New York State Attorney General Letitia James during a news conference...

New York State Attorney General Letitia James during a news conference in August 2020. Credit: AP / Kathy Willens

ALBANY — State Attorney General Letitia James’ surprising critique of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes showed independence from him and sets up a potential clash in the future, political experts said.

"It does elevate her status and reputation for independence, and confirms her as a serious person, a heavyweight," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "And her job has lately regularly been antecedent to runs for governor."

James’ report hit Albany without warning. It said Cuomo’s state Health Department may have undercounted deaths in nursing homes by half, a claim Cuomo disputes. She also took issue with a March 25 state guidance from Cuomo and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, that told nursing homes to accept COVID-10 patients from hospitals. James noted that while the virus wasn’t widespread in nursing homes before the directive, thousands of deaths followed it.

James also criticized Cuomo’s executive order, later voted into law by the Legislature, that provided immunity to nursing home operators for all but the most egregious malpractice during the pandemic. The report said that might have prompted fiscal decisions by nursing homes that weren’t in the best interest of residents’ care.

The Cuomo administration released a 1,600-word response, denying any undercount of deaths, faulting some of the attorney general’s conclusions and saying that much of the report supported the Health Department’s actions. It also said nursing homes had provided different numbers to the attorney general than were provided to the Health Department. Cuomo on Friday said the issue had become a "political football," created by the former Trump administration

James' report was "particularly striking because she was thought to be a Cuomo person," said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. "She was a Cuomo person, but I’m not surprised because she’s tough. There’s a crusading element about Tish."

Cuomo endorsed James amid a crowded Democratic field for attorney general in 2018. In her first two years in office, she hadn’t crossed the governor publicly.

But the political winds in Albany may be shifting. Although Cuomo is still strongly supported by liberals and Democrats in polls of voters, some progressive leaders in the State Legislature are criticizing him from the left. Cuomo's term is up in 2022.

The political axiom that "A.G." also stands for "aspiring governor" is well established in New York. Cuomo served one term as attorney general after shaking off a 2002 loss for governor and winning the chief executive spot in 2010. Eliot Spitzer spent two terms as attorney general and used it to rise from obscurity to governor in 2006.

"By conducting the investigation, James showed that she could be independent, and isn't afraid of doing her job, even if it means taking on the governor," said Susan Del Percio, a national political commentator who once worked as an adviser to Cuomo. "It also does position her for a potential primary, especially since she has such strong support in New York City. Whether she runs for governor in 2022 or 2026, by doing her job, she is becoming stronger political force."

If James runs for governor and is elected, she would be New York’s first woman governor and the first elected Black governor.

Meena Bose, political science professor at Hofstra University, said the report and Cuomo’s rebuttal needed to be sorted before the political fallout would be clear.

"Conflicting information between the AG report and the New York State Department of Health needs to be addressed first," Bose said. "A thorough understanding of what happened and why is needed to determine the accountability of this shocking tragedy."

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