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ALBANY - From an Emmy award for his COVID-19 briefings to a spoof on "Saturday Night Live."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's star turn for his perceived frank and informative nationally broadcast COVID-19 briefings through the early months of the pandemic has taken a deep fall in recent weeks.
The state's admitted undercounting of nursing home deaths due to coronavirus and the ongoing scrutiny over a March 25 order to allow nursing home residents in hospitals to return home with COVID has put the Democratic governor in the most precarious position since he took office a decade ago.
Cuomo has had his share of scandals as governor.
He was accused of meddling in a corruption-busting commission that led to an investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who ultimately found no criminal wrongdoing. And his ex-top aide, Joseph Percoco, is in prison for kickbacks.
But now Cuomo is facing something deeper: the raw anger and deep anguish of New Yorkers after more than 13,000 nursing home residents died — a figure the state didn't reveal until a damning state Attorney General's report was released last month.
And lawmakers, who relinquished power to Cuomo during the pandemic, are looking to rein in Cuomo's control, and some are even talking further action: an impeachment trial.
Plus, there is a federal probe into Cuomo's handling of the nursing home situation.
And per capita, only New Jersey has had more overall deaths than New York, where it has exceeded 40,000 since COVID hit the Northeast first nearly a year ago.
The tough-talking Cuomo has sought to beat back the criticism, but that too has come with pitfalls: It revived his image among distractors as a bully after he was accused of threatening Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim for his condemnation of the state's nursing home policies.
And that was the image portrayed on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend as cast member Pete Davidson lampooned Cuomo for not apologizing for the COVID-19 miscount and quickly snapping at the mention of his foe, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"Some of the people who died in the nursing homes were not counted as nursing home deaths. They were counted as hospital deaths," Davidson said as Cuomo in the governor's patented thick New York accent. "Or just basically what happens at Disney World, OK. People die, and they move the bodies. They say, ‘Oh, I guess Brenda died in the parking lot, not on the tea cups.’”
The audience roared.
Cuomo in a third term
Third terms are always tricky for governors, and Cuomo knows it all too well: His late father, Mario, won three terms, but was upended in 1994 by a little-known Hudson Valley Republican senator, George Pataki — who himself struggled in his third term and didn't run again.
State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs said Cuomo, 63, facing backlash in a third term and after a year of navigating the most difficult year in modern history is not surprising.
In California, there's an effort to make Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom only the second governor in the state to be recalled after his handling of the pandemic.
"I think at the end of the day he gets through it pretty fine," Jacobs said Sunday of Cuomo. "I think to some degree there was an inevitability in the governor running into difficulty as COVID began to run its course.
"Having the kind of authority he has and the responsibility he has has a shelf life with elected officials."
Polls have yet to show a dip for Cuomo, who is expected to seek a fourth term in 2022.
A Siena College poll last week said voters approved of the job Cuomo was doing to address the coronavirus pandemic, 61% to 34%.
Yet voters were split on his handling of the vaccine rollout, which had a bumpy rollout, and 55% disapproved of how he didn't initially make public all data about COVID deaths of nursing home patients.
“Voters — especially Democrats — continue to give Cuomo strong marks for his overall handling of the pandemic," Steven Greenburg, the Siena College poll spokesman, said.
But Cuomo's national role as the counter to then-President Donald Trump widely panned handling of the pandemic is clearly over. Headlines are now all about Cuomo's fall from grace since the start of the pandemic.
In particular, last week's front pages in the New York Post blared, "Inexcusable," "Tailspin" and even "Corrupt."
Even the friendly banter of Cuomo's appearances on his younger brother's primetime CNN news show seems over, for now.
CNN said in a statement last week that it broke its policy of not having Andrew Cuomo on Chris Cuomo's "Prime Time" early in the pandemic due to the "significant human interest."
"As a result, we made an exception to a rule that we have had in place since 2013 which prevents Chris from interviewing and covering his brother, and that rule remains in place today," CNN said in a statement, according to The Washington Post.
"CNN has covered the news surrounding Governor Cuomo extensively."
Facing backlash in the Legislature
The Legislature and Cuomo have had a love-hate relationship throughout his tenure, just as any governor and the separate branch of government might. He applauds them when he sees fit and coaxes them to score major victories, then knocks them when plans falter.
He cajoled members of the then Republican-controlled Senate to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011, then landed a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, the Child Victims Act and a host of progressive measures with Democrats now in charge.
But with a growing group of younger, progressive lawmakers in Albany, their disdain for Cuomo's heavy-handed approach has increasingly grown.
So when the nursing-home scandal broke, a bevy of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were ready to pounce — publicly vetting their long-held contempt for Cuomo's ability to dominate state government policy.
".@NYGovCuomo has a terribly toxic leadership style that does NOT lead to good governance," Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, one of Cuomo's chief critics, wrote Sunday on Twitter.
At the least, they are now looking to strip him of those executive COVID powers, which expire in this spring. The Senate is poised to do so, but it is unclear whether the Assembly will as well.
Republicans, meanwhile, are in the minority in the Legislature, but they are pushing their Democratic colleagues to get tough on Cuomo, vowing to hold them accountable when all 213 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot next year.
It had an impact.
Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, expressed dismay on a call with Cuomo aides earlier this month at how the nursing home issue became an albatross for her during her re-election bid last year.
"In a pandemic when you want the public to trust the public health officials and there is clear feeling that they're not being forthcoming with you, that is really hard," May said on the call, according to a transcript released by Cuomo's office.
So lawmakers are weighing both the drastic step of moving forward with impeachment, which seems like it would be difficult to win a majority to do so, or at least hosting hearings on the nursing home scandal.
"What is the truth? Who told what at what point, and what are we going to do about it?" said Kim, who was on the receiving end of Cuomo's ire for his yearlong criticism of the nursing home situation. "Because right now, we’re not doing anything to check this executive office.
"Forget the individuals. That is institutions. We are normalizing forever a system that no longer has a proper check and balance."
Cuomo vows to fight back
The Queens-born governor has prided himself on being a blue-collar bruiser who battles lawmakers, the federal government, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or anyone else who gets in the way of his policy initiatives that he believes are in the best interests of the state.
"I said to the people of the state of New York when I was first elected, I'm here to fight for you. That's my job," Cuomo said Friday.
One of the most succinct and memorable lines from his administration came early on his tenure, displaying their bare-knuckles politics.
In late 2011, then top aide Steven Cohen was reported telling former Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont on a call: "We operate on two speeds here: Get along, and kill."
The phrase has never been forgotten in the halls of the state Capitol.
In recent days, amid the scandal, Cuomo has shown his share of contrition for how his administration handled the reporting of nursing home deaths, saying the full data should have been released sooner but also saying the total number of fatalities was always reported.
"Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest, and the last thing we wanted to do, the last thing that I wanted to do, was to aggravate a terrible situation," Cuomo said Feb. 15.
But he also defended the March 25 order to allow COVID nursing home patients in the hospital to return home, saying it was aimed at limiting hospitals from being overwhelmed and questioning whether it had much impact on the deaths in the homes.
And on Friday he put his critics on notice: He won't let them go unchecked.
Cuomo even flashed a slide that detailed what he viewed as his job description: fight for New Yorkers; fight for the truth; and "take on lies."
"We should have provided more public information sooner. Yes. No excuse. We should have been more aggressive in fighting the misinformation," he said.
Then he vowed: "Most people would not say that one of my errors is lack of aggressiveness, but in truth I was not aggressive enough in fighting back against these crazy political theories and these crazy political opponents."
Cuomo said that will change going forward.
Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's tenure hit by nursing home deaths. What's next?