Facing Political Crisis, Andrew Cuomo Counts on Black Leaders for Support

Gov. Governor Cuomo
It was the afternoon of March 7 and Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a fellow Democrat and the first Black woman to serve as state Senate majority leader, had just called for his resignation. He worked the phones, trying to keep rank-and-file lawmakers from following the senator’s lead.

Cuomo, facing sexual-misconduct allegations and a looming nursing-home scandal, needed a show of support. And on March 8, he got it.

With cameras rolling, more than 20 pastors and reverends from influential Black and Latino churches literally stood behind Cuomo at an event at the Javits Center in Manhattan. He held a similar event near Syracuse the next day, and again Monday on Long Island.

The events were ostensibly to promote the benefits of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. But there was an implicit second purpose, with the pastors’ mere presence providing a not-so-subtle reminder of Cuomo’s enduring support among the Black community even amid the scandals that have engulfed his administration.

“Only a full, fair hearing of the facts will determine whether or not the governor should resign,” Hazel Dukes, longtime president of the NAACP New York, said in a statement March 7.

“It should not be a decision made following the beat of a political drum.”

Poll shows continued support among Black voters

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a vaccination site on Monday, March 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)

Dukes’ statement, which mirrors the governor’s position and was distributed by the Cuomo-controlled state Democratic Committee, is in line with the thinking of many Black voters, a new poll suggests.

The Siena College poll released Monday showed New York registered voters are split on the governor, with 43% viewing him favorably and 45% viewing him unfavorably.

The racial disparities were stark: 61% of Black voters responded favorably to Cuomo, compared to 49% of Latino voters and just 37% of white voters.

Cuomo has spent the better part of two decades courting the support of influential Black leaders, long ago repairing the damage he caused when he launched an ill-fated primary campaign for governor in 2002 against then-Comptroller Carl McCall, the first African-American person to hold statewide office.

About 18% of New York’s population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate. And Black voters are one of the most important portions of the governor’s political base.

Cuomo is now facing allegations of sexual misconduct from at least a half dozen women, most of them former aides, including one who claims the governor groped her at the Executive Mansion in Albany.

He’s also facing extensive criticism for his administration’s decision to withhold the true COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes for months, underrepresenting it by excluding residents who died in hospitals rather than the homes themselves.

All but three members of New York’s 27-member congressional delegation have called on him to resign, as has the state’s Senate delegation: Kirsten Gillibrand and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Dozens of state lawmakers have also called on the governor to step down or step aside, and the state Assembly has launched what it has called an impeachment investigation into his conduct, though no impeachment vote has yet occurred. Attorney General Letitia James’ office is overseeing another investigation.

The allegations he’s facing — including those from a 25-year-old former aide who felt he was implicitly propositioning her for sex — are of a severity that few officials, if any, are willing to say they support him personally.

But some lawmakers and influential pastors are willing to back Cuomo’s own public position: That the investigations should be allowed to wrap up before anyone calls for his ouster.

The lead signatory was Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, who is the highest-ranking Black woman in her chamber and a critical voice for Cuomo.

In a CNN interview last week, Peoples-Stokes said the people of her district are not “clamoring for me to suggest that (Cuomo) resign.”

“There are tons of people in this country who have suffered from a decision by the public that they are guilty of something that they were not, and many people have suffered through in our judicial system as a result of that,” she said. “In my estimation, this is not about Mr. Cuomo. This is about a fairness process.”

A day after the statement from state lawmakers, 25 Black and Latino clergy members issued a joint statement of their own backing them up, echoing the call for James’ investigation to continue without distraction.

“We agree with their position that the Attorney General should not be undermined as the chief law enforcement officer in the State of New York by preventing the investigation or, as we would put it, rendering such an investigation moot,” the pastors’ statement read.

Bishop Lionel Harvey, right, with the First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury, speaks as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens during a visit to a new COVID-19 vaccination site, Monday, March 15, 2021, at the State University of New York in Old Westbury. The site is scheduled to open on Friday.

Rev. Max Jones, senior pastor for the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ in Syracuse, said he signed on to the statement “as support for the rule of law and for justice.”

“These allegations are serious and they should be taken that way, and everyone who comes forward should be listened to,” Jones said.

“I believe there is seriousness here. All these ladies are not copying, and it takes a great deal of courage to come forward. But public figures should have just as much legal rights as anyone else.”

“That’s what it is,” he said. “For me, speaking for myself, the letter is in support of the investigation and clearly our attorney general has her work cut out for her.”

Almost immediately, the statements drew suspicion that Cuomo or his team may have had some role in circulating them.

The Capitol Pressroom, a public-radio program, reported Charlie King, a close Cuomo ally for decades, had a hand in distributing the clergy members’ statement. And a reporter for The City, a nonprofit news outlet, reported Cuomo’s administration had a hand in the statement from the female state lawmakers.

Peoples-Stokes pushed back against that suggestion.

“That’s disingenuous,” she said on CNN. “No one else’s thoughts are questioned in that way. No one asked my other colleagues, ‘Who encouraged you to write to write a letter to suggest that he resign?'”

Some Black lawmakers support resignation

Cuomo’s wait-for-the-investigation stance does not enjoy support from all Black lawmakers, most notably Stewart-Cousins, whose call for his resignation helped spur the state’s federal lawmakers to follow suit.

A number of Black lawmakers have issued calls for his resignation, including Sens. Samra Brouk, D-Rochester; Jabari Brisport, D-Brooklyn; and James Sanders, D-Queens, all of whom signed on to a joint statement of 59 lawmakers calling on the governor to step down.

But he acknowledged he and other leaders are grappling with a second issue: Can Cuomo still govern effectively?

“You have the U.S. senators and the majority of the New York State Legislature calling on you to resign,” Sharpton said Monday. “Can you continue to govern in a state that is still facing critical issues? I think that is where this morning many people, including me, in this state are looking at as one of two very serious issues.”

For his part, Cuomo’s three events with influential reverends have all been at state vaccination hubs, where he and others have urged Black and Brown communities to get the COVID-19 vaccine in hopes of combatting hesitancy among Black and Brown communities.

He has not allowed reporters into those events, with his office claiming coronavirus protocols prevented press attendance despite allowing dozens of other onlookers.

At his event Monday on Long Island, Cuomo ceded the podium to Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Calvary of Westbury to tout the vaccine.

“God has our back, and he also has our arms,” the bishop said.

“Amen,” Cuomo said.

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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