Cuomo suffers major blow as top New York Democrats say governor must go

Andrew Cuomo suffered a major blow on Sunday in his attempt to stay as governor of New York in the face of allegations of sexual harassment and workplace bullying and a scandal over nursing home deaths under Covid. The majority leader of the senate and the speaker of the assembly, two of the most powerful Democrats in the state, said it was time for Cuomo to go.

“We need to govern without daily distraction,” the majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said. “For the good of the state, Governor Cuomo must resign.”

Assembly speaker Carl Heastie backed Cousins, calling the allegations “disturbing” and saying Cuomo should “seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York”.

Five women have accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, accusations he denies. On Saturday the Washington Post published new claims of bullying. One former aide claiming Cuomo ran “a systemic, intentional, hostile, toxic workplace environment”.

Other lawmakers have called for Cuomo to quit over allegations that his administration misled the public about coronavirus fatalities in nursing homes.

Cuomo told reporters earlier on Sunday he would not resign because he was elected by people not politicians and the system depended on due process.

“I’m not going to resign because of allegations,” the governor said. “The premise of resigning because of allegations is actually anti-democratic.”

Prominent national Democrats including the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, who is from New York, and the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, expressed support for the women who allege harassment and for an investigation run by the state attorney general, Letitita James.

But Cousins went further.

“Every day there is another account that is drawing away from the business of government,” she said. “We have allegations about sexual harassment, a toxic work environment, the loss of credibility surrounding the Covid-19 nursing home data and questions about the construction of a major infrastructure project.

“New York is still in the midst of this pandemic and is still facing the societal health and economic impacts of it. We need to govern without daily distraction for the good of the state, Governor Cuomo must resign.”

Speaking to CNN, Whitmer, who has discussed her own experience of sexual assault, said she had “the same gut-wrenching reaction that a lot of women in America did” when she heard one of five women who say Cuomo sexually harassed them describe her alleged experiences.

But like other senior Democrats, Whitmer stopped short of saying Cuomo should resign, despite comparisons to recent cases in which powerful men, among them the former Minnesota senator Al Franken, were swiftly forced to step down.

“I think the allegations here are very serious,” she said, “and I do think that an impartial thorough independent investigation is merited and appropriate. And if [the allegations are] accurate and true, I think we have to take action.”

Last year, Whitmer was one of many prominent Democrats to back Joe Biden when he denied an accusation, telling CNN: “Just because you’re a survivor doesn’t mean that every claim is equal. It means we give them the ability to make their case. And then to make a judgment that is informed.”

This week, former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett told CBS how she says Cuomo behaved.

“I thought, ‘He’s trying to sleep with me,’” she said. “‘The governor is trying to sleep with me and I’m deeply uncomfortable. And I have to get out of this room as soon as possible.’”

Whitmer was asked how she felt while watching Bennett’s interview.

“I think that there are a lot of American women who have felt how she felt,” she said. “And I think that’s something that resonates and why we need to take this seriously, and why there needs to be a full investigation, and whatever is appropriate in terms of accountability should follow.

“I wouldn’t help anyone for me to prejudge where this is headed, but I had the same gut-wrenching reaction that I’m sure a lot of women in America did.”

Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo adviser, has said the governor made inappropriate comments, kissed her on the lips and suggested a game of strip poker on a plane.

Anna Ruch, who did not work for Cuomo, has described him putting his hands on her face and asking if he could kiss her when they met at a wedding.

Ana Liss told the Wall Street Journal that when she was a policy aide, Cuomo called her “sweetheart”, kissed her hand and asked personal questions, including whether she had a boyfriend. She said he sometimes greeted her with a hug and kisses on both cheeks.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, told the Journal: “Reporters and photographers have covered the governor for 14 years watching him kiss men and women and posing for pictures. At the public open-house mansion reception, there are hundreds of people, and he poses for hundreds of pictures. That’s what people in politics do.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, published a claim by Karen Hinton, a press aide to Cuomo when he was US housing secretary under Bill Clinton. She told the Post he “summoned her to his dimly lit hotel room and embraced her after a work event in 2000”.

Peter Ajemian, Cuomo’s director of communications, told the paper: “This did not happen. Karen Hinton is a known antagonist of the governor’s who is attempting to take advantage of this moment to score cheap points with made-up allegations from 21 years ago.”

Of the accusations of bullying, Ajemian said: “The governor is direct with employees if their work is sub-par because the people of New York deserve nothing short of excellence.”

Earlier this week, Cuomo denied touching anyone inappropriately. But he also apologised for behaving in a way he said he now realised upset women.

“I understand sensitivities have changed,” Cuomo said. “Behavior has changed. I get it and I’m going to learn from it.”