March 19, 2021 1:43:57 pm
As he faced the worst political crisis of his tenure, Governor Andrew M Cuomo visited a Black church in Harlem this week to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
But he clearly had another agenda as well. One Black minister or political figure after another rose to offer praise for Cuomo, with the leader of the state’s chapter of the NAACP, Hazel N Dukes, even referring to the governor as her son, insisting that “he ain’t white.”
Then Charles B Rangel, the former longtime congressman and New York political icon, heralded the importance of due process, telling people to “back off until you get some facts.”
When opposition starts “piling up,” said Rangel, now 90, “You go to your family, you go to your friends because you know they will be with you.”
As Cuomo navigates a deepening scandal over allegations of sexual harassment, he has leaned on his deep well of support in the Black community, which has reliably backed him and twice helped him win re-election. The governor and his associates have been working the phones, seeking the support of Black leaders and elected officials who could serve as a firewall against the barrage of calls for his resignation or impeachment.
The phone calls have been supplemented by the governor’s recent visits to vaccination sites, often flanked by Black and Latino members of the clergy. The Rev. Al Cockfield, who joined Cuomo at the Javits Center in Manhattan for one of the events, said he attended to send a purposeful message: “I’m standing with the governor.”
Of course, some of the governor’s most prominent critics have also been Black officials, such as Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the State Senate majority leader, who was one of the earliest leaders to call on Cuomo to resign.
Yet a number of other Black leaders have helped Cuomo, a Democrat, blunt some of the blowback, with many saying they support investigations into the harassment claims instead of the governor’s immediate resignation.
Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks, two high-ranking Black Democrats from New York, are among the few members of the state’s congressional delegation who have not called on Cuomo to immediately resign. Jeffries and Meeks refused requests to be interviewed for this article.
Dukes was one of the first to issue a forceful rebuke of those calling for Cuomo’s resignation. Other Black women, such as Assemblywomen Crystal D Peoples-Stokes and Inez E Dickens, as well as Laurie Cumbo, a Brooklyn councilwoman, have been among his most vocal defenders.
“It strikes a nerve for African-Americans at a lot of levels,” said Charlie King, a longtime ally of Cuomo who was his running mate during his failed bid for governor in 2002. “I think for African-Americans, in general, we believe for a lot of reasons that this rush to judgment never works out well for people of color and we believe deeply in seeing how it plays out before you convict somebody.”
A number of women, including former and current aides, have accused Cuomo of inappropriate remarks and behavior, including unwanted touching and unwelcome sexual advances.
Cuomo has defiantly rejected calls for him to resign, while denying that he has touched anyone inappropriately and apologizing for comments he said may have been interpreted as unintentional flirtation.
A poll by Siena College released this week suggested that the governor had some support: Fifty percent of voters believed he shouldn’t step down, compared to 35 percent who said he should.
The poll suggested that the governor’s support was stronger among the Black electorate. Nearly 70 percent of Black voters surveyed said Cuomo should not immediately resign, compared to 50 percent among all voters. The governor’s favorability rating was also higher among Black voters, 61 percent, than white voters, 37 percent.
Many of Cuomo’s achievements, like raising the minimum wage and passing paid family leave, for example, have made him popular among Black voters.
The governor’s team is now eager to reach an agreement with the State Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana, a long-stalled initiative with strong appeal among Black and Latino communities that have suffered from the disparate enforcement of drug laws. A deal could be announced this week, far sooner than originally anticipated, according to lawmakers familiar with the matter.
To many, Cuomo’s attempts to rally support among Black influencers was just the latest example of the Democratic Party’s reliance on its Black base in moments of political peril.
Former President Bill Clinton employed a similar strategy during his impeachment battle in the late 1990s to weather the allegations related to his conduct with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, in the Oval Office. Cuomo was Clinton’s federal housing secretary at the time.
Cuomo may also be taking cues from Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat who survived widespread calls for his resignation over a racist photograph in his medical school yearbook. Although the politics in New York and Virginia are different, Northam retained the support of Black voters throughout the controversy, with polls showing most of them favored him remaining in office.
Race has already been thrust into the debate over Cuomo’s fate, with some of his defenders drawing on problematic comparisons between the allegations against the governor and the wrongful persecution of African-Americans.
In a Facebook post, George Latimer, the Westchester County executive, compared those calling on Cuomo to resign to the mob that lynched Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was wrongfully accused of offending a white woman in Mississippi more than 60 years ago. (Latimer, who is white, has since edited the post, noting that the comparison was “offensive to some.”)
Some lawmakers, such as Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, a Democrat from Brooklyn, have invoked the Central Park Five — the group of Black and Hispanic teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of assaulting a white female jogger in 1989 — in arguing for a thorough investigation into the claims against Cuomo.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, an influential Black power broker, said there are concerns among members of his National Action Network of setting a “precedent of calling for someone’s resignation before the investigation was completed,” because it could be used against Black officials in the future.
Some Black supporters have forcefully defended Cuomo’s right to due process, with many saying it is a reflection of deep-seated skepticism among members in their communities who have not received fair trials or have been wrongfully convicted on false charges.
Progressive Democrats like Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, have emphasized that they, too, support due process. They said, however, that the debate over the governor’s fate now centered on a question of his political judgment, one that also involved his past transgressions.
“For me this is the last straw in a long line of wrongdoings for which the governor shouldn’t be governor,” said Williams, citing Cuomo’s attempt to hide the full extent of nursing home deaths during the pandemic and his abrupt disbandment of an anti-corruption panel known as the Moreland Commission.
Cuomo angered Black voters and stakeholders in 2002, when he ran a bruising campaign in a Democratic primary against Carl McCall, damaging McCall’s bid to become the state’s first African-American governor. But Cuomo has regained the support of many of them since then.
Williams has pushed for Cuomo to resign, but he acknowledged the governor’s ties to Black voters.
“I think the Cuomo name has particular meaning in the Black community,” Williams said. “They’re also sensitive of being accused of things and not being able to defend yourself.”
Like Williams, some of Cuomo’s most prominent foils throughout this crisis have been Black elected officials.
Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Westchester County, was, at the time, the most powerful Democratic politician to call on Cuomo to step down earlier this month.
Carl E Heastie, the Assembly speaker, directed the Assembly’s judiciary committee to begin a broad investigation into Cuomo that could potentially lead to the state’s first impeachment in more than a century.
The investigation, which could take months, gave Cuomo some breathing room, leading some critics to speculate it was actually a mechanism to delay impeachment. Even so, it could fuel Cuomo’s eventual departure.
And Akeem Browder, a criminal justice reform advocate, said that seeing Cuomo getting vaccinated Wednesday at a Black church in Harlem reminded him of why he began distancing himself from the governor three years ago — because he felt as if he were being used.
Browder, whose brother, Kalief Browder, killed himself in 2015 after facing abuse at Rikers Island during the three years he was held there for allegedly stealing a backpack, went from being a guest at the governor’s State of the State address to endorsing Cuomo’s primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, in 2018.
Browder felt the governor was not pushing hard enough for bail reform while benefiting politically from his presence at events.
“I thought how indicative it was of how willing he is to use and leverage his position,” Browder said of Cuomo’s appearance at the Black church this week. “He was literally pandering to the Black community to get his name out from under fire.”
And then there is Letitia James, the state attorney general, who is overseeing a separate investigation into the sexual harassment claims.
James, the first woman and first Black woman to be elected to the position, presents a dual threat to Cuomo: She has been talked about as a potential candidate to challenge him next year.
“It has been the Black community that has kept up the governor’s numbers,” said Williams, the public advocate. “I think there will be erosion if the governor tried to run again and there was a credible person who ran against the governor.”