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Under siege, Cuomo retreats to closed events

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a groundbreaking at

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a groundbreaking at the Bay Park Water Reclamation Facility on Thursday. Credit: Pool / EPA / Shutterstock / Spencer Platt

Facing allegations of sexual harassment and calls to resign, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is trying to stay visible by holding pep-rally style events, surrounded by supporters and closed off to the public and the news media.

On Thursday, Cuomo ceremonially broke ground on a new sewage project in East Rockaway, though the public and reporters weren't allowed in.

In recent weeks, he’s also staged vaccination announcements at the cavernous Javits Center in Manhattan and a large gym in Yonkers, as well as an outdoor event at a Hudson Valley orchard and indoor event at a large Buffalo workforce training center.

Even at such airy venues, the public couldn't attend because of COVID-19 safety protocols, the administration has said.

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, hasn’t done an in-person briefing for the news media since December. That was before state Attorney General Letitia James, the state Assembly and the FBI began investigating allegations of sexual harassment by Cuomo, his administration’s handling of nursing homes and his possible use of state resources and personnel to produce his latest book. The governor has denied any wrongdoing or impropriety.

Political analysts this week called it part of a strategy designed to deflect from the probes and show he still can do his job effectively and control the flow of daily questions.

"The strategy obviously is to control the narrative," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. "He goes out, he gets media attention and he gives the impression he has widespread support."

Muzzio called it a "strategy of exposure: Maximum exposure with minimum exposure." In that way, Cuomo gets visible exposure, but limited interactions with questions from reporters or critics that could distract from his intended theme of the day.

"He’s very public in his appearances," Muzzio said. "But they are very scripted, very choreographed."

However, "What are his alternatives? Lock himself away in the Executive Mansion?" Muzzio asked.

The governor defended the closed-to-the-public events.

"When will reporters be back in the room?" Cuomo said last week. "That is purely a function of the COVID safety requirements."

Polls show the governor’s approval ratings at all-time lows, although he still has strong support among African Americans.

Most voters surveyed indicate Cuomo shouldn’t run for a fourth term. But more people than not say he shouldn’t resign now. In the latest Siena College poll, 51% of respondents said he shouldn’t step down, while 37% said he should.

At the Thursday groundbreaking in East Rockaway, Cuomo was joined by several officials, including State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who championed the project but who also is among dozens of state lawmakers who have called for Cuomo to resign.

A Kaminsky aide told reporters the senator had fought for the project and was there as a proponent, although his position on Cuomo hasn’t changed.

In Erie County, Cuomo appeared with Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who praised Cuomo.

"I trust Governor Cuomo’s leadership," Brown said.

Some Democrats, such as Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Queens), an outspoken Cuomo critic, have said lawmakers shouldn’t make such appearances with the governor.

Cuomo hasn’t allowed media to attend any of the events, citing pandemic protocols. Typically, when he takes questions, it’s through online applications such as Zoom or telephone conference calls.

He said the remote platforms, which require meeting participants to register, allow journalists from around the state to participate.

"So this is actually an effective medium," Cuomo said. "But when we get back to normal with COVID, then we’ll get back to normal with press conferences."

Questions at such sessions typically are limited to about four, and follow-ups essentially don't occur.

This stands in contrast to 2020 when Cuomo’s in-person briefings were must-see TV — and earned him an Emmy Award. Just a few spacing restrictions were deployed back before the scandals.

Meanwhile, the investigations grind on. James began probing the sexual harassment claims weeks ago, an inquiry that is widely seen as likely moving faster than the Assembly’s impeachment inquiry. Both have recently begun looking into the book allegations.

The Assembly and the federal Department of Justice are looking at nursing home issues.

George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant, said Cuomo's "strategy is to put blinders on and go straight ahead, making multiple announcements per day. And just being governor on steroids."

Arzt continued, "This is the subliminal message in most of his announcements — That he is an effective governor with great support."

Look for Cuomo to continue as he has been until any of the investigations come to a close, Arzt said.

"It’s a good strategy because until there is an attorney general’s report, in most people’s thoughts he’s still running the state without hesitancy," Arzt said.

Muzzio said the public relations strategy Cuomo is deploying now is "ultimately meaningless" because his survival will depend largely on the outcome of the probes.

"There is the political realm and there is the legal realm," Muzzio said.

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