In the past year, Andrew Cuomo has been floated as a replacement for Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket, scored a reported multimillion-dollar book advance, won an Emmy for his COVID-briefings, and launched a legion of online fans for his just-the-facts style of dealing with the pandemic.
And now, his fate rests with 150 mostly unknown state lawmakers who represent tiny slices of New York in the State Assembly, where any possible impeachment proceeding would begin.
On Sunday, after Cuomo gave a defiant press conference in which he said not only that he wouldn’t resign in the wake of a spiraling sexual-harassment scandal and a similarly spiraling nursing-home scandal but that to even ask him to do so would be anti-democratic, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie released a statement that said, “It is time for the Governor to seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York.”
The phrasing was a shade less direct than how Heastie’s counterpart in the State Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, put it — “For the good of the state Governor Cuomo must resign” — and reflects not only Heastie’s position but that of the entire State Assembly, where Cuomo’s fate now rests.
Lawmakers in both bodies describe Heastie, despite being just 53 years old and in his perch for six years, as a politician of the old school, an institutionalist and a dealmaker who has been reluctant to get too far ahead of the Assembly Democrats he leads and reluctant to cause further chaos in the state as New York continues to recover from the pandemic and to distribute vaccines.
“Carl’s feeling is that we are in the middle of budget negotiations, it is the biggest single thing we do every year, and we need to focus on the work,” said one lawmaker, who like others contacted for this article requested anonymity to discuss the behind-closed-doors conversations within the caucus. “We can’t let whatever is happening with Cuomo get in the way of governing, not now.”
Currently, the caucus is divided. There are a group of Democrats, mostly from communities of color, where Cuomo runs strong, who want State Attorney General Letitia James to continue her investigation and are pledging to withhold judgment until the investigation is complete.
“We collectively request that all complaints involving sexual misconduct or otherwise be made with the Attorney General of New York State,” a group of two dozen female Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter. “We respectfully want to honor all situations simultaneously and believe the Attorney General is best equipped to do that.”
Another group — a mix of progressives and moderate Democrats — has been ready to call for Cuomo’s removal for weeks, almost as soon as the nursing-home scandal broke. This group has been growing slowly but steadily. “What’s the old thing about politics, that it is better to be feared than loved?” said one lawmaker. “Well, Cuomo was never loved and now the fear is gone.”
And then there is a third group in the middle — including many members from suburban districts — that is under intense lobbying from members of the Cuomo administration. The intention of the lobbying is to buy time, telling lawmakers that there are no further revelations to come and that what has come out so far does not rise to the level of removal. People close to the governor say that he is simply trying to keep the Assembly from moving forward. If James is allowed to complete her investigation, it could allow Cuomo time to buck up his sagging approval ratings and to oversee a vaccine rollout and a gradual rollback of COVID restrictions that, his team thinks, could make New Yorkers forget about the allegations against him.
“He thinks he can fight his way out of this,” said one Cuomo ally.
At Cuomo’s first press conference last week to address the allegations, he deliberately attempted a move that Joe Biden first tried in 2019 when reports surfaced that he regularly invaded the personal space of women he interacted with on rope lines and at political events. Biden apologized and said it was in his nature to attempt to connect with people in that way and said that if social mores were changing, then he was committed to changing along with them. Cuomo too said he meant no harm by his talking with young aides about their sexual and romantic lives and that he too would change.
“I’ve learned an important lesson,” Cuomo said, fighting back tears. “I’m sorry for whatever pain I caused anyone. I never intended it, and I will be the better for this experience.”
The sense I got from speaking with members of the Assembly was that it appeared to be working. There is less enthusiasm there for an impeachment then there is in the Senate, which was reflected by Heastie’s statement as compared to Stewart-Cousins’.
Lawmakers still fear retribution for speaking out against the governor, who suggested at a press conference on Saturday that if allegations against him get publicly aired, then perhaps the same should be true for them. Many Assembly Democrats I spoke with plainly said they do not like the governor’s bullying style, and wouldn’t mind seeing him gone, but wonder about the precedent it would set to remove a sitting governor.
“There are some of my colleagues who are loyal to the party, who see this as something cooked up by the Republicans,” said one member of the Assembly who favors removal. “But there is still just such a culture of fear around here. People care about their budget items and their pet projects, and nobody knows what happens when you cross Cuomo.”
Many in Albany expect more revelations to follow, although so far none have arrived with the seriousness of the first two — both allegations that Cuomo made unwanted advances toward female staffers. That pattern has given some Cuomo allies hope that the governor has already weathered the worst of it. If a majority of Assembly members vote for removal, Cuomo would immediately be stripped of his powers while a trial was conducted in the State Senate, where the Democrats have generally been more willing to buck the governor. It would take a two-thirds vote there to convict, which would likely require roughly half of the Democratic caucus signing on. From there, a simple majority could prevent Cuomo from running for governor again, denying him the fourth term he has sought from his first run for governor nearly 20 years ago.
“We are just not there yet,” said another city-based lawmaker who favors removal. “I’m not sure when we get there, but we aren’t there yet.”