Cuomo Dynasty Sputters Out as Scandal Ends in Lonely Resignation
(Bloomberg) -- Andrew Cuomo’s resignation as governor of New York Tuesday brought to an end a political dynasty stretching back to the 1980s, as a once-towering presence in Democratic politics was forced off stage for sexual misconduct ahead of a possible impeachment trial.
It was an ignominious ending to the once-bright political career of a man nicknamed “America’s governor” during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic. Cuomo’s downfall was marked by his bullying personal style, which propelled him into the national spotlight even as he harassed female subordinates and touched them against their will.
The three-term governor left office only after he had lost support of his fellow Democrats, including state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and President Joe Biden. Even his closest allies deserted him in the final days of his governorship, including his highest-ranking aide Melissa DeRosa and New York Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs.
The governor’s downfall came as he failed to diverge from an aggressive approach to politics that left him standing alone in the end, said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant who has long opposed Cuomo.
“It was not just about the harassment,” she said. “It was the bullying, the cover-ups and the maniacal way he approached governing that brought him down.”
Cuomo had survived scandal before. He leaned on allies, cut off independent investigations and downplayed misconduct. But those strategies failed after a bombshell report from Attorney General Letitia James described him kissing young female aides on the lips, grabbing their breasts and buttocks and, in one case, stroking the spine and abdomen of a state trooper assigned to his security detail.
James said Cuomo violated state and federal laws against harassment and illegally retaliated against one aide who went public about his behavior, claims that spurred a string of criminal investigations. It also sped up an an investigation by the state Assembly, which said on Monday that lawmakers were pursuing a path toward impeachment proceedings.
Cuomo, 63, called the report “false” but apologized to the women and said he chose to resign because the drawn-out impeachment process that was coming would “brutalize people” and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The son of former three-term governor Mario Cuomo, Cuomo started his career several steps ahead of many politicians, serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton before being elected New York attorney general, a position that propelled him to the Executive Mansion in 2011.
As governor, he oversaw the passage of laws to recognize gay marriage, approve medical marijuana, enact the strictest gun safety rules in the nation, expand paid family leave requirements and raise the minimum wage. In 2019, he signed a law that made it easier to prove sexual harassment which came back to haunt him when he claimed his own victims had overreacted.
In 2020, Cuomo received national attention for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including winning an Emmy for his daily televised briefings, snagging a $5 million book deal and becoming the subject of brief chatter that he should replace Biden at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket.
But his critics, which included many of the state’s progressive activists and politicians, long argued that Cuomo was also the biggest impediment to their goals, as he carefully tacked to the center and cut back-room deals with conservatives.
That bad blood between Cuomo and progressives led to two high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful primary challenges over the years, and in the end left him without the allies he needed to survive the current scandals.
Born in Queens, Cuomo always had something of that borough’s pugilistic political style about him, especially when he sparred with another famous native, former President Donald Trump, over the response to the pandemic, among other issues.
Bill Hyers, a Democratic strategist and longtime critic, said that Cuomo “had his thumb on five different scales” on state politics and “ruled by fear and intimidation.”
“He was a Machiavellian bully,” Hyers said. “He wanted to manipulate the legislative process to do whatever he wanted. He wasn’t a progressive; he wasn’t a centrist. He didn’t like raising taxes on rich people, but besides that I couldn’t tell you what ideology he really had.”
His father’s career cast a long shadow over his own, with some observers crediting Cuomo’s desire to avoid losing to a Republican, as his father did, for his persistent tacks to the center. When defending the harassment claims, Cuomo would use his father’s old-school political style as an excuse for his touchiness with female aides, saying his “warmth” toward people that he learned from the elder Cuomo was misunderstood.
As HUD secretary, Cuomo cut staff to streamline the agency and worked to improve its public image while also scoring points among Democrats by negotiating a gun-safety agreement with manufacturer Smith & Wesson Brands Inc.
It also hurt him in his first run for public office, as he started out a strong favorite in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary until he praised the post-9/11 leadership of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, which Democratic voters didn’t want to hear.
Had he won the primary, he would have faced incumbent Governor George Pataki, the Republican who defeated his father in 1994.
Cuomo’s time at HUD would also portend future ethics troubles, as the inspector general appointed by the president to keep tabs on the agency accused Cuomo in 1998 of “harassing and undermining” her, telling a Senate committee that he was hostile to the idea of an independent investigator “not subject to his control.”
That theme cropped up in later scandals, when Cuomo promptly shut down an ethics commission he had created in 2014. After news reports that a Cuomo staffer had barred the Moreland Commission from looking into his administration or groups close to it, Cuomo argued that “it’s my commission.”
“My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission,” he said. “I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So, interference? It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”
When a number of women came forward with sexual harassment claims against Cuomo this year, the governor’s office first suggested that it would handpick a judge to investigate the allegations. After that move was widely condemned, the office backtracked and supported an independent investigation by lawyers chosen by the attorney general, who had been an ally in the past.
James then hired two outside attorneys with experience in employment law who conducted 179 interviews before concluding that Cuomo had harassed at least 11 women.
Despite his loss in 2002, Cuomo won the Democratic primary for New York attorney general and defeated Republican nominee Jeanine Pirro, who now hosts a Fox News program.
As attorney general, Cuomo gained notice for high-profile investigations of student-loan providers and online child pornography. He handily won the 2010 primary and general elections for governor.
One of Cuomo’s first goals was to turn around the state’s budget process, completing the first on-time budgets in years while also using his strong executive powers to push his legislative goals into the annual spending plan.
His centrist political approach was made easier by the fact that Republicans controlled the state Senate, and even after Democrats won a majority in 2012, a breakaway group of conservative Democrats called the Independent Democratic Conference voted to keep Republicans in charge.
That changed when Democrats retook the state Senate in 2018, and later built super-majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, meaning they could override any Cuomo veto threats, especially as the progressive wing of the party grew more powerful.
By the time the harassment scandals came to light in late 2020 and early 2021, Cuomo was in a much more vulnerable position than he had been in years. His administration was accused of covering up deaths at nursing home and his personal call to Assemblyman Ron Kim pressing him to back down on his criticism backfired, with Kim going public to accuse the governor of bullying him over the Covid scandal.
Cuomo’s high profile due to the pandemic may have also contributed to his undoing.
Former aide Lindsey Boylan told Harper’s Bazaar that one reason she came forward with allegations of sexual harassment was that Cuomo’s name had been floated as a possible Biden administration attorney general nominee.
“I woke up the next day, and the governor was being floated for attorney general, the highest law enforcement position in the U.S.,” Boylan said. “And I didn’t think about it at all ... I began tweeting about my experience.”
After Boylan came forward, nearly a dozen other women followed. Cuomo apologized to the women on Tuesday. He said what he did didn’t cross the line, but that he “didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”
It was too late. In the end, not a single ally spoke up to defend his behavior -- besides his paid personal attorney Rita Glavin -- and the governor said goodbye to New York while he sat alone on the dais of his Manhattan office.
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