Is Andrew Cuomo finished?
Since March, when sexual harassment allegations against the governor first piled up, this has been one of the only great questions worth mulling over in New York State politics. About a dozen women, many of them current and former staffers, leveled allegations against Cuomo, accusing the three-term Democrat of unwanted kissing and groping, and of fostering a heinous work environment. Cuomo denied or dismissed almost all of the allegations and demanded due process, declaring at one point he was the victim of “cancel culture.”
Now, that due process has arrived.
Yesterday, Attorney General Letitia James, a former Cuomo ally, released her report into the allegations. For Cuomo, the outcome was devastating. The James report substantiated the allegations — including one that Cuomo grabbed the breast of a staffer — and defended the women at every turn. “These interviews and pieces of evidence reveal a deeply disturbing, yet clear picture,” James said.
Every Democrat of substance, including President Joe Biden, called for Cuomo’s resignation. The only Democrat who really matters to Cuomo, though, appeared to turn on him as well: Carl Heastie, the speaker of the State Assembly. “It is abundantly clear to me that the Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office,” Heastie said in a statement.
The cautious speaker chooses his words carefully, and here it was, on a Tuesday afternoon in August, the potential death blow to Cuomo. If the Assembly successfully impeaches the governor, he is finished, and all indications are that the votes are being lined up. Cuomo might be arrogant enough to go to trial and fight for vindication, but this is not Trump in Washington — there is no majority of loyalists waiting in the Senate to save him. New York State’s version is a mix of progressive Democrats who revile Cuomo and Republicans who would, for different reasons, like to see him chased from office. At this point, Cuomo must suspect what’s in store for him.
Will he resign? He didn’t in March, and the mind stretches, still, to imagine such an event taking place. Any rational or ordinary politician would, but Cuomo is neither, really. The son of a three-term governor, he was reared to seek power and clutch onto it. He may, like Richard Nixon, decide in the end that impeachment is not worth it and shuffle off. Nixon and Cuomo certainly share a megalomaniacal streak, but even Nixon, in his darkest hour, understood where he was headed.
If the sexual harassment allegations were the trigger for Cuomo’s downfall, it must be understood that there is a great deal of subtext here. Many Democrats in office have wanted Cuomo gone for a while now. They are tired of his casual brutality and arrogance, how he has treated the state as his own personal fiefdom for a decade. Allies are allies out of convenience or fear; to this day, Cuomo has virtually no friends in government. Those that survive in his orbit are largely sycophantic in nature.
Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which on its own would not be enough to doom him, was equally scandalous. Thousands died in New York who didn’t have to die because Cuomo downplayed the threat of the virus in March 2020 and moved too slowly to shut down the state. He purposefully hid the death toll in nursing homes, triggering another federal investigation that is ongoing. He tried to slash Medicaid payments to public hospitals while granting sweeping legal immunity to all healthcare institutions so that the families of those who died could never sue.
Despite that, Cuomo was once enormously popular, a national hero during the early months of the pandemic as beleaguered New Yorkers sought guidance from a politician who wasn’t Trump. Cuomo graced the covers of major magazines and was feted on cable TV, particularly CNN and MSNBC. This was entirely undeserved, but it gave him a residual well of support that he hopes, even now, will see him through these darkening days.
All of this hangs in the air as the Assembly moves against Cuomo. Beyond the legislature, other key allies are defecting. Three major labor unions — 32BJ SEIU, the Hotel Trades Council, and the state teachers’ union — all called for Cuomo to resign. If labor turns on Cuomo, it will be hard for him to remain, let alone seek a fourth term. It is still unclear what Cuomo’s wealthiest donors from the real estate and finance industries will decide to do. Freezing him out would be crippling; he has no concept of grassroots fundraising.
For the many operators in the Democratic establishment, Cuomo serves no greater purpose. His act has grown old. And if he is governor no longer, intriguing vacancies will appear. His lieutenant governor, a genial Buffalo Democrat named Kathy Hochul, could become New York’s first female governor, though her lack of a downstate base will probably hamper her in the long run. James, the attorney general, would be a top candidate to replace Hochul. Another Brooklynite, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, could leap into the fray too, as might many others if Cuomo is not in the primary. Ambitious Democrats down the ladder can run to replace them. And below them, other lower-ranked or aspiring pols will snatch at a rare opportunity. A world where one man does not wield such titanic power will be beneficial for just about anyone with a modicum of ambition.
For so long, Cuomo’s fourth term seemed preordained. First elected in 2010, Cuomo was all but guaranteed, as recently as January, to cruise to re-election next year. At that point, he would have exceeded his father, who lost an attempt at a fourth term to Republican George Pataki. The Republicans have no power in New York anymore, so the only threat loomed from a Democrat. Cuomo’s fundraising prowess and New York’s shockingly lax campaign finance laws insulated him from serious challengers.
That is no longer true. Cuomo’s survival will depend on profound cowardice from the Assembly and undying loyalty from political allies who were joined to him, for so many years, out of a need to extract money or favors from the state’s most powerful politician in generations. Cuomo has nothing to dispense now. He is wounded and bleeding out. It’s up to Heastie and his colleagues to finish the job. ❖