Cuomo's troubles put New York AG Tish James in the spotlight

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A woman who was once seen as an ally of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become one of the main threats to his hold on power.

Letitia “Tish” James, the state’s attorney general, is currently leading an investigation into multiple sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo. The probe comes on the heels of a blockbuster report released by her office in January that accused Cuomo’s administration of undercounting the number of people who died in nursing homes after he ordered residences for senior citizens to take in COVID-19 patients during the early days of the pandemic.

Letitia James

Those two investigations have led New York politicos to wonder whether Cuomo — a man who previously had a firm grip on his office — could be on his way out. And many across the state’s political spectrum say James is one of the most credible candidates who could replace him.

“I believe that our attorney general is doing a magnificent job,” Democratic state Sen. Gustavo Rivera said of James in an interview. “And I would love to see the first Black woman be the governor of this state.”

Since last month, three different women — including two former aides — have accused Cuomo of making inappropriate comments to them. On Monday night the third of those women, who did not work for the governor, came forward and accused him of giving her an unwanted kiss at a wedding in 2019. In a press conference on Wednesday, Cuomo said he had not set out to make anyone uncomfortable.

“It doesn’t matter my intent. What it matters is if anybody was offended by it,” he said. “I could intend no offense, but if they were offended by it, then it was wrong, and if they were offended by it, I apologize.”

It’s hard to overstate how dramatic the shift has been in New York’s political landscape. Cuomo, whose father was a three-term governor of the state, has been in office for 10 years. Before that, he was the state’s attorney general and the housing and urban development secretary under President Bill Clinton. He is not term-limited and, as this year began, had rock-solid approval numbers that remained strong even after the nursing homes report.

In the early days of the pandemic Cuomo enjoyed national recognition, with viewers around the country tuning in to his coronavirus press briefings and many observers praising his handling of the crisis. He was even awarded an Emmy for the broadcasts and secured a book deal chronicling his “leadership lessons” from the experience. As a candidate last year, Joe Biden called Cuomo the “gold standard” for how to handle the coronavirus, but in the wake of the allegations the White House has declined to stand by that praise and instead expressed support for James’s investigation.

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Seth Wenig/AFP via Getty Images) (Seth Wenig/AFP via Getty Images)

And, perhaps most important, new polling released on Tuesday showed a majority of New Yorkers want to vote Cuomo out in next year’s election.

This has also been a stunning turnaround for James, a former city councilwoman from Brooklyn who became attorney general in 2018. During that campaign, a progressive rival framed her as overly close to Cuomo. However, those who know James suggest her independent streak has always been evident.

As a councilwoman, she clashed with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg over development projects and a payroll system he advocated for that was plagued by fraud. James became the city’s public advocate in 2013, and in that position she sued multiple city agencies. Since becoming attorney general, she has filed landmark lawsuits against the National Rifle Association, the New York City Police Department and Facebook. She is also leading an investigation into former President Donald Trump’s business dealings, which her office confirmed is ongoing.

A source in the state capital, Albany, who is familiar with James’s thinking said that “taking on the biggest forces might just be her organizing political philosophy.”

“She’s had a good working relationship with Andrew but hasn’t been afraid to buck him when it’s the right thing to do,” said the source. “Anyone surprised that she stood up to the governor wasn’t paying attention when she stared down Trump, the NRA and Facebook. Tish doesn’t scare easy.”

Cuomo initially tried to have judges he had close ties to lead the harassment probe. James pushed back on those requests and is mounting a fully independent investigation.

Concerns that James may have been too closely allied with Cuomo grew out of long-simmering tensions between the Democratic governor and New York’s progressives. Prior to the sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo, who once declared, “I am the government,” faced accusations that his office bullied rivals.

Rivera, an outspoken Cuomo critic, accused the governor of having a “toxic style of leadership” and said the alleged inappropriate behavior with women is part of “a larger pattern of what happens when you have somebody who uses and abuses power.”

“I have been threatened by some of his people a couple of times, but I have heard of many, many, many, many, many stories of the way that they do things,” Rivera said of Cuomo’s team. “They lie, cajole, threaten, bully, and that's just the way they do things. And ultimately, as long as the governor looks good and gets his way, everything's good with the world.”

Alessandra Biaggi
New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi. (Hans Pennink/AP) (Hans Pennink/AP Photo)

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, another Democrat who has been one of Cuomo’s most outspoken critics, concurred with Rivera’s assessment. Biaggi worked as a Cuomo administration staffer in 2017 and described it as a “dark time” that, in part, inspired her to run for office the following year.

“His office is an office where the culture is a culture of fear,” Biaggi said. “People don’t speak up, and if they do they’re yelled at. If they make mistakes, they’re berated, they’re belittled. They’re made to feel like, you know, they’re not worthy of that job.”

Biaggi said she witnessed aggressive behavior from “a very small inner circle that surrounds the governor” and ultimately laid blame at Cuomo’s feet.

“That small inner circle of people reinforce the culture of fear and berating and belittling that comes from the governor,” Biaggi said. “It might not always come from the governor himself, but the people that are around him absolutely reinforce that.”

In the aftermath of the harassment allegations, other former Cuomo staffers have come forward and alleged that they saw abusive and inappropriate behavior in his office. A spokesperson for Cuomo did not respond to questions about whether the governor had bullied staffers or political rivals.

Some of Cuomo’s aggressive political maneuvering has played out in public.

Biaggi is one of many progressives in the state Legislature who believe Cuomo encouraged a group of lawmakers, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who ran as Democrats but caucused with Republicans from 2011 until 2018. That faction prevented a Democratic majority that would have been more able to push the governor left on matters of policy. Biaggi noted that this setup thwarted multiple pieces of major progressive legislation.

“He's part of the reason why the state of New York did not have a Democratic Legislature for at least eight years, because he empowered this group of rogue Trump Democrats to essentially take away the majority,” she said.

Cuomo has maintained he had nothing to do with the IDC, despite reports that he was heavily involved in the group’s formation.

Another instance of alleged political retaliation from Cuomo involved James and the 2018 campaign. That year, the progressive Working Families Party (WFP) endorsed Cuomo’s rival in the Democratic primary. The governor pressed unions to withdraw their support for the WFP. He offered James his backing in the attorney general’s race — but only if she was willing to publicly refuse the party’s endorsement. James rejected the WFP, which had been a key ally in her earlier career, and won the race with Cuomo’s support.

Gustavo Rivera
New York state Sen. Gustavo Rivera. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images) (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Now, with James taking on her onetime backer, politicos from across the spectrum in New York see her as one of his most likely potential successors. At his press conference on Wednesday, Cuomo indicated he has no intention to resign. That leaves his opponents looking toward the possibility of an impeachment — which Biaggi said is “being brought up more and more” in Albany — or a primary challenge.

With Cuomo embroiled in controversy, multiple Republicans have indicated they plan to run against him next year. As Democrats seek a standard bearer, many are looking at James.

Biaggi, who endorsed James’s rival in 2018, praised the attorney general as an “amazing leader.”

Joe Borelli, a Republican New York City councilman from Staten Island, said Cuomo’s scandals and falling numbers mean the Democrats are guaranteed to lose if they stick with the governor. While New York is a staunchly blue state in presidential races, it includes rural communities and suburbs that have backed conservatives — including GOP governors, although no Republican has won election to a major statewide office since 2002.

“If Andrew Cuomo is on the ballot, a Republican wins,” Borelli said. “A guy with the behavior of ‘Wedding Crashers’ without the looks and charms of Vince Vaughn isn’t going to win in the suburbs anymore.”

Borelli argued that James is one of the only Democrats with enough name recognition and credibility among both progressives and moderates to win the governor’s race — or defeat Cuomo in a potential primary.

“She has the only viable path in a Dem primary," Borelli said of James. "Cuomo is about as popular as a pop-up ad on a porn site, but you can’t beat someone with no one."

A spokesperson for James declined to comment when asked if she has interest in running for governor.

While support for James is clearly growing, not everyone is onboard. A source familiar with the deliberations said some progressives are still angry with James over her decision to spurn the WFP in 2018. The source said some progressives are hoping Jumaane Williams — who succeeded James as New York City’s public advocate — will run for governor next year. Williams, who ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Cuomo’s progressive opponent in 2018, indicated he might be open to the idea.

“I haven’t thought about it enough to say yea or nay at this moment in time,” he said of a gubernatorial bid.

And even as he may be in the mix, Williams offered praise for James.

“I mean, you know, the work that she has done on Trump — not just for New York but for the nation — and the work that she's doing on the nursing homes and with the governor now is the type of AG people wanted to see,” he said.

Jumaane Williams
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Ultimately, the question of whether Cuomo steps aside, is forced out or faces a primary challenge may be answered by what is revealed in the course of James’s investigation. Rumors are flying around Albany that there are more stories of bad behavior by the governor. Both Biaggi and Rivera claimed they know other women who say Cuomo was inappropriate with them.

Rivera said he’s “heard versions of these stories from other people who have shared them with me in confidence.”

“These are stories that are not for me to share. So I will not say anything except to say that these are trusted people ... who have shared with me privately interactions which have made them feel uncomfortable,” Rivera explained, adding, “The [allegations] have never been the likes of, you know, of Harvey Weinstein or what have you. We’re not talking about that level, but we are talking about somebody who obviously understands that he wields his power in that type of interaction.”

Rivera said he knows of women who had “been made to feel uncomfortable and belittled in situations in which he has interacted with them.”

“And he’s just gone on like nothing’s wrong. So for me, this is part of a pathology,” said Rivera.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to questions about whether there might be other allegations against him. During his press conference on Wednesday, the governor was asked about the possibility of other accusers who “will lodge similar complaints.” He did not directly answer the question but said that “the facts will come out in the attorney general’s review” and reiterated that he had not intended to make anyone uncomfortable.

“I do not believe I have ever done anything in my public career that I am ashamed of. I didn’t know I was making her uncomfortable at the time,” said Cuomo. “My usual custom is to kiss, and to hug, and make that gesture. I understand that sensitivities have changed, and behavior has changed, and I get it. And I am going to learn from it.”

Biaggi, who called the climate in Cuomo’s office fostered by his team “frightening,” said she had only two or three direct interactions with the governor while she worked there. While none of those were inappropriate, she said co-workers witnessed troubling conduct by Cuomo.

Demonstrators outside Cuomo's office call for his resignation. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters) (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

“Some of his behaviors are just bizarre … like commenting on the way that people look or their weight,” Biaggi said. “These are stories that my friends who worked there at the same time as me had shared with me, things like that, that are just like inappropriate.”

Biaggi added that, given the fact that multiple women have accused Cuomo of making unwanted advances, she suspects others have had similar experiences.

“Usually when there’s one or two or three, there’s more,” she said. “His behavior of just being toxic, and also abusive to people and threatening people, has gone on for decades. I can’t imagine that there are not more people.”


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