Andrew Cuomo is agitating for a return to mainstream politics seven months after the three-term New York governor was put into political exile by a wave of sexual harassment allegations that forced his resignation.
The first signs that he was leaving his metaphorical Elba appeared late last month with the release of a campaign-style advertisement in which an unrepentant Cuomo reminded voters that he was never prosecuted for the alleged abuse. He accused Letitia James, the state’s attorney-general, of orchestrating a political hit job.
There have since been speeches blaming “cancel culture” for his downfall, and a profile-raising report in the tabloids about a dinner with Eric Adams, New York City’s celebrated new mayor.
Now speculation is reaching fever pitch after Cuomo’s team issued an email to supporters this past week highlighting two opinion polls that showed him trailing Kathy Hochul, his replacement, by mere single digits in a presumptive Democratic primary for governor. Cuomo, his staff tantalisingly wrote, “is considering all of his options for the future. Stay tuned.”
That future may be clearer this Thursday, by which time gubernatorial candidates must file petitions to enter the Democratic primary. Cuomo is not believed to have begun collecting the requisite voter signatures but several people who have been in contact with his advisers say they have been studying the electoral landscape and talk of a campaign is bubbling.
“I don’t know if he’s decided whether or not to run, but if he runs he’s going to run to win,” said Stu Loeser, a New York political strategist. “The goal is reinauguration — not rehabilitation.”
Cuomo’s team did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if he skips the Democratic primary, Cuomo could still try to reclaim the governor’s mansion as an independent. That registration deadline falls in late May. Declaring near the Easter holiday, Loeser noted, might make for apt campaign symbolism. “What better time to announce the resurrection of somebody who’s been wrongly convicted?” he asked, adding: “If that’s what you think happened.”
The prospect of a Cuomo return is stirring unease bordering on panic — and in some cases, nausea — among a political class that thought it had seen the last of a bullying and domineering governor.
The business establishment that once bankrolled him also appears to have moved on. They have helped Hochul, a former Democratic Congresswoman and lieutenant-governor from Buffalo, raise more than $21mn for her campaign. She, in turn, has championed some of their favoured causes, including public safety and the extension of a controversial tax incentive for real estate developers.
“I don’t know anyone in the business community who wants Andrew back. At all,” one political adviser said. “He sort of flamed out.”
Another agreed, saying: “I don’t think anyone is clamouring for Andrew Cuomo right now, provided [Hochul] gets the job done in Albany.”
That remains to be seen. Hochul missed a Friday morning deadline to pass her first budget amid disagreements about her plan to tighten recent reforms to cash bail laws that police have blamed for rising crime. She is yet to demonstrate her predecessor’s famous ability to bring to heel an unwieldy legislature.
Cuomo had $16m in funds as of January, before the ad blitz, and still boasts name recognition and star power. Black voters, in particular, have remained a rock of support — as they were when the then-governor was embroiled in scandal and practically took refuge in Harlem’s Baptist churches.
Still, some New York political observers cannot accept the notion that Cuomo will actually run, suspecting that he is merely chasing relevance. Others counter that a man consumed by politics, and with few other passions, may have no choice but to run — whatever the consequences. “He clearly doesn’t want to do anything else,” a person who knows him observed. Then there are those who speculate that he may challenge James for attorney-general.
Previous disgraced New York politicians, including Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, have tried and failed to mount comebacks. Weiner sank deeper into ignominy during a 2013 mayoral campaign in which fresh evidence of his sexting emerged; Spitzer, seeking to recover from a prostitution scandal, turned in a more respectable performance that same year in a losing bid for comptroller.
Cuomo’s tearful resignation came after James released a 168-page report in August concluding that he had violated state and federal laws by abusing 11 women, many of who had worked for him. The findings were documented in excruciating detail. They ranged from flirtatious and suggestive comments to Cuomo reaching up an aide’s blouse and cupping her breast.
Cuomo has insisted that he never touched anyone inappropriately and, as he has emphasised in his new advertisements, prosecutors declined to press charges. Of his caustic personality, he remarked: “You didn’t elect me to play nice in the sandbox!”
But he carries other baggage. His administration was found to have undercounted the number of nursing home residents who died from Covid. This, after he had signed a controversial order requiring care homes to admit patients even if they had tested positive for the virus.
That revelation undercut the reputation as a tough-but-effective crisis manager Cuomo developed during the pandemic with his highly relatable daily briefings. His celebrity grew to such heights in those days that there was fleeting talk of a White House bid.
The House of Cuomo, built by Mario, a legendary three-term New York governor, has since suffered other reversals. Cuomo’s younger brother, Chris was fired in December from his job as CNN’s top anchor after the network concluded that he had lied about the degree to which he helped his brother try to manage his scandals. He denies this and is suing CNN.
Such episodes would almost certainly be rehashed during a campaign. Meanwhile, several observers worried that aggressively challenging Hochul, the state’s first female governor, could turn ugly.
“He has shown no acknowledgment that he did anything wrong,” a former aide said, mystified. “All he does is attack, attack, attack.”