EDITORIAL: If you can’t stand the heat, don’t run for office.

The state Capitol is seen on March 13.
The state Capitol is seen on March 13.

Public official.

The identity of their employer is right there in the name.

The “public.”

The title of public official — elected or appointed — carries with it certain obligations.

One of them is to answer questions from the public (and that includes the media), regardless of whether you want to answer the question or whether the question makes you uncomfortable, embarrassed or angry.

The public pays you with their tax dollars. You take an oath to serve the public. And when a member of the public asks you a question, it’s your responsibility to provide an answer.

Yet many public officials these days have forgotten that obligation, as evidenced by the reaction of a state Assemblywoman on Wednesday to a reporter’s question about how she could justify appearing at a public event with Gov. Andrew Cuomo after she so strongly criticized him and called for him to resign over sexual harassment allegations just four months ago.

Assemblywoman Diana Richardson, a Democrat from Brooklyn, in March said Cuomo was not entitled to remain in office because he had “irreparably damaged his trustworthiness and ability to lead.”

Yet there she was on Wednesday, at a public political event hosted by the governor, acting as if nothing had ever happened. At one point Wednesday, she and the governor even exchanged kisses, according to multiple news reports.

When a reporter asked her about the obvious hypocrisy of her appearance, she responded angrily, scolding the reporter for asking a question that was “inappropriate for the topic of this press conference.”

“We are in a state of emergency,” she puffed, parroting Cuomo’s earlier declaration of a state of emergency due to gun violence. “This is not the time for us to be in our emotions and people’s personal endeavors.

This is the time to be solution-oriented and focused.”

Puh-leeze. That’s not the real reason she was angry. She just didn’t want to answer the question. And who could blame her, really?

Answering such a question might reveal how strongly the Assemblywoman currently holds to her past criticisms of the governor. It might provide some insight into how committed she, and perhaps her fellow Democrats, are to actually punishing or even removing the governor should the evidence warrant it. Does she feel her association with Cuomo at this time represents a conflict of interest? Was she serious about her comments when she said them, or was she just taking advantage of the situation to pander to voters? She wouldn’t say.

The question was completely timely and relevant, as Cuomo still faces investigations and possible impeachment proceedings over his conduct. Had these issues been resolved, then maybe she could have said the reporter was beating a dead horse. But Cuomo’s situation is still very much pending and the Assemblywoman will have some input into how it turns out. In fact, Cuomo was reportedly scheduled to be interviewed Saturday by investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office. That’s how fresh this all still is.

As for whether having to answer this one question impeded her work during the so-called “state of emergency,” again, nonsense.

Posing the question at this forum did not interfere with her obligation to continue to work with the governor on gun legislation or anything else. She and the governor weren’t engaged in negotiations during the press conference. She wasn’t there in an official capacity. She was there because she wanted to be seen with Cuomo supporting an agenda she thinks might get her votes, hoping those same voters will ignore or forget her previous statements on Cuomo’s scandals.

In firing back at the reporter, Richardson also said the reporter should stick to the topic of the press conference.

There’s no obligation for reporters at a press conference to stick to the agenda set forth by the politicians. If that were the case, politicians could avoid answering difficult questions all the time.

It’s difficult enough for reporters to find an opportunity to directly question politicians as it is. Since the scandals over the nursing home deaths, his book deal and the harassment allegations have come up, the governor himself has increasingly avoided scrutiny by holding events in which he refuses to take questions from reporters, often lamely blaming the exclusion of the press on COVID protocols.

By refusing to answer questions at all, he is also avoiding taking responsibility for his actions, just in a more passive-aggressive way.

To be fair to politicians, there certainly could be questions that are legitimately inappropriate for any situation, questions of a deeply personal nature that have no effect or connection to the public official’s official duties. But this question was not that.

Of course, the whole tactic of turning the question on the media was popularized in the past few years by former President Donald Trump, who when confronted with a question he didn’t like, would often respond by insulting the reporter and his or her news organization.

Few reporters had the courage to persist with their questioning, and when they did, Trump would sometimes just walk away and end the press conference without ever answering the question.

Cuomo also has a reputation for snarking at reporters who ask questions he doesn’t like. Avoidance of questions knows no political boundaries.

So why do politicians from both political parties increasingly use that tactic to avoid questions? Because it works.

Assemblywoman Richardson never did answer the reporter’s question. She never did explain how she could rationalize appearing all lovey-dovey with Cuomo after he had “irreparably damaged his trustworthiness and ability to lead.”

Will there ever be an appropriate time, Assemblywoman Richardson, for you to answer that question? If not at a press conference, then when? Reporters shouldn’t let her off the hook. They should ask her the question every single time she appears until she answers it. Send a message that this isn’t acceptable conduct.

The bottom line is that being a public official means being accountable to the public. Before anyone decides to take on this responsibility and the obligations that come with it, they should ask themselves whether they’re willing and able to answer tough questions.

If the answer is no, they shouldn’t just adopt this cynical practice of avoiding questions.

They should find another line of work.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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