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Fear of crossing Cuomo dissipates as pols, staff unload after AG report

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at Yankee Stadium on July 26.   Credit: AP/Richard Drew

ALBANY — No more fear.

For years, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo held an iron grip on state politics and government which prevented legislators, lobbyists and even supporters from criticizing him for fear of harsh reprisals.

But the lid is off, since Attorney General Letitia James issued a report finding the governor broke multiple laws in sexually harassing 11 women and the state Assembly accelerated impeachment proceedings.

Cuomo has always had vocal critics. But what is different now is current staffers, former staffers, political allies and lawmakers, who previously may have felt muzzled, now are unloading on the governor. Emails and texts produced by James’ investigation are showing cracks in the governor’s inner circle.

One legislator criticized the governor for demanding "absolute loyalty" and "fealty" during his 11 years in office. A former financial commissioner called Cuomo’s denials "despicable."

Basil Seggos, the current environmental commissioner, said on Twitter Cuomo’s alleged conduct was "outrageous and unacceptable." Sheila Poole, the commissioner of children and family services, reportedly sent a memo to her staff saying she was "appalled and angry."

Even Kathy Hochul, Cuomo’s hand-picked lieutenant governor, called his behavior "repulsive."

Governing New York for 11 years with a bruising and bullying style now comes at a cost for Cuomo as he sees old allies fleeing and no state lawmakers standing up for him, Cuomo insiders acknowledged.

"People have so much pent-up anger and frustration with the governor for years, but it was outweighed by the fear of him and his political power," an administration official said.

That, the source said, is over.

He cited Cuomo’s blowup with Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Flushing) in February. Kim had been a vocal critic about Cuomo's nursing home policies amid the pandemic, eventually triggering a phone call from an angry governor who, Kim says, threatened to "destroy" him.

Cuomo responded by lashing out at Kim in a news conference, alleging corrupt behavior on the unrelated issue of nail salon regulations and campaign contributions.

In a reversal, the episode raised Kim’s stature and prompted a Cuomo backlash.

"That would never have happened a few years ago," the source said.

Besides Kim, the episode angered most state legislators and party officials and prodded some of the women who ended up in the James report to go public.

An example of how some Democratic state legislators think of the governor came in a statement by Assemb. Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston).

"In most of his interactions, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has operated as if he alone was anointed with unlimited power, demanding absolute loyalty and showing exactly zero tolerance for those who did, he deemed, even the slightest deviation from that personal fealty," Cahill said.

The assemblyman said it should not, then, surprise anyone that James’ investigation revealed selfish and "grotesque" behavior.

Maria Vullo, who served as Cuomo’s financial services commissioner and once was on a shortlist Cuomo was considering for a judgeship on New York’s highest court, castigated her former boss.

"It is time for New York to turn the page from the abhorrent conduct of a governor and his power structure," Vullo wrote on Twitter. "His continued denials are despicable … His enablers and retaliators should also suffer consequences; their methods are not new."

Cuomo has refused resignation calls. He denies some touching and said his comments intended to convey warmth and camaraderie in a high-pressure atmosphere were misconstrued. Insiders said the governor was still in "fight" mode, even with lawmakers threatening impeachment if he doesn’t step down voluntarily.

But another source close to Cuomo said the anger at Cuomo, which had been pent up over years, probably is fueling an inevitable resignation, saying: "I just don’t see any other way."

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