ALBANY – At the height of the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called upon some of his most trusted emissaries to return to the fold to help coordinate the state’s coronavirus response, including Larry Schwartz, his former top aide who is now leading New York’s vaccination efforts.
But with Cuomo facing concurrent scandals and calls for his resignation, Schwartz has also assumed a more familiar role: as a political operative, asking state Democratic leaders to support the governor, a third-term Democrat, while continuing to discuss the urgent business of immunization.
According to two Democratic county executives, Schwartz placed calls to them in recent weeks, inquiring about their loyalty to the governor amid a series of sexual harassment allegations that have led many congressional Democrats in New York, including both the state’s senators, to demand Cuomo’s resignation.
In one case, a county executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that after Schwartz had discussed the governor’s political situation, he then pivoted directly to a conversation about vaccine distribution.
In another example, a second county executive said Schwartz called immediately after a different Cuomo administration official had called about vaccine distribution in the county.
The close timing of those calls was unusual enough that the second executive’s legal counsel filed a preliminary complaint Friday with the state attorney general office’s public integrity bureau about a possible ethics violation by the governor’s office, according to an official with direct knowledge of the complaint.
Schwartz insisted in a statement Sunday that he had never mixed COVID-response policy with political considerations, noting that “distribution and the administration of vaccines in New York state is based on a clear formula.”
“All decisions regarding vaccines are done based on public health considerations, not politics,” Schwartz said. “At no time has politics ever entered into the discussion or decision-making regarding vaccines. I have never discussed vaccines in a political context and anyone who thinks that is seriously mistaken.”
Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, praised Schwartz for working “night and day to help New York through this pandemic” and rejected any intimation from the county executives of improper politicking. “Any suggestion that he acted in any way unethically or in any way other than in the best interest of the New Yorkers that he selflessly served is patently false,” Garvey said.
The disclosure of Schwartz’s phone calls comes as Cuomo is engaged in a fight for his political survival unlike any he has confronted in his decades in politics.
A string of women have made accusations against him, including groping, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior, and their claims are being investigated by independent lawyers overseen by the state attorney general. The governor has denied touching anyone inappropriately.
Cuomo has faced a fusillade of calls for his resignation that, on Friday, also included dozens of Democratic members of the state Assembly, though that chamber remained a bulwark between the governor and impeachment.
The speaker, Carl Heastie of the Bronx, announced last week that the Judiciary Committee would investigate the issue. But neither Democrats nor Republicans in that chamber have the votes to impeach Cuomo and force a trial in the state Senate, where the majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, has said Cuomo should resign.
The Assembly investigation – and a parallel inquiry overseen by the state attorney general, Letitia James – could take months to complete, effectively buying the governor time to repair his battered public image. And the governor, his supporters and his aides have, in fact, worked to shore up support behind the scenes. A Democratic political operative who has been a longtime ally of the governor, Charlie King, has in recent days solicited public comments urging that the investigations be given time to be completed.
For most of his tenure, Cuomo has relied on a close set of advisers who act as both political enforcers and point people on government operations. In February, The New York Times reported that at least nine top officials in the state Health Department had resigned or retired during the pandemic as Cuomo aides acted without their input or expertise.
Cuomo had made it clear, in public and private comments, that he believed state public health officials had no understanding of how to conduct a large-scale operation like vaccinations and that his close aides, who like Schwartz did not have public health experience, could do a better job.
Schwartz, who is unpaid, has been in charge of vaccination planning, a position that puts him in frequent contact with local officials.
Indeed, the two county executives said they spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to endanger their local vaccination efforts.
The phone calls by Schwartz, who for much of the pandemic has lived with Cuomo in the governor’s mansion, put on stark display the political concern for Cuomo, who has long held a dominant place in state politics and just a year ago was well on his way to becoming a hero of the pandemic, with soaring approval ratings.
Now, however, he faces a struggle to simply hold onto his job, arguing that he has a unique skill set to guide the state through the end stages of the pandemic and pleading for New Yorkers to await the outcome of the two separate investigations into his behavior.
“I’m going to avoid distractions, and I’m going to focus on my job,” he said Friday, noting the state’s budget was due soon. “I have to rebuild the state.”
But many other New York Democrats believe that the governor has lost his mandate and ability to lead.
“I got to tell you, the folks in this state and the political leadership don’t believe in him anymore,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a frequent political foe, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, reiterating a call for Cuomo to resign. “He’s holding up our effort to fight COVID. He’s literally in the way of us saving lives right now.”
The news of Schwartz’s calls to county executives also gave fresh ammunition to Republicans, the minority party in Albany, which has seen a sliver of political hope in the possibility of Cuomo’s fall.
“I’ve said it numerous times, but I’ll say it again: @NYGovCuomo hasn’t been following the medical science,” state Sen. Rob Ortt, the minority leader, said Sunday on Twitter. “He’s been following the political science.”
The seeming mixing of politics and the state’s vaccination program threatened to further complicate Cuomo’s efforts to forge ahead with the day-to-day business of government despite the deep uncertainty about his future.
It also threw a spotlight on a concern quietly voiced by local officials in recent months: that the Cuomo administration may have viewed its control over the scarce supply of vaccines doled out by the federal government as a means to reward or punish local officials.
Not every county executive received a call. Many county executives in the state are Republican, and several who were reached Friday said that Schwartz had not called them to discuss politics or the governor. A third county official confirmed that Schwartz had called to gauge the official’s opinion of Cuomo’s political straits but said the issue of vaccination had not come up.
Beyond the accusations of sexual harassment by Cuomo, his administration is also being investigated by federal prosecutors for its handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Several of Cuomo’s top aides, including his most senior adviser, Melissa DeRosa, directed the state’s Health Department to remove figures on residents’ deaths from a report on nursing homes, a Times investigation found.
Days after the report appeared in early July, Cuomo discussed writing a book about his pandemic leadership for the first time. The book became a bestseller after its release in October, but last week his publisher said it would no longer be promoting the title and would not issue it in paperback because of the investigation.
Cuomo has rejected calls for him to resign, though the governor has admitted to making remarks that might have been construed as “unwanted flirtation.” In a defiant news conference Friday, the governor said that resigning would be tantamount to “bowing to cancel culture” and lashed out at lawmakers for “reckless and dangerous” statements about him needing to step aside.
Still, by the end of the day Friday, those endorsing an end of the Cuomo administration included Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom have been allies of the governor in the past.
That same day, Cuomo was photographed outside the governor’s mansion in Albany, where he has grown increasingly isolated, a blanket thrown over his shoulders, a cellphone pressed to his ear.