The mounting scandals engulfing Governor Andrew Cuomo are deepening business leaders’ anxiety about New York’s political climate at a time when the city and the state are facing a generational challenge to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo, a Democrat and avowed centrist serving his third term, has been popular among business leaders both as a prolific builder of big infrastructure projects and a bulwark against the party’s rising progressive wing, frustrating their efforts to increase social spending and raise taxes on the wealthy.
“The business community has relied on Cuomo’s essential pragmatism over the years,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a group of business and civic leaders. “They relied on the governor to stop crazy things from happening.”
But Cuomo’s standing is fast diminishing. After earning national acclaim last year for his leadership at the height of the pandemic, his administration is now facing scorn for its decision to order elderly patients treated for Covid back into nursing homes. At the time, Cuomo was desperate to free up space in hospitals to handle a surging caseload.
The administration worsened the problem by undercounting the number of nursing home deaths by as much as 50 per cent, according to a report by the state attorney-general, and then stonewalling state legislators requesting information.
Meanwhile, two former aides have in recent days publicly accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. The first, Lindsey Boylan, last week published an essay online in which she claimed the governor had kissed her on the lips and invited her to play strip poker. The governor denied this.
Boylan’s claims were buttressed on Saturday evening when the New York Times published accusations by a second woman, Charlotte Bennett, 25, claiming the governor had inquired about her love life and asked if she had sex with older men.
Cuomo said in a statement on Sunday: “I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
Cuomo said he would consent to an investigation by an outside attorney appointed by the state attorney-general.
“To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but these are allegations that New Yorkers deserve answers to,” he added.
A governor who was once seen as a shoo-in for a fourth term is now facing political peril. “He’s got real trouble,” one civic leader said, wondering whether Cuomo would even manage to finish his term.
In a sign of both the severity of the situation and the governor’s national profile, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki addressed the matter on Sunday, telling CNN: “There should be an independent review looking into these allegations, and that’s certainly something he supports, and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible.”
While New York Republicans have, predictably, pounced at a domineering governor’s vulnerability, some of Cuomo’s most venomous critics have been members of his own party.
In addition to considerable personal animosities and rivalries, many have also butted heads with Cuomo in recent years over what they complained were overly austere budgets and other policy disagreements.
Number of jobs that Amazon had planned to bring to New York
“One of the reasons Cuomo’s being attacked by the Left is because he’s staunchly opposed to the millionaires’ tax,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York political strategist.
The growing strength of the party’s progressives wing was apparent two years ago when — to Cuomo’s fury — they thwarted Amazon’s plans to build a second headquarters in Queens that would have brought 25,000 high-paying jobs. Opponents, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, claimed it would worsen gentrification and overwhelm the neighbourhood.
Democrats now control both houses of the state legislature, giving them power to override the governor’s veto. Many are determined to raise income taxes and impose a pied a terre tax — moves that the business establishment fears would prompt more companies and wealthy residents to join an exodus to Florida and other low-tax states at a time when the city is already reeling.
“Our main concern is the recovery of the city and the fact that we’ve got to try to get people back to the office, and resurrect the half million jobs that have been lost,” said Wylde. “And the legislature, thanks to the work of the activists on the far-left, is focused exclusively on taxes which addresses, they think, some of their fiscal issues but really is counterproductive to economic recovery.”
She added: “There’s a sense of political instability, which business abhors.”
Even before Cuomo’s trouble the business community was on edge watching a New York City mayoral race that promises to be the most consequential in a generation. The city has lost more than 500,000 jobs during the pandemic and is facing a $4bn fiscal deficit for the coming fiscal year.
The current mayor, Bill de Blasio, a progressive who wove “a tale of two New Yorks” when he was first elected, is reviled by the business class as an ideologue with weak management skills. In private conversations, several have said the city cannot afford another mayor in the mould of De Blasio, whose second term ends this year.
“What I really want is someone who’s less focused on ideology and more focused on solving the problems we have in a practical way. Someone who is not divisive,” one top New York developer said.
The candidates most attuned to business — Ray McGuire, a former Citibank executive, and Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing official close to Michael Bloomberg — are regarded as long shots.
Meanwhile, recent polls have shown strong support for Andrew Yang, who made his name last year with an outsider bid for the White House. That has unsettled some business leaders, who want an accomplished manager and view Yang as an unproven commodity.
In the meantime, though, business leaders appear to be focused on the fate of Cuomo and the considerable vacuum he would leave behind if forced from office.