ALBANY, N.Y. – Gov. Andrew Cuomo, facing growing calls for him to resign, made it clear Wednesday: He won't be forced out by his political opponents.
"I’m not going to resign. I work for the people of the state of New York," he said. "They elected me, and I’m going to serve the people of the state of New York."
With twin scandals of allegations of sexual harassment by two former aides and accusations that his administration underrepresented nursing home deaths from COVID-19, Cuomo is under extraordinary pressure from a bipartisan group of lawmakers and political groups to step down. And if he doesn't, some lawmakers want to impeach him.
But so far legislative leaders have said they would let an investigation by Attorney General Letitia James proceed but weigh their options if more accusers come forward.
And Cuomo, who prides himself on being a New York political brawler, appears set to dig in and fight for his political life, suggesting he is not going step away in the middle of his third term, which runs through 2022.
"Most people under similar attack would fold, but if there is anybody who can survive (it's Cuomo), even if more is going to come because you pretty much bet that more people are coming – this is open season on a guy that people don’t like," said Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked with and known Cuomo for decades.
Cuomo has privately surrounded himself with a cadre of close advisers, including secretary Melissa DeRosa and counsel Beth Garvey, and brought in some longtime confidants, such as former top aide Steven Cohen, to advise him.
The general consensus, according to interviews with a dozen former and current aides: Apologize, stick it out and await James' investigation. That buys him time and hope that the heat will cool off so he can focus on the state budget and New York's COVID-19 response.
"We have full plate: We have COVID, we have recovery, we have rebuilding, we have a teetering New York City," Cuomo said Wednesday.
"We have a terrible financial picture. We have to do vaccines. So no, I’m going to do the job the people of the state elected me to do."
Meanwhile, he is fending off possible defections in his administration as at least seven younger aides – contemporaries of one of Cuomo's accusers, Charlotte Bennett – have threatened to resign or have requested a transfer to another state agency.
One top aide, Gareth Rhodes, announced Wednesday that he was leaving Cuomo's COVID-19 response team and returning to his role at the state Department of Financial Services. Rhodes, who said he made his decision last week, has been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party after running for Congress in the Hudson Valley in 2018 and becoming a Cuomo aide in 2011.
Political pressure builds on Cuomo
Cuomo is facing calls for his resignation that have been growing each day, both within his own party and among influential groups.
The Working Families Party, which has long sparred with Cuomo, said he should resign, as have progressive Democrats, most Republicans and a small group of moderate Democrats in swing districts in the suburbs.
Part of the political calculus for some moderate Democrats: If they are not tough on Cuomo, they could face primaries from the left in next year's elections.
In a statement Wednesday, Democratic state Sen. James Skoufis said he "cannot in good conscience wait for a months-long inquiry by the Attorney General to run its course."
"I have seen sufficient evidence to conclude that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the Governor's behavior represents a pattern of abuse that deems him unfit for office. Governor Cuomo must resign," Skoufis said.
Another problem for Cuomo: He has little goodwill in the Legislature.
Cuomo has long been accused of bullying lawmakers, steamrolling their priorities and using all the levers of governments – which he has mastered through his decades in public life – to impose his will on the co-equal branch of government.
So with Cuomo on the ropes, lawmakers are looking to reassert their power.
"The Governor has repeatedly broken the public’s trust, he has demonstrated toxic leadership qualities, and he is irreparably compromised in his dealings with his co-equal partners in the Legislature," state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, a Democrat, said Sunday.
"For these reasons, I believe Governor Cuomo must resign."
“If the investigation shows that something inappropriate did happen, I think he would have to resign," says New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins when pressed on the sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo pic.twitter.com/b6iajRsWv0
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) March 3, 2021
Other political foes have wasted little time bashing Cuomo – both for revelations in January that his administration undercounted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by nearly 50% and now the sexual harassment allegations.
"If you cover that up, or if you did things for reasons that had to do with politics or contributions, and if you've sexually harassed young women in your employment, these are disqualifying realities," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat who has had bitter battles with Cuomo.
"How could anyone look the people in the face after that? If these allegations, if these charges are proven, there's just no way he can govern."
What will Cuomo and legislative leaders do?
Cuomo has built a career on being a tough-talking, self-proclaimed "Queens Boy" whose aggressive governing approach has left him few friends in Albany.
Even before the scandals, his aides have described a walk-on-eggshells atmosphere within his office and a governor prone to outbursts, with many directed at his "advance" staff that set up events and craft talking points for him around the state.
Critics say the sexual harassment allegations, which include accusations that he kissed a former aide and asked inappropriate questions of another, are part of Cuomo's sense of entitlement.
Debra Katz, a lawyer representing Bennett, said Cuomo's contention that he never inappropriately touched anyone flies in the face of a third woman, Anna Ruch, who says he touched her uncomfortably at a wedding in 2019.
Ruch shared three photos of Cuomo cupping her face in her hands on Instagram this week, not long before The New York Times reported on their encounter. She told The Times the governor loudly asked to kiss her after she forcibly removed his hand from her bare lower back.
Cuomo also stressed that he never knew his comments or actions made anyone uncomfortable, saying his way of greeting people is to hug them or give them a kiss.
But Bennett was transferred after she reported a distressing exchange with him last year to his chief of staff and counsel. Bennett says Cuomo asked inappropriate questions about her personal relationships and whether she would date an older man.
“The Governor’s press conference was full of falsehoods and inaccurate information, and New Yorkers deserve better," Katz said in a statement.
With all the furor, though, legislative leaders have suggested they will let James' investigation play out.
Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins recognized Cuomo's apology Wednesday, saying he acknowledged his mistakes.
"The apology is important," she said Wednesday on CNN.
"I think people need to hear that he knows that what happened made people feel uncomfortable. That’s important. But it’s really not so much about the apology as about the fact that there is just no place for some of the things he is apologizing for."
She warned that she could revisit her position if other misconduct about Cuomo is revealed, and she said she would support his resignation depending on the result of James' report, which will take weeks if not months.
But for now, "I think we are waiting for the investigation. I think that is certainly appropriate, and obviously things happen fast and as more information is available, then we will see what happens after that comes to us," Stewart-Cousins said.
As for Cuomo, those who know him expect he's girding to fight it out.
Cuomo is the toughest governor in the "toughest state in the country when it comes to politics," Sheinkopf said.
So "if anybody thinks that Andrew Cuomo is going to disappear and somehow going to hide under a rock is dead wrong."
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
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Can Gov. Andrew Cuomo survive politically? Here are his challenges