By MARINA VILLENEUVE, STEVE PEOPLES and MICHAEL BALSAMO
Updated: March 12, 2021 10:40 PM
Created: March 12, 2021 10:56 AM
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confronted a stunning series of defections Friday amid allegations of sexual harassment that left the high-profile Democrat fighting for his political survival, angry and alone.
By day's end, the three-term governor had lost the support of almost the entire 29-member New York congressional delegation and a majority of Democrats in the state legislature. None of the desertions hurt more than those of New York's two U.S. senators, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
"Due to the multiple, credible sexual harassment and misconduct allegations, it is clear that Governor Cuomo has lost the confidence of his governing partners and the people of New York," the Democratic senators wrote in a joint statement. "Governor Cuomo should resign."
The escalating political crisis has spawned an impeachment inquiry in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, and threatens to cast a cloud over President Joe Biden's early days in office. Republicans have seized on the scandal to try to distract from Biden's success tackling the coronavirus pandemic and challenge his party's well-established advantage with female voters.
Biden, a longtime ally of Cuomo and his father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, has avoided directly addressing the controversy, although it's becoming increasingly difficult.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday declined to say whether Biden believes Cuomo should resign. She said every woman who has come forth "deserves to have her voice heard, should be treated with respect and should be able to tell her story."
The senators' statement, which cited the pandemic as a reason for needing "sure and steady leadership," came shortly after Schumer stood alongside Biden at a Rose Garden ceremony celebrating the passage of the Democrat-backed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
A defiant Cuomo earlier in the day insisted he would not step down and condemned his Democratic detractors as "reckless and dangerous."
"I did not do what has been alleged. Period," he said, before evoking a favorite grievance of former President Donald Trump. "People know the difference between playing politics, bowing to cancel culture and the truth."
Never before has the brash, 63-year-old Democratic governor, who had been expected to run for a fourth term in 2022, been more politically isolated.
Some in Cuomo's party had already turned against him for his administration's move to keep secret how many nursing home residents died of COVID-19 for months, and the latest wave of defections signaled a possible tipping point.
Cuomo's coalition of critics has expanded geographically and politically, now covering virtually every region in the state and the political power centers of New York City and Washington. Among them are New York City progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the leader of the House Democratic campaign arm, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney; Buffalo-based U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins; and a group of Long Island-based state lawmakers who had been Cuomo loyalists.
"The victims of sexual assault concern me more than politics or other narrow considerations, and I believe Governor Cuomo must step aside," Maloney said.
Ocasio-Cortez, in a joint statement with U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, said that after a new groping allegation against the governor, she was concerned about the safety and well-being of the governor's staff.
"We believe these women," they said.
Cuomo on Friday insisted that he never touched anyone inappropriately, and said again that he's sorry if he ever made anyone uncomfortable. He declined to answer a direct question about whether he's had a consensual romantic relationship with any of the accusers.
"I have not had a sexual relationship that was inappropriate, period," he said.
The state Assembly greenlit an impeachment investigation Thursday as lawmakers investigate whether there are grounds for Cuomo's forcible removal from office. The state attorney general is also leading a probe into his workplace conduct.
The firestorm around the governor grew after the Times Union of Albany reported Wednesday that an unidentified aide told a supervisor Cuomo reached under her shirt and fondled her at his official residence late last year.
The woman hasn't filed a criminal complaint, but a lawyer for the governor said Thursday that the state reported the allegation to Albany police after the woman declined to do so herself.
Additionally, Cuomo is facing multiple allegations of sexually suggestive remarks and behavior toward women, including female aides. One aide said he asked her if she would ever have sex with an older man. And another aide said the governor once kissed her without consent, and said governor's aides publicly smeared her after she accused him of sexual harassment.
Rarely in the modern era has a leading elected official survived such a political backlash from his own party, but there is precedent.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, refused to resign in 2009 after a scandal involving an extramarital affair. He would go on to serve in Congress. And in 2019, Virginia's Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam resisted sweeping calls for his resignation after a blackface photo in an old yearbook emerged. Northam is still in office.
Cuomo said Friday he'd still be able to govern despite the growing list of elected officials who have demanded that he quit.
He didn't address the reality of an increasingly untenable position: Cuomo is still managing the state's pandemic response and negotiating a state budget with lawmakers who've lost confidence in his leadership. More than 120 members of the state legislature called on him to quit earlier this week, a majority of them Democrats.
The defections of virtually the entire congressional delegation raised the prospect of further erosion of support.
Showing no signs of bowing to the pressure, Cuomo raised new questions about the motives of the accusers.
"I won't speculate about people's possible motives," he said Friday. "But I can tell you as a former attorney general who has gone through this situation many times, there are often many motivations for making an allegation. And that is why you need to know the facts before you make a decision."
"Serious allegations should be weighed seriously, right?" he added. "That's why they are called serious."
Peoples reported from New York City. Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Washington contributed.
(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)