WATERTOWN — While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has become embroiled in multiple scandals over the last several weeks, one person has raised her voice above the rest to lead the public charge against him — Rep. Elise M. Stefanik.
The north country congresswoman, a staunch Republican born and raised in Albany, has blasted the governor, a scion of an old-school New York Democratic political dynasty, on every platform she’s able to access. Fox News, The New York Post, Twitter, Facebook, everywhere you turn, Rep. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, can be found calling Gov. Cuomo “the worst governor in America.”
Just this week, Rep. Stefanik’s campaign launched a new merchandise line calling for Gov. Cuomo to resign from office or be impeached. With red shirts that say, “Impeach Cuomo” and black T-shirts and posters that show Gov. Cuomo in a Wild West-style “Wanted” poster, Rep. Stefanik has begun capitalizing on the campaign against the governor.
This isn’t a departure from her former message on the governor; it’s an escalation. In a recent interview, Rep. Stefanik said she’s been running against Gov. Cuomo and his record since her first election in 2014.
“One of my first campaign events was an anti-SAFE Act rally in Plattsburgh,” she said. “At the time and still today, the north country is vehemently opposed to the far-left anti-Second Amendment legislation that Gov. Cuomo had rammed through in the dead of night.”
The state Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, better known as the SAFE Act, is a gun regulation law in New York state. The law was passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Cuomo in January 2013. The governor has been widely criticized by Republicans, especially in the north country, for the SAFE Act.
Even years later, yard signs opposing the legislation dot the region.
Representatives for Gov. Cuomo’s office did not respond to multiple questions or requests for comment for this story.
Rep. Stefanik has also been involved in the state Republican machine, endorsing and campaigning alongside the Republican opponents to Gov. Cuomo in 2014 and 2018. Considering Gov. Cuomo hasn’t received a majority of votes in the 21st Congressional District since he was first elected in 2010, Clarkson University political science professor Dr. Alexander H. Cohen said it’s no surprise Rep. Stefanik would ally herself with those who oppose him.
“Cuomo is pretty roundly despised by many Republicans in New York,” he said. “His support of taxation and government-supported programs runs against the traditional low-tax laissez-faire Republican line.”
The governor has been an issue in Rep. Stefanik’s own elections as well. In 2018 and 2020, she ran against Democrat Tedra L. Cobb and regularly accused Ms. Cobb of being a “Cuomo clone” or, inaccurately, a “Cuomo appointee” to a regional health care commission, in debates, interviews, advertisements and campaign mailings.
Rep. Stefanik said she’s been the subject of the governor’s wrath directly at least once, during her second term in Congress. In 2017, Rep. Stefanik joined onto an amendment proposed by two other New York Republican members of Congress that would have forced states to pick up the costs of Medicaid typically carried by counties. She said it would have drastically cut taxes for individuals by reversing an unfunded state mandate that caused counties to raise property tax rates.
She said Gov. Cuomo didn’t want to have the extra costs pushed onto the state budget and told her as much over the phone.
“I got a screaming call from the governor, and it was inappropriate and unprofessional,” she said. “When Ron Kim came forward, I immediately thought back to that call.”
In February, state Assemblyman Ron T. Kim, D-Queens, came forward with details of a phone call he had recently received from Gov. Cuomo. Mr. Kim said the governor berated him for 10 minutes because the assemblyman had declined to support Gov. Cuomo as he faced criticism over his handling of nursing homes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened, Rep. Stefanik began building up her criticism of Gov. Cuomo again on a number of issues. In the early days of the pandemic, when ventilators and other hospital equipment were in short supply, Gov. Cuomo announced a plan to redistribute ventilators from upstate hospitals to the more crowded intensive care units in and around New York City.
Rep. Stefanik said she and her team started pushing back, calling for the governor to leave upstate’s medical equipment in place. A day after his announcement, Gov. Cuomo adjusted his messaging on the topic and said he would only redistribute 20% of unused ventilators statewide. He said he was “asking” for, not demanding, the equipment.
“Frankly, we won that,” Rep. Stefanik said.
Rep. Stefanik has consistently criticized Gov. Cuomo on the state’s handling of nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic as well. Since March of last year, she has repeatedly said the governor’s directive that state nursing homes take in COVID-positive senior patients, and not test patients before admitting them, was misguided and wrong.
She’s lashed out at him for keeping businesses shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well, and as the governor has been wrapped up in a number of scandals regarding inappropriate behavior with female staff members and other women around him, Rep. Stefanik was among the first prominent people in New York state to call for him to resign.
While it’s generally been rare for Gov. Cuomo himself to address political drama directly, members of his staff have taken up retorting Rep. Stefanik’s statements. Richard A. Azzopardi, special adviser to Gov. Cuomo, has called Rep. Stefanik a “QAnon trump puppet” and a member of the “treason caucus” for her vote to reject Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes on Jan. 6.
Melissa D. DeRosa, secretary to the governor and a former classmate of Rep. Stefanik’s from Albany Academy for Girls, once described Rep. Stefanik as her “little sister and middle school student council running-mate.” Now, Ms. DeRosa, who attended Rep. Stefanik’s wedding in August 2017, calls her the worst member of Congress in America on Twitter.
Some news reports have suggested that Rep. Stefanik may be hurting her district with all the attacks on Gov. Cuomo, potentially disrupting the flow of state and federal aid to governments, agencies and nonprofits in the north country. Former Democratic NY-21 Congressman William L. Owens said he thinks that’s unlikely.
“I think if the district were to be hurt by someone’s activities, it would be more by (state Senator) Dan Stec,” he said. “He’s been very vocal against Cuomo, and I think that has some danger for his district, but I don’t think Stefanik taking a position that annoys Cuomo would have much impact on how he would interact with the district.”
Rep. Stefanik herself said that while retaliation from Gov. Cuomo would be “par for the course” based on her understanding of how he operates, she hasn’t noted any retaliatory action.
“Any retaliation or punishment, that would be on the governor, and that is illegal and that is unethical,” she said.
Mr. Owens, who served as the north country’s congressman through the last federal redistricting process in 2010, said he thinks the 2020 redistricting process could prove to be a barrier for Rep. Stefanik. With her continued criticism against Gov. Cuomo and any state Democrat who she believes might be shielding the governor, Mr. Owens said she might be risking any good graces in the state Legislature when the state’s congressional districts are drawn.
“If they’re going through this redistricting process, and she’s made herself problematic, why would they try and help her?” Mr. Owens said.
The state’s 10-member Redistricting Commission is tasked with redrawing New York’s congressional, Assembly and Senate elective district lines to be in place for the 2022 elections.
The commission’s first maps must be publicized by Sept. 15 and be submitted to the Legislature in January 2022.
Commissioners continue to be stalled to begin redrawing elective district maps after they recently voted to reject a proposed $1 million contract with the State University of New York Research Foundation. The commission would have received about $750,000 to spend after administrative fees.
The Assembly and Senate each proposed several million additional dollars in funding for the commission.
Douglas A. Breakell, state Redistricting Commission co-executive director, said it’s too soon to say what issues could impact the state’s redistricting because of the funding delay.
“No one knows,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces.”
Commissioners have also been stalled from beginning work because the U.S. Census Bureau is posed to release updated 2020 Census data — information used to draw the maps — in September in addition to the lack of state funds.
Early Census Bureau data suggests the state could lose up to two congressional seats of its current 27 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives because of declining population but remains unclear without specific data.
“This is problematic, but is something we’ll have to address,” Mr. Breakell said. “We won’t get apportionment data until June or July to see how many congressional seats we’re going to have.”
The data is typically released in January but was delayed because of data collection issues last year due to the pandemic.
Having conversations about the state’s congressional seats now is premature, Mr. Breakell said.
“It’s premature to talk about the congressional seats when we don’t know how many we may lose — it’s one or two,” he added. “When we don’t have any of that data, it’s very premature to have these conversations.
“There’s people who draw maps all the time, but we can’t speak on projections,” he added.
But what does it all mean? Sure, Rep. Stefanik could be shooting to pick up points with her constituents who generally dislike Gov. Cuomo, and to stay in the national limelight by talking about the governor’s many scandals on cable TV news, but Mr. Owens said it’s uncommon for a federal legislator to engage so much with their home state’s governor, especially when the two are from different political parties.
“In this particular instance, Elise Stefanik has been going after Cuomo hard for about a year now, to a level that you don’t see any of the other members of the Republican delegation from New York doing,” Mr. Owens said. “This is very unusual, and one would have to think there is some ulterior motive at work.”
Mr. Cohen, the Clarkson University political science professor, said Rep. Stefanik could be angling to get a congressional leadership position. By lashing out at the governor, she can boost her profile, gain points with the national Republican base and earn herself the respect of other Republican leaders.
“She’s been a darling of the Republican Party and fits in with the inclusive ‘Year of the Republican Woman’ mantra the party is running,” Mr. Cohen said. “She’s in a remarkably safe district and has aligned herself very closely with (former President Donald J.) Trump, choosing to speak against the election, even after the (U.S. Capitol) riot.”
Mr. Cohen said Rep. Stefanik could be angling for a chair position on an important congressional committee, or even a cabinet position, returning her to the White House where her political career began with President George W. Bush in 2006.
Many people have suggested Rep. Stefanik may be angling to run for governor of New York herself, something she herself has not discounted.
“I have not ruled anything out,” she said. “We get calls every single day, not just from the north country but from all corners of the state, encouraging me to take a look at it, and I appreciate that encouragement.”
Rep. Stefanik stressed that as of now, she has not begun any steps to put together a race for governor and is focused on running for re-election to Congress in 2022.
“But I will continue to be one of the leading voices speaking up on behalf of not just the north country but New Yorkers across the state who want a change of leadership in the governor’s office,” she said.
Mr. Cohen said he thinks it’s ultimately unlikely that Rep. Stefanik would win a run for governor in New York state. The state is solidly Democratic, despite recent shifts in favor of Republicans in the north country, and it’s unlikely a Republican could win a statewide office.
“There’s not a reasonable path to victory there; it would be quite a reach,” he said. “This is a blue state, it’s going to have a blue governor.”
Rep. Stefanik is also not well positioned for a run for governor, Mr. Cohen said, as she’s been a close ally to Mr. Trump since 2019 and cemented her support of him with her vote against certifying Pennsylvania’s Electoral College results in January.
“She’s never going to be able to untie herself from the things that she has done in support of President Trump’s presidency,” he said. “I don’t see how you win New York as that kind of Republican.”
Mr. Trump has routinely polled among the least popular politicians for New York state voters. A Siena College poll released last June showed that 62% of New Yorkers viewed Mr. Trump in a negative light, and only 33% saw him favorably, all before the dramatic end to his presidency.
Despite that, Mr. Cohen said a run for New York governor would not be all bad for Rep. Stefanik. He cited Georgia Democratic governor candidate Stacey Y. Abrams, who ran for governor, and lost, but saw the loss boost her national profile anyway.
Mr. Cohen said he thinks that no matter what her end game is, Rep. Stefanik has closely calculated her every move thus far.
“All of this is speculative; we’re getting into the skullduggery of politics,” Mr. Cohen said. “But Stefanik has proven herself to be ambitious, strategic and even ruthless.”
Johnson Newspaper Corp. reporter Kate Lisa contributed to this report.