and take back a measure of control.”
Last month, his attorney, Rita Glavin, repeated proclamations of his innocence and challenged an independent report from the state attorney general’s office that concluded “the governor sexually harassed a number of state employees through unwelcome and unwanted touching, as well as by making numerous offensive and sexually suggestive comments.”
The central theme of Cuomo’s argument is that the New York attorney general, Letitia James, who announced and later dropped out of a run for governor, was politically motivated. Glavin has said she plans to file a misconduct complaint about James to an attorney grievance committee and has claimed James’s office had “directed an utterly biased investigation”.
Four district attorneys looked into bringing charges but declined to do so, each stating carefully that their decision was not based on the credibility of his accusers. A fifth, from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, dropped its inquiry.
It’s a crack in the door that Cuomo may believe he can lever open by reinterpreting, with help of the campaign war chest, the conclusions of James’s investigation.
The former governor has had conspicuous Manhattan meetings with the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New York’s mayor, Eric Adams. Before the largely Black congregation in Brooklyn, Cuomo offered a defiant and angry interpretation of his situation.
“God isn’t done with me yet,” he continued. “I am blessed, I have many options in life and I am open to all, but on the question if I am at peace, no I am not. But I don’t want to be at peace, and by the way I don’t think you should be at peace either.”
His attorney has put it more simply, telling a radio interviewer that Cuomo is “not going to let this go, because he can’t”.
But his efforts provoked a sharp response. “Instead of accepting responsibility, serial sexual harasser Andrew Cuomo continues to challenge the accounts of victims,” read a statement from a group of nine women’s rights and advocacy organizations, including Eleanor’s Legacy, Amplify Her and Women of Color for Progress.
Members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group – an Albany-based group of state government employees who have experienced workplace sexual harassment or assault said Cuomo was “using taxpayer dollars to fund his victim-shaming campaign after multiple investigations exposed him for what he truly is: a serial sexual harasser who fostered a toxic, hostile work environment”.
The response broadly tallies with public opinion polls. A Sienna College poll published last month found that 52% of Democrats said they believed he sexually harassed multiple women, and said they believed James by a margin of 2-to-1 when she concluded he was a serial sexual harasser. Eighty per cent said he’d made the right decision to resign.
“New Yorkers are not ready to forgive and forget when it comes to Cuomo,” said Steven Greenberg, a Siena College pollster.
But the former governor, who has also spent $1.8m on legal and public relations expenses that include resisting efforts by an ethics commission to claw back more than $5m he received for a book about his handling of the pandemic, remains set on rehabilitation.
He told Bloomberg last month that he had not resigned because he did anything wrong – but because he didn’t want to be a distraction. “I’m still focused on communicating what happened here. Because as a precedent, it has to be exposed.”
Nor would he rule out a future run for office.
“He’s trying to find a way to remind people of what he thinks they should think about him,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic pollster and former political scientist.
Cuomo, he said, was trying to find something that people can feel good about. Against him are voter tendencies against three-term governors and that the accusations against him are “the very things New Yorkers and Americans have problems with”.
“He’s got to find a way to explain who he was as governor and make it believable before people will give him the opportunity,” Sheinkopf says. “This is not a guy who dies easily but he’s pretty close to moribund right now.”