Cuomo backers pause and reevaluate fundraising as he faces sexual harassment probe

Politics

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference before the opening of a mass Covid-19 vaccination site in the Queens borough of New York, on February 24, 2021.

Seth Wenig | AFP | Getty Images

Key financial backers of Andrew Cuomo are pausing and reevaluating their support for the New York governor, who has been accused of sexual harassment by two female former aides, according to people directly involved in fundraising.

Several of these people declined to be identified out of fear of retribution from the governor, who will be the subject of an independent state investigation. Cuomo is running for a fourth term in next year’s election.

“No one is giving to him now. Everything is on hold,” one finance executive said.  

Others expressed their befuddlement about the crisis Cuomo faces.

“I think people who like him and have been with him for a long time are scratching their heads, asking how did he put himself in that position,” Bernard Schwartz, a New York businessman who has supported Cuomo for years, told CNBC on Monday.

“Unless he comes forward and faces it completely and openly and honestly, he doesn’t deserve a fourth term, even though I like him immensely,” said Schwartz, who has given $70,000 to Cuomo’s campaign since 2019. Schwartz said he plans to call Cuomo in the coming days.

Cuomo is a moderate Democrat who has built a vast and powerful network of donors. Since July, his campaign has raised over $4 million, state records show. His campaign started the New Year with a war chest of over $16 million. 

The fundraisers and donors are the latest group to push back on Cuomo after the allegations became public. Federal and state Democratic lawmakers, including President Joe Biden’s administration, have backed an independent investigation into the claims made against Cuomo.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office is set to pick an independent outside attorney to conduct the probe. A Cuomo press representative did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, accused the governor of asking questions about her personal life, such as whether she was monogamous in relationships and if she had “been with an older man.” 

Cuomo, 63, conceded that he had conversations with aides that have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.” He has denied ever inappropriately touching or propositioning anyone. 

Lindsey Boylan, 36, another former aide, has accused Cuomo of kissing her without consent, among other alleged issues. He has denied her claims.

The relationships Cuomo has built with his financial network were evident during the early stages of the presidential primary, when he signaled to his donors that they should support Biden.

John Catsimatidis, a founder of the New York-based Gristedes supermarket chain, is another donor who weighed in on the controversy. Catsimatidis, who is expected to run a second time for mayor of New York as a Republican, did not rule out walking away from Cuomo.

“Let’s see what the investigations reveal,” Catsimatidis told CNBC on Monday. Catsimatidis gave $10,000 to Cuomo’s campaign in 2018, records show.

Multiple Wall Street executives who are close to Cuomo donors and bundlers told CNBC on the condition of anonymity that efforts to raise money have either paused or are being reevaluated in the wake of the allegations.

“They’re more in a wait-and-see mode. If this blows over, they don’t want to have gotten on the wrong side of the governor,” one person said. “So they’re in a wait-and-see mode, meaning not writing a check now but also not willing to completely cut him off yet.”

A longtime associate of Cuomo’s who has been a regular contributor to his campaigns told CNBC that the sexual harassment accusations could force New York voters to seek another leader for their state. Cuomo is embroiled in other scandals, including the state’s underreporting of nursing home deaths from Covid-19.

Meanwhile, corporations that financed Cuomo’s most recent run for office, in 2018, and in some cases continued to back him throughout last year are remaining silent on the accusations.

AT&T, Comcast, United Health Group, Ernst and Young, Citigroup, JPMorgan and Bank of America are among the major corporations that have contributed to Cuomo’s political operation. Representatives for JPMorgan and Citi declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to requests for comment. Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal, which owns CNBC.

After the deadly Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill, these companies opted to either pause contributions to Republican and Democratic lawmakers, halt donations to lawmakers who challenged the results of the election, review their overall policy on campaign contributions to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, or suspend their political donations entirely.

Veteran Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf explained that most corporations aren’t going to push back on Cuomo, at least not yet, because many have headquarters in New York and conduct much of their business in the state.

“Many of these corporations are located in New York and have interests in New York, and they will likely stand with the governor because it’s in their interests to do so,” Sheinkopf said.

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