Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, who got nearly 37 percent of the vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election despite huge disadvantages in campaign cash and name recognition, said Feb. 18 that he might challenge Governor Cuomo again next year, with the growing controversy over the large number of deaths in state nursing homes to be a key issue if he does.
"I'm giving it real consideration," he said in a phone interview while conceding that he might instead run for Congress if he didn't sense enough support from the Republican and Conservative parties—on whose lines he ran three years ago—and Democrats willing "to cross the line and vote for honest, competent government" rather than give Mr. Cuomo a fourth term.
Incumbent on Defensive
He was speaking after the Governor had spent more than a week responding to questions raised about the state Health Department's policy directive 11 months ago that required nursing homes to readmit residents who had been hospitalized due to coronavirus infections without actually testing them to see whether the disease remained in their systems.
That issue became explosive after Mr. Cuomo's top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told state legislators Feb. 10 that the administration had withheld information about the number of deaths of nursing-home residents due to the virus since last August because it "froze" after a U.S. Justice Department request for similar information that the Governor feared would be used as a political weapon by President Trump.
The New York Post obtained a tape of Ms. DeRosa's remarks, which had infuriated lawmakers from both parties who had learned last month that the state had concealed the full extent of the pandemic on nursing-home residents until a damning report was released in mid-January by the State Attorney General's Office that stated the Health Department count of 8,711 nursing-home deaths might actually be 50-percent higher. Health Commissioner Howard Zucker then released an adjusted count of 12,743, and The Post subsequently reported that by Feb. 10, counting deaths among residents of state assisted-living and adult-care facilities, the death toll had surpassed 15,000.
Mr. Cuomo tried to repair the political damage during a Feb. 15 press conference in which he said his administration's main fault had been in being too slow to publicize the updated numbers, which allowed "misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories" to unnecessarily stir alarms and anger.
A Favor to Contributors?
But the following evening, two Democratic legislators, Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens and State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi of The Bronx, accused Mr. Cuomo of steering Health Department policy regarding nursing-home residents to benefit the Greater New York Hospital Association, a lobbying group on behalf of the state's hospitals that had contributed $1 million to the state Democratic Party in 2018 to benefit the Governor's re-election run.
Speaking on NY1's "Inside City Hall," Ms. Biaggi claimed that a last-minute addition to the state budget early last spring granting immunity from coronavirus-related liability to hospitals and nursing homes had been written by representatives of the GNYHA.
Regarding Mr. Cuomo's contention that state legislators had signed off on those provisions, she and Mr. Kim said the vote on them was taken without sufficient time to examine the late insertions to the budget.
Mr. Molinaro said that both the budgetary tactics and the favoritism shown to his big donors were characteristic of Mr. Cuomo's tenure.
"The Governor has made decisions this way for years," he said.
Spurred by Elmhurst Woes?
During his press conference three days earlier, Mr. Cuomo pointed out that the Health Department directive was issued the day after Elmhurst Hospital "collapsed," as a combination of a staff shortage and a large number of patients with the coronavirus being treated at the Queens facility produced 13 deaths in a 24-hour span.
But one longtime union critic of Mr. Cuomo, Usher Piller, a chapter leader of the Public Employees Federation, noted that at that time there were many hospitals, particularly upstate, that were not short on patient beds.
And Mr. Molinaro said that there were options for treating virus patients downstate as well, asking, "Why weren't alternate facilities like the U.S.S. Comfort and the Javits Center used?"
He insisted a primary motive for the Health Department order was to move nursing-home patients out of hospital beds once they were stabilized, at the behest of a major donor group.
"They were lying in April. They were lying when they said they 'froze' because of a Federal investigation," the Dutchess County Executive said. "They used manipulated data to set policy for 10 months," referring to the undercounting of nursing-home deaths. "You only get to sit at this table with the Governor if you make large contributions."
'Targeted' the Weak
Mr. Molinaro acknowledged that New York was not the only state where the interests of nursing-home residents were disregarded. (Mr. Cuomo had noted that the percentage of residents who died of the disease here was 30 percent of the state's overall total, below both the national figure of 36 percent and those of other states including Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.)
"This state and America allowed them to be treated as targets," he said. "This happened to individuals who are not able to fend for themselves. There was a conscious decision made in America and in New York to say to these people in congregate-care centers that we are not going to give you resources because they're needed somewhere else."
He was asked why he remained undecided about whether to challenge Mr. Cuomo again or seek a congressional seat in the Hudson Valley, given how much more power he could wield as Governor than as a U.S. Representative, particularly if Republicans don't gain control of the House in next year's elections.
Mr. Molinaro responded that Democrats' 2-to-1 edge in voter registration statewide and the Governor's considerable edges in name recognition and campaign cash meant it would be "an enormous challenge" to take him on again.
Campaigning in the city in 2018, he said that aside from one negative comment, residents he encountered seemed open to his politically moderate message, but not nearly enough of them were willing to vote for him against a two-term incumbent.
He would challenge Mr. Cuomo again, Mr. Molinaro said, if he believed that enough Democrats reached the same conclusion he had over the past year: "Having watched what we've seen in both Albany and Washington, there's a clear need for competence in government."
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