Cuomo apologises after harassment claims but rules out resigning

An emotional Andrew Cuomo offered his fullest apology yet for conduct that prompted two women to accuse him of sexual harassment — and which has imperilled his political career — but insisted he would not resign.

His voice faltering, the New York governor said he was embarrassed and ashamed of behaviour that had caused people pain. Yet he also maintained that he had “never touched anyone inappropriately,” and urged the public to wait for the results of an official investigation before casting judgment.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for whatever pain I caused anyone. I never intended it. And I will be better for this experience,” the governor said.

Cuomo’s contrition was a rare display from a domineering governor who has ruled New York for a decade, often getting his way through fear and intimidation. It came as a growing chorus of legislators, including several from his own Democratic party, called for him to step down — something the governor insisted he would not do.

“I am not going to resign. I work for the people of the State of New York. They elected me and I’m going to serve the people of the State of New York,” Cuomo said. 

His appearance at a press briefing — the venue in which he became a national figure early last year for his daily updates on the Covid-19 pandemic — was his first in days, and came as his administration grabbles with separate, escalating scandals.

Longstanding complaints that the governor deliberately undercounted nursing homes deaths caused by coronavirus — to protect his reputation, according to critics — gained traction last month after the publication of an investigation by the New York attorney-general.

Since then, two former aides have come forward to offer detailed accusations of sexual harassment by Cuomo. One woman said the governor kissed her and suggested they play strip poker. Another said he asked her if she had sex with older men.

Other women have since alleged that Cuomo’s behaviour made them uncomfortable.

In both cases, Cuomo offered what were regarded as grudging apologies. Addressing the harassment claims, for example, he dismissed them as misinterpreted banter. He eventually consented to an independent investigation led by the attorney-general, Letitia James, that he had originally resisted.

Until recently, Cuomo had been considered a shoo-in for a fourth term and enjoyed national stardom for his leadership during the pandemic. There is now widespread speculation about whether he will serve out his term — let alone stand for re-election next year.

The governor’s sudden weakness has come at an awkward time for New York. The state has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic and is now struggling to boost its vaccination effort while also dealing with a dire fiscal situation and the challenges of reopening an economy devastated by the pandemic.

“I cannot imagine Andrew Cuomo not completing his term of office,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University. “The state is now facing the challenge of adopting a state budget on time while also vaccinating New Yorkers while fighting Covid-19.”

Moss added: “The state legislature is a representative body consisting of more than 200 politicians elected for two-year terms, which means it is not designed or equipped to run the State of New York.”

But Cuomo has a long list of enemies, including in his own party. Progressive Democrats, in particular, have chafed at his opposition over the years to increased social spending and raising taxes on the wealthy, and several have been vocal in their desire to see him off.

In a sign of Cuomo’s fading authority, legislators struck a deal on Tuesday to strip the governor of the emergency powers that had given him free rein to order quarantines and other restrictive measures during the pandemic.