BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — As cases of COVID-19 began to swell across New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press briefings became part of the daily landscape. Our viewers quickly got used to them; and then eventually counted on them for up-to-the-minute, live-as-it-happened information about a virus few knew anything about.
Information. That was the early aim for the three-term governor from the Bronx. Information. And transparency.
Already with a strong foothold among voters, Cuomo’s approval ratings passed the 70 percent mark statewide and were even higher in Erie County — mirroring even his base in New York City.
State legislators awarded the governor special pandemic powers, which he used to issue some of the most restrictive executive orders in the country. His popularity grew throughout a presidential election year as a daily opponent to Donald Trump’s coronavirus claims.
“He makes up facts. He makes up science. He wants to deny the covid virus. He has since day one,” Cuomo said.
One year later, Cuomo’s fall from grace follows the rise and fall of covid case numbers in the Empire State…a sharp increase. And a precipitous fall.
And just as the coronavirus will forever leave its mark on New York, dual scandals have marred Cuomo’s political future — from assured to a fourth term, to resigning amid a wave of controversy and criminal and civil investigations.
As it turns out, transparency for the Cuomo administration only worked when being open was beneficial, longtime and more recent critics say.
Among the biggest local signs of this: The fallout from the Buffalo Billion.
The governor used three-quarters of a billion dollars to fund the centerpiece of the initiative: a sprawling 1.2 million-square-foot Giga factory run by Tesla to produce panels for solar roofs.
The massive tax incentive was attached to job creation requirements, which were in question throughout the project. And while the company initially promised 3-thousand new jobs in Buffalo, the actual number was scaled back to 1,460, a figure it hit shortly before the state leveled tens of millions of dollars in fines.
But while the state was keeping an eye on the pace of hiring at Solar City, the project had already drawn the attention of federal prosecutors, who believed the bidding process to build the Riverbend plant was rigged — based on pay-for-play politics.
When the dust settled, half a dozen men were convicted on conspiracy and fraud charges, including local developer Louis Ciminelli and Cuomo’s former right-hand man, Joseph Percocco.
But Cuomo avoided any direct implication, even as men he appointed were sent to federal prison.
Jack O’Donnell is a lobbyist and political consultant who ran Cuomo’s 2002 campaign for governor. He agrees the Buffalo Billion ballooned support for the governor in Western New York.
“We haven’t seen that level of attention from a governor in a while. So I think that really contributed to him being popular here. … But Andrew Cuomo’s focus on helping the struggling economy here is something I really think we’re going to miss” O’Donnell said.
The governor’s popularity among voters downstate has been consistent — characteristic political experts say began to take shape when he was the Housing and Urban Development secretary under Bill Clinton.
But while voters in New York City and surrounding counties have largely supported Cuomo from the beginning of his first term, it took economic initiatives like the Buffalo Billion to gain such support upstate.
And Cuomo quickly built upon that foundation in 2020 — before it crashed less than a year later.
A poll conducted in March by Emerson College, Nexstar Nation, and WIVB showed Cuomo’s statewide approval rating had ballooned to 71 percent, less than a month after the shutdown.
The same poll showed his approval rating in Erie County was even higher, at more than 75 percent.
Those numbers started to slip — more so locally — as restrictions wore on and the economy faltered.
But it wasn’t until the start of the new year that slip turned to a slide.
New York’s Attorney General Letitia James that month released a report showing the state’s coronavirus taskforce undercounted deaths in public nursing homes by some 50 percent.
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa later admitted to the state’s democratic conference the administration withheld the number over fears the soaring death count could become a political football for Donald Trump.
At the same time, it was revealed the federal government had launched an investigation into the death counts, and whether the information was intentionally left off the books.
But it wasn’t just publicity over nursing home deaths that killed Cuomo’s chances at running for a fourth term.
About a month before the bombshell admission over deaths in nursing homes, Cuomo took another hit when former aide Lindsey Boylan claimed the governor had sexually harassed her, and that her former coworkers “saw it, and watched.”
While Boylan’s series of tweets may have started the snowball rolling, her more detailed description in February created the avalanche.
Boylan claims Cuomo touched her lower back, arms, and legs, kissed her on the lips, and asked her to play strip poker. The governor has from the beginning denied touching anyone inappropriately.
The claims also opened the floodgates. To date, at least 11 women have leveled similar accusations at the executive mansion.
The allegations also led to two investigations: An independent analysis by Attorney General Tish James and an impeachment inquiry by the state assembly.
The resulting 165-page AG report released Aug. 3 detailed nearly a dozen allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct the governor and his attorneys have denied — but that Tish James and her investigators found credible.
One of them is the subject of the ongoing criminal investigation by the Albany County Sheriff.
Democrat Assemblyman Ron Kim, a longtime political foe of the governor, led the charge for change going back to the spring.
“I know that this governor will be held accountable, that I know his reign of abusive power will end soon,” Kim said.
And yet, before Tuesday, the governor ignored calls for his resignation, saying he still enjoyed the support of voters.
“Let the review proceed. I’m not going to resign. I was not elected by the politicians. I was elected by the people. Part of this is that I’m not part of the political club. And you know what, I’m proud of it,” Cuomo said.
Andrew Cuomo kept maintained that narrative, for months — even days before he announced his resignation.
But on Wednesday, that narrative became more conciliatory, as he admitted acting inappropriately.
.@NYGovCuomo: “This is not to say there aren’t 11 women who I offenders here. There are. And for that I apologize.”— Dave Greber (@DaveGreber4) August 10, 2021
He then continues to explain how his words and actions have been misinterpreted.
“I take full responsibility for my actions. I have been too familiar with ppl.”
In the end, he said, intentions don’t equal impact. And the investigations and resulting controversy created by the Attorney General and the Assembly overtook his ability to lead the state.
Cuomo says he’s acting in the best interests of the state, even as he apologized for making nearly a dozen women, all of them subordinates, feel like victims.
“Given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And therefore, that’s what I’ll do.”