Cuomo Clings to Power as He Stares Down Impeachment Inquiry

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is clinging to power as he faces an impeachment inquiry led by the state’s own Democratic lawmakers over allegations of misconduct.

Pressure to unseat him hit a new high on Thursday after allegations emerged that he groped a female aide under her blouse, 59 Democrats in the state Legislature demanded that he resign, and the Assembly speaker began an impeachment inquiry that could lead to his removal from office.

Cuomo Clings to Power as He Stares Down Impeachment Inquiry

Yet removing a sitting governor from office is a lengthy, complicated process. And the intractable Cuomo, who has said there was “no way” he would step down, continues to hang on, defiant.

“Obviously he’s very much on the ropes,” said longtime Democratic political consultant George Arzt. “He’s just stretching it out.”

Assembly Democrats gathered on Thursday for what Speaker Carl Heastie called a discussion of “next steps.”

New York Democratic Party leader Jay Jacobs, a longtime ally of Cuomo’s who has asked fellow politicians to wait for the results of an investigation before passing judgment, said in a statement on Thursday that he respected the lawmakers who think the governor ought to resign, and that he would “be convening a meeting of county chairs so that I can hear their perspective on the current controversy directly.”

Behind the statements is an intensifying clash among Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both houses. In one camp are a growing number of lawmakers who want to initiate articles of impeachment regardless of whether Cuomo steps down. Another faction argues that Cuomo should be given the chance to stay in power until Attorney General Letitia James publishes the findings of her investigation into the sexual-harassment allegations, or the Legislature conducts its own inquiry.

“I don’t want to be the one who makes a decision on the governor’s fate before all the facts are in,” said Assembly Majority Leader, Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the second most powerful person in the chamber after Heastie.

Peoples-Stokes was among a group of 23 female lawmakers who signed a letter earlier this week urging the public and other politicians to await the attorney general’s investigation, a statement Cuomo himself hailed as the right way to go.

“We’re not really in a position to know,” said Assemblywoman Latrice Walker of Brooklyn. She said demands for immediate resignation without allowing James to go forward and make her own determinations of fact represented an example of a female office holder, particularly a woman of color, being disrespected.

“We are watching the position of the authority of the first Black woman attorney general being muted with these calls for resignation and impeachment,” Walker said. “It’s insulting, it’s disrespectful, and it’s against the deeply embedded principle in American jurisprudence that you allow the facts to come out before you make a judgment.”

But details of a sixth accuser, who said the governor put his hands up her blouse and groped her in the Executive Mansion last year, turned up the heat on Cuomo, who says he never touched anyone inappropriately. His office referred the matter to the Albany police.

“It is impacting the ability to govern at this point, and it just, it crossed a line. This is a new level of allegation,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, an Albany Democrat who signed the 23-woman pledge. She said Cuomo should “step aside and let our well-respected Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul step in while these investigations are underway.”

New York’s U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has supported waiting for James’s investigation, called the latest accusation “nauseating” during a Friday interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” but did not call for Cuomo’s resignation.

“I have a lot of faith in her investigation,” Schumer said of James.

On Thursday night, the Wall Street Journal reported aides to the governor and others in his circle had called former employees seeking to discredit one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, a former aide.

Steps to Impeachment

Heastie offered a compromise late Thursday: He formally authorized the judiciary committee to investigate whether the allegations warranted impeachment. The committee will be afforded subpoena power to interview witnesses and evaluate evidence, which could later serve as a legal basis for impeachment.

That action could make a case stronger, with the potential for high-quality evidence from the probe, said James A. Gardner, a law professor at the University at Buffalo.

New York’s impeachment process works mostly like the federal one used most recently against former President Donald Trump. The process starts with a majority vote in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, then moves to the state Senate, where a two-thirds vote by senators and the state’s top judges is required to convict.

Yet unlike the federal process, there is no “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard so the governor could be impeached for any reason lawmakers deem necessary. There’s also no telling how long the process could take because the state Constitution doesn’t provide any language on timing and there’s little precedent. The last impeachment was in 1913, and the Constitution is “vague,” Gardner said. “I don’t think anybody alive has any insight.”

The moment impeachment proceedings begin at the Assembly, Hochul would step in as acting governor. Cuomo only would return to office if the Senate acquitted him.

A Cuomo spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Weakened Grip

Some lawmakers argue that keeping him in power could actually help them achieve more legislative victories as the April 1 budget deadline nears. Privately, some are weighing whether an emboldened Legislature could pounce on a weakened leader.

“There’s huge built-up resentment in the Legislature about how the governor has controlled the budget process, so the impetus on the part of legislators and advocates to take advantage of the governor’s relative weakness at the moment to put their priorities back into the budget is very strong,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of business group Partnership for New York City. “The leverage has shifted to the Legislature.”

The governor has final say over the budget, with lawmakers only able to remove or reduce spending with Cuomo’s approval unless they can muster the votes to override him, which Democrats now have in the Senate.

Cuomo has another card to play as the Legislature debates a $193.3 billion spending plan for fiscal 2022: $12.6 billion in federal aid from the federal relief package that he can help dole out to supporters.

Saved by the Stimulus?

“The scandal could hurt him, but when you realize the president’s stimulus package has been passed, the impact of that on the state’s finances will be so positive that we will all look good in the budget process,” said Peoples-Stokes.

Cuomo has long prized delivering an on-time spending plan, which he has said is the bulwark to a functioning government. Before he took office in 2011, late budgets were commonplace in Albany. Cuomo made it a point to pass four consecutive on-time plans during his first term and cap spending increases. He has even tied lawmakers’ pay raises to meeting budget deadlines.

While technically a spending plan for the state, budget negotiations have allowed him to flex his muscle and push policy priorities like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, overhauling ethics rules, and altering rules for teacher tenure. Lawmakers also look upon the budget as a way to keep promises made to their constituents.

Last Sunday, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, called on Cuomo to resign, saying his scandals were a “daily distraction.” Heastie said the governor should “seriously consider” whether he can still be effective in office.

Democratic consultant Monica Klein, a longtime Cuomo critic, said that one-two punch was particularly damaging, since Cuomo has to work with both leaders to put together the budget.

“This is a governor who wields his power to strong-arm legislators, especially around the budget negotiations, and instead the speaker and the majority leader are operating together without him,” she said.

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