ALBANY, N.Y. — It was a long-running quip in New York politics that Andrew Cuomo didn’t need campaign operatives — he was his own strategist.
Now the former governor, still toxic after being forced from office last year amid a slew of sexual misconduct claims, may have little choice but to keep his circle small.
As Cuomo weighs a last-minute insurgent run to win back his old office, he’ll find a shortage of political mercenaries ready to do his bidding.
Half a dozen political consultants and polling firms said in interviews that Cuomo has become persona non grata in the consulting world — with some shying away from helping him rebuild his career. They fear angering Democratic leaders and Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has growing influence over the state party as she runs for a full four-year term.
One pollster — Matt McDermott, with the firm Whitman Insight Strategies — already turned down Cuomo, according to a person familiar with the decision. McDermott declined to comment.
“No one in New York politics in their right mind is going to work for Andrew Cuomo,” said a Democratic consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to anger the former governor.
Cuomo has little time to act if he wants to run in the Democratic primary in June. Petitions are due in seven days, and he’ll likely need double the required 15,000 signatures to stave off challenges to the petitions’ validity. He could also plot a bid as an independent, giving him more time to collect signatures and get on the general election ballot.
Polls in New York, particularly one from Siena College on Monday, show Cuomo down but not out. Siena found Cuomo trails Hochul, his hand-picked lieutenant governor, by just 8 percentage points in a hypothetical Democratic primary matchup.
But he remains broadly unpopular following his fall from grace, which came amid the sexual harassment claims, a scandal over Covid-19 deaths tied to nursing homes and the use of state resources for a $5 million book deal. Siena pegged his unfavorable rating at 60 percent among registered voters, despite his ongoing, multimillion-dollar ad campaign designed to improve his image.
Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a New York Hispanic Clergy Organization meeting, Thursday, March 17, 2022, in New York.
Seth Wenig/AP Photo
Some see a run as a losing endeavor for Cuomo — unless he’s out for revenge and little more.
“If he’s the same, shrewd political strategist he’s always been, I think he looks at those numbers and I’d be very surprised if he actually got into this race,” Bruce Gyory, a longtime Democratic political consultant in New York, said in an interview. “If, on the other hand, he’s just so furious at what happened to him and he runs no matter what, I think with those negatives, he could run into a brick wall.”
Cuomo’s potential late entry into the Democratic primary — or into the general election as an independent — leaves few firms left that haven’t already committed to other candidates. Even his longtime polling firm, Global Strategy Group, has been scooped up by Hochul.
While Cuomo has always kept a small, tight-knit group of advisers, he would likely need to rely on consulting firms more than in the past since he would not have the party apparatus or unions to help him circulate petitions or build a get-out-the-vote force. Most unions have already committed their support to Hochul.
“They’re having obstacles doing the basics of getting a polling firm, getting people,” said a Democratic consultant familiar with Cuomo’s team, also speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal. “They’re having a hard time filling even the top-level positions.”
The situation would likely force Cuomo to hire from other states. He has done so now and in the past: The ad firms he has used in 2018 and this year are both from other states.
Cuomo’s small inner circle disputed that they would struggle to build a campaign team, saying they have already hired a pollster that has done internal polls and could easily ramp up to get petition signatures. In January, Cuomo had $16 million in the bank, and although that has dwindled with at least $2 million in ad buys, he still would have enough money to hire the necessary team to get on the ballot.
His aides have pointed out that Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor in 2008, was able to get enough petition signatures within a week to run for New York City comptroller in 2013 — although Spitzer just needed signatures in the city while Cuomo would need at least 100 in each of half of New York’s congressional districts.
So far, Cuomo isn’t showing his hand on whether he’d run in the primary against Hochul, Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
“I have a lot of options open, and I’m considering them,” Cuomo said during his last public appearance on March 17.
Other people close to Cuomo said that calls to former allies has been more about discussing what his long-term comeback might be rather than trying to look to hire campaign staff.
“If you’re a pollster, a campaign consultant, you don’t want to say ‘no’ and you don’t want to say ‘yes,’” said Karen Hinton, a former Cuomo aide in the 1990s and former City Hall spokesperson who is now a harsh critic of the former governor.
“Political people do not want to piss him off because what if he wins — then their future business could be hurt. But they also don’t want to go near him because it might ruin their reputation.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul waves to supporters during the New York State Democratic Convention.
Seth Wenig/AP Photo
Another factor for Cuomo: raising money.
His $16 million would dwindle fast if he takes on Hochul and the other Democratic foes or goes rogue and runs on his own line. And he’d be hard pressed to raise the type of money he is used to — he raised over $100 million during his first three terms — as donors have flocked to Hochul, allowing her to break a fundraising record in January with $22 million in the bank, most of it untouched.
And the Siena poll Monday probably didn’t help build support among potential supporters.
Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi hailed the poll as the second in recent weeks to show Cuomo was within striking distance of Hochul in a primary, saying that “when New Yorkers have the facts, they realize the politicalization and the corruption of the process that was used to force from office.” He called Cuomo “a governor with a real record of results that improved people’s lives.”
Others said the poll showed Cuomo may be at his max support, which would only dwindle with an aggressive Hochul campaign and if foes unleash attacks on him.
The Siena poll showed Cuomo’s unfavorability was 72 percent with registered voters upstate. The only demographic that viewed him favorably was Black voters, at 60 percent.
Worse, 67 percent of registered voters said they did not want him to run for governor, and 56 percent believed that he sexually harassed women. A Siena poll last month found 80 percent of voters said he made the right decision to resign.
“I don’t think those are strong numbers. And the overall numbers in regards to his credibility and whether he should have resigned — there are still more than three-quarters of voters who said he made the right decision,” Gyory said. “If you think he made the right decision to resign, you’re not likely to be a voter who wants him to run for reelection.”