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Robert J. McCarthy: Cuomo nursing home response posing gravest crisis of long career

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Governor Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. 

For all his triumphs through almost four decades at the highest levels of New York government and politics, Andrew M. Cuomo may have reached his zenith last spring.

That's when in the midst of Covid-19's widespread sickness and death, even the three-term governor's fiercest critics lauded his ability to communicate with the citizens of his state.

He bantered regularly on CNN with his "Prime Time" host brother, Chris. He authored a best-selling book on leadership stemming from his pandemic experiences. An international Emmy followed. And so did the inevitable talk of running for president.

But now Cuomo finds himself mired in the gravest crisis of his career, lower than his bungled initial run for governor in 2002. Even fellow Democrats assail the admission that his administration withheld crucial information regarding nursing home deaths stemming from the coronavirus – a key point of contention throughout the pandemic.

And it's worth asking whether his self-inflicted political wounds are fatal, especially after Cuomo acknowledged mistakes – while offering no apology.

"The Governor’s actions represent one of the greatest betrayals of public trust during this pandemic," Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-Orchard Park, said Thursday. "He must be held accountable."

That Cuomo finds himself on the receiving end of harsh criticism from Republicans is no surprise. But the intensity of the barrage against Cuomo in recent days has led even Democrats to seek the end of the governor's Covid-19 emergency powers, while empowering Republicans and Democrats who traditionally feared his wrath.

It all intensified when the Albany Times-Union reported this week that federal authorities are probing the administration's order forcing nursing homes to accept Covid-19 patients discharged from hospitals.

Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, first exposed that nursing home deaths had not been fully reported by the administration last month. Another Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, has endorsed moves to return the emergency powers granted to the governor last spring back to lawmakers.

But even as the governor and his staff attempt to tamp down the controversy, Cuomo is not helping himself. He made headlines this week when a Democratic assemblyman from Queens, Ron Kim, said Cuomo threatened him over the nursing home situation last week (which his staff denies).

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat and never an ally of the governor, piled on during an MSNBC interview Thursday morning.

"That's classic Andrew Cuomo," the mayor said of his encounter with Kim. "A lot of people in New York State have received those phone calls. The bullying is nothing new."

Nick Langworthy, chairman of the state Republican Party, even suggested Thursday that political donations might be fueling all of the governor's actions.

"Subpoenas need to fly," he said in an interview. "We need to find out what is the nugget at the middle of all this.

"There has to be a reason," he added. "If you follow the money, you might get an answer."

Langworthy's Democratic counterpart, Jay S. Jacobs, acknowledges questions of transparency, but says the situation has been "blown out of proportion."

"I cannot imagine a more horrible comment from a political person than that," he said of Langworthy's suggestion. "That's how low politics has gotten."

All kinds of people and institutions made mistakes during the pandemic's early days, Jacobs said, including the Trump administration.

"All these people second guessing him do a disservice to the state," the chairman said. "Ultimately, I think the governor will come out fine. When you look at the governor in his totality, the bottom line is there was no leadership nationally and his leadership got us through this storm."

And his dustup with Kim? The one some call an example of gubernatorial bullying?

"The governor has had contentious relationships with senators and some assemblymen. It's a natural tension that's to be expected," the chairman said. "Sometimes we Democrats are a lot quicker to condemn our own when they're vulnerable – much quicker than Republicans."

Indeed, a new Siena College poll issued this week finds 67% of New York voters approve of Cuomo's communications during the crisis, though only 39% approved of how he handled the nursing home data.

Former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, never a member of Cuomo's inner circle, said the governor could have done a better job in relaying the nursing home numbers. But the data from hospitals and nursing homes together still report the same number of deaths, he said.

And some recent developments add to the negative perceptions because "he plays hard."

"It was a misstep," Lenihan said. "The bottom line is that it was a reporting error."

Still, the Assembly's Republican Conference Thursday proposed forming an "impeachment commission" to gather facts and evidence "surrounding Cuomo’s handling and subsequent cover-up." The relatively tiny GOP minority will have little influence in the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly, but the move shows how serious the governor's nursing home actions are now viewed in some political quarters.

“It is incumbent upon the Legislature to undertake a comprehensive, bipartisan review of the Cuomo Administration’s policies, decisions and actions on this matter and render a decision on what steps must be taken to hold the governor accountable,” said Minority Leader Will Barclay.

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