NY governor Cuomo's star fades as pandemic pressure builds

Late last week, Cuomo's top aide admitted in a call with Democratic lawmakers that the state had withheld data because it feared an investigation by Trump's justice department.

FILE: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media and tours a newly opened drive through COVID-19 mobile testing center on 13 March 2020 in New Rochelle, New York. Picture: AFP

NEW YORK – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's straight-talking and empathetic approach to the coronavirus crisis raging in his state earned him national adoration last spring, contrasting sharply with the often-confusing mixed messages from former President Donald Trump.

But almost a year on, and with Trump no longer in office, Cuomo's star appears to be fading as he faces increasing scrutiny over what he knew about the death toll inside New York's nursing homes.

The three-term governor has come under growing pressure in recent months over his government's management of the pandemic with regards to retirement homes -- where more than 15,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19.

His administration was forced to revise that number up from 8,500 care home residents lost to coronavirus after a New York state prosecutor report last month said the government had underestimated the count of those killed by several thousand.

Late last week, Cuomo's top aide admitted in a call with Democratic lawmakers that the state had withheld data because it feared an investigation by Trump's justice department.

Cuomo admitted for the first time Monday that his government had been slow to offer data, saying the delay fueled "skepticism and cynicism, and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion."

He stopped short of apologizing and denied accusations of a cover-up, but the affair is causing pressure from fellow lawmakers and denting his popularity.

The Democratically controlled state legislature is threatening to withdraw expanded executive powers granted to Cuomo as the pandemic first engulfed New York in March.

Meanwhile a survey released by the Siena College Research Institute Tuesday found that 51 percent of New Yorkers approve of Cuomo's performance, down from 56 percent last month.

"The star has fallen quite a bit," said Jacob Neiheisel, a professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, noting that "a reappraisal" of Cuomo's widely lauded handling of the pandemic is taking place.

Cuomo's daily briefings became essential viewing on TV networks as Americans tuned in for his authoritative but reassuring manner as Trump sowed confusion by contradicting his own health experts.

Sam Abrams, a political science professor at Sarah Lawrence College, said Americans turned to local leaders as confidence in the federal government "plummeted."

Even though Cuomo -- a New York political figure for 40 years and the son of late Governor Mario Cuomo -- was considered "a bully and arrogant," he was "a statesman, a thoughtful and bold leader" compared to Trump, added Abrams.

Some experts link his current popularity decline to Trump's exit from the White House.

A FOURTH TERM?

"We now have an administration in Washington that is able to reckon with Covid in an earnest way, to listen to the science and to communicate effectively," said Columbia University politics expert Lincoln Mitchell.

"I don't know anyone, even in New York or Washington, who watches his briefings anymore," he added.

Cuomo, not known for his modesty, also endured flak for publishing "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic" in October, with the pandemic far from over.

"It was absurd," said Mitchell

Cuomo isn't the only state-level Democrat who appears to be paying the price for the return to a rational, science-based approach in the White House.

Gavin Newsom -- the governor of California, where the pandemic has raged in recent weeks after largely being brought under control in the spring -- has seen his popularity drop too, Abrams noted.

At the height of Cuomo mania last year, some Democrats suggested he should replace Biden on the presidential ticket. Others talked about him being a future attorney general.

Now commentators are wondering whether Cuomo's current troubles will encourage Democratic left-wingers, with whom he has frequently clashed, to challenge him in the primaries if he runs for a fourth term in 2022.

"His father ran for three terms and lost for his fourth term. I think there's part of Andrew Cuomo that wants to do one better than his father," said Mitchell.

"He's a very powerful, smart, effective politician so he'll probably get re-elected if he runs again."