ALBANY – Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, one of the most powerful Democrats in New York, on Sunday called on embattled Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to resign, a move that could prod other leaders of the party to urge Cuomo to leave office in the wake of dueling sexual harassment and Covid-19 nursing home scandals.
Minutes later, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said he shared Stewart-Cousins' sentiments about whether Cuomo can continue to be governor. He did not specifically call for Cuomo to leave, but that he should "seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York."
A number of Cuomo critics in the Legislature, including socialists and other liberal members of the party, have for more than a week been demanding that he leave office. But the move Sunday by Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat who negotiates with Cuomo on major fiscal and policy matters affecting New Yorkers, amounts to the sharpest body blow to the Democratic governor since the scandals began.
“Everyday, there is another account that is drawing away from the business of government. We have allegations about sexual harassment, a toxic work environment, the loss of credibility surrounding the Covid-19 nursing home data and questions about the construction of a major infrastructure project," Stewart-Cousins said Sunday shortly after 3 p.m., just 90 minutes after Cuomo declared his intentions to remain in office.
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“New York is still in the midst of this pandemic and is still facing the societal, health and economic impacts of it. We need to govern without daily distraction. For the good of the state Governor Cuomo must resign," the Senate Democratic leader said in a sharp break with the head of her party.
The abandonment of Cuomo by such an influential Democrat, and the impact it might have on drawing other party leaders to her side, creates a remarkable moment in Democratic Party history in New York. Her influence could also draw many moderate Democrats, including those from the Buffalo area, who have sought to give time to Cuomo while investigations of the matters are done.
By nightfall, a growing number of other Democrats in the Legislature joined with Stewart-Cousins, including Buffalo Assemblyman Pat Burke, who turned to Twitter to write that Cuomo "could no longer be entrusted to lead our state and he must resign."
Stewart-Cousins last week said she would call for Cuomo’s departure if one more accuser – there were previously three women, including two former staffers – came forward with sexual harassment claims against the governor. On Saturday and Sunday, two more women surfaced in separate articles by The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. The articles gave little room for Stewart-Cousins to do anything other than call for Cuomo to end his time in Albany.
“There is no way I resign," a defiant Cuomo said Sunday afternoon during a telephone conference call with reporters.
Cuomo blasted rank-and-file state lawmakers who have been calling for his resignation, suggesting the state ethics agency or district attorneys make public allegations of wrongdoing leveled against lawmakers. He offered no specifics of what he was talking about, adding that when he was state attorney general he often received allegations against lawmakers and that such claims were kept private while they were examined.
Cuomo said he must be afforded “due process” while Attorney General Letitia James completes an outside investigation into the mounting number of sexual harassment claims made against the three-term governor.
But all that came before The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that a former Cuomo aide, Lisa Liss, said Cuomo kissed her hand once, touched her on her lower back, asked about her love life and called her sweetheart. Cuomo and his aides have described those encounters as innocent encounters involving a governor who, he has said, likes to banter with his staff.
Another former Cuomo advisor, Karen Hinton, told The Washington Post that Cuomo, when she worked for him when he was federal housing secretary during the Clinton administration, engaged in a “very long, too long, too intimate” embrace of her during a trip to Los Angeles in 2000.
Cuomo on Sunday denied any such encounter, saying Hinton has been a longtime “adversary” of his. In fact, Hinton was a longtime Cuomo aide before several years ago joining the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been a political enemy of Cuomo’s for years.
Previously, two former aides – first Lindsey Boylan and then Charlotte Bennett – accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. Bennett, 25, was featured three times during national CBS News broadcasts giving her first tv interview on the matter. The 63-year-old Cuomo has not denied the allegations by Bennett, but said he never knew at the time he was making her feel uncomfortable – by talking about her sexual assault history, whether she could date older men and other intimate details – and that he apologized to her.
Cuomo was especially dismissive Sunday regarding calls for him to resign, suggesting that they come from people who politically oppose him. But Stewart-Cousins does not fit into that category. She has walked a fine line between some members of her Senate Democratic conference, who have wanted him to resign or face impeachment, and her role as legislative leader who must negotiate with Cuomo on key issues of the day in Albany.
“That’s nice," Cuomo said of the resignation demands by some lawmakers. “I’m going to do my job.”
He said there is much work to be done over the coming six months, including negotiating a new state budget – due by March 31 – with Stewart-Cousins and Heastie, the Assembly's top leader, as well as overseeing Covid-19 vaccine and economic rebuilding efforts.
“I’m not going to be distracted,” the governor said.
The sexual harassment allegations have been coupled with a worsening controversy over how Cuomo and his top aides handled the Covid-19 pandemic in the state’s nursing homes. Cuomo has already been accused by James of undercounting the number of deaths in those facilities, which now top more than 15,000 people – a third of all Covid-19 fatalities in the state.
Stewart-Cousins had joined with other top leaders of the party, saying the sexual harassment investigation by James, the attorney general, should run its course. But the Senate leader last week said in an interview that she would call for Cuomo to leave office if another person came forward with related allegations.
Democrats and some outside the party have been urging other senior Democrats, including Heastie and U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibarnd, to demand Cuomo’s ouster.
Heastie said that media accounts of the sexual harassment scandals involving Cuomo are "deeply disturbing and have no place whatsoever in government, the workplace or anywhere else."
A Cuomo spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on comments by Heastie and Stewart-Cousins.