'Go to your friends': Black leaders rally around Cuomo

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NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become a pariah in many New York political circles, with almost the entire congressional delegation, both U.S. senators and most of the state Legislature calling on him to resign over mounting allegations of sexual harassment.

But the scandal-scarred leader was among friends Wednesday at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, grinning and flashing a thumbs-up as he got his coronavirus vaccine surrounded by Black leaders and clergy members.

“Some people will say, why would the governor pick a time like this to be coming to Harlem to get his shot?” former Rep. Charlie Rangel said at the event. “When people start piling up on you … you go to your family, and you go to your friends, because you know that they are going to be with you.”

As Cuomo is abandoned by fellow Democrats in Albany and Washington, his strategy for staying in power — and maybe even getting re-elected — is a tried and true political play: "Dance with the one that brung ya."

Cuomo, increasingly isolated, has leaned heavily on Black leaders during the crisis. His appearance in Harlem was the fourth such event he had held in recent days — all broadcast online but closed to the press, ostensibly due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Black voters came out in large numbers for Cuomo in his last two Democratic primaries and remain among his most important and reliable blocs of support. Two polls in recent weeks show Black voters continue to back the governor in large numbers despite his hemorrhaging support among elected Democrats.

Like many of the leaders who have stood by Cuomo in recent weeks, Rangel — who had his own brush with scandal — emphasized the need to reserve judgment until the conclusion of an investigation launched by the state attorney general into multiple allegations of harassment and inappropriate behavior Cuomo now faces.

“Back off, until you’ve got some facts,” he said.

Any road to reelection for the governor, should he survive long enough to run for a fourth term, will run through the Black electorate. One former aide to the governor said the strategy lines up with the state’s needs at the moment.

“Is good government good politics? Absolutely. It makes sense, because he’s always been there,” said the former Cuomo official, who remains close to the administration.

The person, who requested anonymity to speak about the governor’s strategy, noted most Black voters are older, female and “not on Twitter” — a constituency Cuomo and his father, the late Mario Cuomo, have always courted.

“The Cuomo name is synonymous with that,” the person said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the strategy.

At least six women, including multiple former aides, have accused Cuomo of misconduct ranging from aggressive groping to inappropriate comments. Attorney General Tish James, the first Black woman to hold the job, has launched an investigation into the charges, and the state Assembly has begun the process to open an impeachment investigation.

A Siena College poll released this week found that 69 percent of Black voters believe Cuomo should not resign, the highest of any of the demographic groups polled, while only 22 percent said he should. That compares to 35 percent who say he should resign among all voters polled, and 41 percent among white voters.

Black voters were the least likely to say Cuomo committed sexual harassment — with 21 percent saying they believe he did — and the most likely to say they are satisfied with how he has addressed the allegations, at 71 percent.

And if Cuomo runs for a fourth term in 2022, 59 percent of Black voters said they would support him, while 29 percent said they’d prefer someone else. Among voters of all races, 52 percent want someone else, while only 34 percent would re-elect Cuomo.

“We all know how many people, particularly in our community, are incarcerated right now because of allegations. Allegations and facts are two different things,” Rev. Johnnie Green, the pastor of Mount Neboh, said in an interview after the Wednesday event.

He said calls for Cuomo to step down ahead of the investigation were “preposterous.”

“I think it’s premature, and there’s going to be a lot of egg on a lot of people’s faces if the facts come out in his favor,” he added.

Cuomo’s support among Black voters is far from monolithic, and a host of Black elected officials are among those calling for him to resign or be impeached. They include state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and many state lawmakers.

Some view his survival strategy as cynical.

“I’m kind of disgusted that he’s trying to use Black people as a shield for what he’s done,” said state Sen. Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn), who has called for Cuomo to be impeached.

“I’ve seen colleagues liken what’s happening to Cuomo to the Central Park Five or Emmett Till, and I think those are wildly off-base. We’re talking about a governor who has pushed forward policies that have actually harmed Black people the most in this state,” he said. “We are the last ones who should be coming to his defense right now.”

Williams called Cuomo’s tactics “despicable,” saying he has exploited Black New Yorkers’ experience with false allegations in the criminal justice system to serve his own defense.

“The Black community has a long history of trauma around many issues, and it is definitely within the Cuomo playbook to use people’s trauma and sensitivity against them. So I’m not surprised,” he said. “It’s not above him.”

In recent days, Cuomo has appeared alongside Black clergy in Syracuse, on Long Island, and at Manhattan’s Javits Center to promote the Covid-19 vaccine, and bask in positive comments about his pandemic leadership.

He was recently buttressed by a statement released by 21 Democratic women Assembly Members, led by Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, which argued that demanding Cuomo’s immediate resignation would undermine the authority of the first Black woman attorney general.

“We request that she be allowed the appropriate time to complete her investigation, rather than undermine her role and responsibility as the chief law enforcement officer of the state of New York,” the group said.

Cuomo’s allies have also distributed statements backing his wait-and-see stance from a group of Black clergy members and from NAACP New York Conference President Hazel Dukes, who Cuomo has referred to as his “second mother.”

“As a civil rights advocate, I believe in due process,” Dukes said in an interview. “You don’t have any proof. You don’t have any proof.”

Rev. Al Sharpton said he is reluctant to call for Cuomo’s resignation before the results of the investigation are in, and is hearing the same sentiment from chapter leaders of his National Action Network and listeners to his radio show.

“There’s an innate distrust of just jumping to conclusions, because we’ve been victimized more,” Sharpton said in an interview.

But that could change if it becomes clear that Cuomo is incapable of governing, and legislative leaders are unable to negotiate with him on the state budget.

“That would push me over the top, and a lot of the Black community,” Sharpton said.

Cuomo has been re-elected twice over primary challengers on his left, buoyed by strong support in Black neighborhoods in New York City even as he fell out of favor with some upstate residents and white liberals.

Before the scandal broke, he was expected to run for a fourth term. He has given non-answers in response to questions on whether he still plans to run.

Green predicted that Black voters would stick by Cuomo unless the investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing.

“He has a very impressive record. That will be hard to deny him a fourth term, if the facts of these allegations turn out to be in his favor. It will be hard to make the case against a fourth term” he said.

But Brisport said, as allegations continue to emerge, his support will erode.

“Everyone has their limit. Some people have reached their limits months ago or years ago in response to the governor, and some people are not there yet,” he said.

Sharpton said it all depends on who gets into the ring against Cuomo. Williams and James have both been mentioned as potential candidates.

“If he was being challenged by Jumaane Williams, he’d be hurt. If he was running against Donald Trump Jr., he’d probably get an increase in votes.” Sharpton said.

Anna Gronewold, Shannon Young and Bill Mahoney contributed to this report.

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