ALBANY — The controversy over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes has been public and often ugly, with legislators — including fellow Democrats — accusing the governor of delaying information on the number of nursing home deaths and bullying them when they questioned his approach.
But six former aides who have worked for Cuomo say the governor’s plight is the result of missteps, the bullish, must-win drive that served him well but made many enemies, and the historic difficulties elected officials face in their third terms.
"It was arrogance," said one former close aide. "And, 'What we say goes' that kind of led to a lot of self-inflicted injuries and this issue in particular."
Political experts said the controversy came at a time when Cuomo was at the height of his popularity nationwide.
"It is the monsoon that no one saw coming. It’s the tidal wave for which no one was prepared," said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political adviser who worked in the Clinton White House.
The storm surrounding Cuomo's handling of nursing homes shows no sign of abating any time soon. It originated with a directive to nursing homes to readmit their residents returning from hospitals even if they tested positive for the virus. Later, some legislators accused Cuomo of undercounting the deaths after his administration delayed for six months providing them or the public with data on the total number of nursing home deaths because of COVID-19.
The administration's acknowledgment that it had delayed releasing the data attracted the attention of federal prosecutors, who have launched a criminal investigation of the administration. Some lawmakers are calling for limiting the emergency powers Cuomo took on because of the pandemic.
And last week, the list of crises grew when two women who worked for Cuomo accused him of sexual harassment. A high-ranking economic development official, Lindsey Boylan, wrote in an essay that Cuomo made unwanted advances and kissed her on the lips without her consent. A Cuomo aide said Boylan’s accusations were "simply false." On Saturday, Charlotte Bennett accused Cuomo of making unwanted sexual advances when she worked as a subordinate to him. Cuomo said he "never made advances" toward the aide.
The turmoil is a turnaround from last year, when Cuomo steered New York from the epicenter of the pandemic to the state with the lowest infection rates through a mix of executive orders and cajoling New Yorkers to wear masks and adhere to social distancing measures.
His aggressive, confrontational style worked for a decade in getting landmark legislation such as same-sex marriage, strict gun control and a property tax cap once thought impossible.
But years of imposing his agenda in a manner one of his earliest advisers had described as "get along or kill" also created a long list of those who disagreed with him on policy from the left and right, some with scores to settle.
"For someone who hangs around this long, the good news is you were able to hang around this long," Sheinkopf said. "The bad news is that you were able to hang around this long.' "
"There is no safe space for the governor right now. He’s being shot at from the left, the right and center," he said. "It’s not just about what’s right. It’s that they want his job … and Brutus has a young and hungry look."
George Arzt, a veteran political strategist who was New York City Mayor Ed Koch's press secretary, said, "Here is a real tough guy and people are waiting in the bushes to try to get back at him. People start getting tired of you and start pointing their fingers at you for all sorts of problems that are outside your control."
Cuomo has acknowledged the administration should have been faster in releasing the nursing home death data and blamed it in part on the difficulty of sorting the information between those who died in hospitals and those who died in nursing homes.
Asked to comment, Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said, "New Yorkers know it was the governor who worked night and day to get them through the worst of this pandemic and, from the strongest gun safety laws in the nation to a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition, he has a nationally significant record of progressive accomplishments that Washington is trying to match."
Inside the executive chamber, those who have worked closely with Cuomo say that this time his hard-nosed tenacity and political acumen failed him in handling the pandemic in nursing homes, compounding mistakes.
"He’s literally trapped by his own doing," said a former top Cuomo aide. "The problem is he does know more than everybody else. That’s part of the problem. He lives in such a small, sheltered world. There comes a point when someone doesn’t want to be challenged."
"It’s essentially self-inflicted," said another long time Cuomo ally who worked in the executive chamber. "It gives people who don’t like him much more ammunition and for the press, it’s a great story."
The former Cuomo aides said he erred in declining to provide full data on nursing home deaths in the spring, when reporters sought it, or in August, when the State Legislature demanded it. The former aides said some staffers unsuccessfully urged, in late spring and summer, that the data be released even if it might give fodder to critics and sully the narrative in Cuomo’s globally watched daily webcast, his national news interviews and his book, "Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic," which was published in October.
"Outside points of view and perspectives don’t filter up," a former aide said, describing the decision to delay release of the data as "a stupid calculation."
The delay continued until January. After Attorney General Letitia James released a report saying the Cuomo administration might have undercounted deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%, the administration released some of the data.
"That blew the gasket out," said one former aide.
One critic, state Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Flushing), accused Cuomo on national TV of being an abuser and bully. Kim said Cuomo called him at home and threatened to "destroy" the legislator’s career. It's a narrative Cuomo denies. He called Kim "a liar." But the incident has galvanized the State Legislature around one of their own, fueling proposals to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers to adjust and create law during the pandemic.
One former federal official tells of a similar experience. Judith Enck was regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration when she said she received a call in 2011, from Howard Glazer, one of Cuomo’s closest aides. She said the Cuomo administration was angry that the EPA staff was going to make a public statement opposing the use of waste from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas deep in shale deposits. The state was then considering using the waste as a road deicer.
"He said he was going to destroy me, he said I would never work in New York again, and he very specifically said he was going to go to the media the next day and destroy my reputation," Enck said of Glazer. "He also said that if I didn’t withdraw the EPA comments it would impact the Obama administration’s relations with the Cuomo administration … he said whatever my relationships were in the State of New York would be destroyed."
The Cuomo administration said Sunday that they "weren't aware of this conversation."
Even though such calls were made in the past, calling Kim was another mistake, the former aides said.
"Voters like him because he gets things done, insiders don’t like him because he doesn’t stroke them," one former executive chamber worker said. "It’s a very macho-guy environment … he can be the most charming guy in the world, but he’s also a punch-you-in-the-face kind of guy."
That can make the executive chamber an exceedingly tough place to survive. Those who have been there say it’s a pressure cooker with many 24-hour workdays and months without a break.
"It’s a high-stress environment," said one who lived it. "The people work day and night and have a very demanding boss with missiles flying at them left and right. And it’s on heightened display right now."
Now, Cuomo’s administration faces a federal criminal investigation after Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, told legislators that the administration had delayed handing over the nursing home death data in order to focus on a similar Trump administration request, which she called politically motivated.
Relatives of nursing home residents and some legislators also have been critical of the March 25 guidance that Cuomo and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, issued to nursing homes. It told homes "no resident shall be denied readmission or admission to the nursing home solely based on confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19." Critics fear the directive exacerbated the problem in nursing homes.
But the former Cuomo aides said the directive came at a crucial moment in fighting the pandemic: Projections estimated the state would need two to three times more hospital beds than existed at the time to care for 100,000 virus patients.
"They thought the hospitals were going to collapse — people forget that," one former aide said. "The Monday morning quarterbacking is unbelievable … remember what the visual was back then. There were refrigerated trucks lined up around the block" with the bodies of virus victims.
Cuomo rescinded the guidance in May, after it became clear hospitals weren’t going to be overwhelmed by patients.
In January, Cuomo said state Health Department records showed the virus was already in 98% of the nursing homes that accepted hospital patients recovering from the virus. The department hasn’t yet provided those records requested by Newsday.
"He could have given the information out, the call with Kim was inexcusable, but there’s no crime here," one former Cuomo aide said. "Could they have done a better job? No doubt. But you can’t turn the clock back."
On Monday, Cuomo accepted some blame, but with an explanation.
"We did not provide public information fast enough … especially in this toxic political environment," he said. "I dismissed it as partisan politics that is at a fever pitch nowadays."
Cuomo then blamed his political foes for spreading "inaccurate information" about his handling of nursing homes. "If you don’t correct, it gets repeated," he said in a teleconference with reporters. "Then it gets exploited — people playing politics, personal attacks, personal agendas, and now this continues and people get confused."
Former Secretary to the Governor Steven Cohen made a public statement last week defending the governor and criticizing "the politicization of an issue that should simply be a public health issue," led by President Donald Trump, who was under fire for his pandemic response.
"I am not suggesting that we should not be looking at what has happened with respect to nursing homes and I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't recognize the tragic loss and be nothing but sympathetic for people you want, and are entitled, to understand and know as much as possible about the circumstances," Cohen said. "But that doesn't change the fact that this situation was largely set up as part of a political process in a highly contested and high-stakes national campaign for president."
Emboldened political attacks are more common against any chief executive in their third terms. Opponents can sense an end of power and jockey for their own futures, political observers said.
In 2011, Cuomo, like most newly elected officials, started with his A-team. They were confidants who had his trust over decades. They could tell him, "No," said former top aides who worked with Cuomo early in his career.
By the third term, those early advisers have moved on and Cuomo now has what the former aides describe as a talented, loyal and hardworking but less seasoned staff.
"It helps to have someone you can bounce things off," one former aide said. "There was none of this stuff … he’s been at the highest level [of politics] for 40 years, so he trusts his own instincts a lot. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not."
Another former staffer: "There is no one to keep him out of the tailspin."
Now Cuomo faces the same potentially troubling poll ratings as his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, did when seeking his fourth term in 1994, according to a Marist College poll last week. Mario Cuomo lost that reelection bid to a little-known legislator at the time, George Pataki.