Governor Andrew Cuomo sounded defeated, senior officials who had spoken with him said. It seemed to be getting to him that the usual strategic plays were suddenly no longer working. “Like an old man who just didn’t have the fight in him anymore,” said one.
The normally efficient governor’s office had been spinning out of control ever since a bombshell New York Times story broke the prior evening detailing how Cuomo had made a series of inappropriate comments to Charlotte Bennett, a young female aide, including asking her if she had ever had sex with older men and if she was monogamous in relationships.
“They are panicking,” one former adviser said. The governor’s office released a statement saying it would have no further comment on the issue, then released three more statements throughout the day, the last of which was a cringe-inducing one in which the governor said he spends all his time at work, that he considers his colleagues in the executive chamber friends, and: “At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way.” He continued: “To be clear I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody and I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
Cuomo announced that Barbara Jones, a former federal judge with whom he has close ties, would lead an investigation into the allegations against him. It was rejected out of hand. State Attorney General Letitia James leads such investigations, something Cuomo should know, since he led them against both Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson when he was attorney general, which contributed to both of them being run out of office. He then said that Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore would team up with James to pick an investigator, something James, after consulting with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to make sure they would back her up, rejected again.
It was not lost on the three that here was the governor trying to find an older white woman to oversee the work of the first female Black attorney general.
Although it was erratic behavior from the governor’s office, it was also quintessentially Cuomo: trying to keep all inquiries in-house, trying to control the outcome, and trying to see if the other branches of state government would give ground, as they so often do.
As of this writing, there are now three allegations of sexual harassment lodged against Cuomo: by Bennett; by Lindsey Boylan, another aide who alleged that Cuomo forcibly tried to kiss her and made inappropriate comments to her; and by a woman named Anna Ruch, who says Cuomo made inappropriate advances to her at a wedding. It is important to say “as of this writing,” because the current number of sexual-harassment claims against the governor is almost certain to rise, to say nothing of allegations of bullying, coercion, and workplace aggression that have also come out over the past several weeks.
This moment was supposed to be a triumphant one for the governor. The state is emerging from a year of COVID lockdown; vaccinations are happening; businesses are reopening. Instead, Cuomo has been holed up in Albany, waiting for more allegations to come out, as whispers grow that he will not be the governor of New York by the end of next week, if not sooner.
The biggest problem for the governor at the moment is that he is facing an open revolt in the State Senate and the Assembly. Even in the moderate suburban swing districts where Cuomo is supposed to have electoral strength, lawmakers fear that he will be a liability if he were to run for a fourth term in 2022. They are also anxious to reclaim some of the prerogatives of governing that Cuomo’s domineering style has taken away from them. And after years of abuse from Cuomo and his aides, many lawmakers are ready to exact revenge — none more so than New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been on a national TV tour tearing into the governor over the sexual-harassment allegations and the way he has treated his rivals in government.
“The problem he has right now,” said one Cuomo ally, “is that everybody hates him.”
Plus Cuomo’s leaving would loosen up a sclerotic state political apparatus. It wasn’t lost on many lawmakers that one of the first Democratic members of Congress to call for Cuomo’s resignation was Kathleen Rice, a moderate Long Islander who was once Cuomo’s pick to be attorney general.
“Everybody has their eye on the next job,” said one Democratic lawmaker. “This is essentially a one-party state. The only way you can move up is if somebody quits. So Cuomo quits, Tish runs for governor, Rice runs for attorney general, a job she has always wanted, and then some state senator gets to run for Congress and some Assembly member gets to run for the State Senate. That’s behind a lot of the push to get Cuomo out.”
Promising to not run for reelection may not be enough, though. Some Democratic lawmakers fear that he would say this will be his last term in order to stave off the attorney general’s investigation and any actions from the Legislature, but would then reverse course once the bad news blew over and, with a $30 million war chest behind him, enter an inevitably bloody battle for a fourth term.
These lawmakers want Cuomo to resign immediately and, if he fails to do so, are having conversations among themselves to see if there is support to begin impeachment proceedings against him. Many are wondering how the governor can continue in office if the next several months are like the past several days, with Cuomo not making public appearances or dealing with the critical issues facing the state.
“This is a very fast-moving story, and we are trying to respond as events dictate,” said Mike Gianaris, the Senate’s second-highest-ranking Democrat. “We are now having an investigation that the attorney general is undertaking, but we have to ask ourselves if this is the type of behavior that we want from someone who is holding the highest office in the state.”
Among supporters of the governor, there is a divide between younger advisers who recognize the gravity of the allegations and older longtime friends and advisers who see this as a mostly chaste sex scandal, one that involves stray comments but (as of yet) no proven actual sex acts. “This is a lonely guy who doesn’t have people to talk to,” said one. “He can be inappropriate, but is this really something to resign over?”
Although Cuomo can come off like a figure from another era — he once thanked Hillary Clinton for formally nominating him for governor at the state party’s convention by giving her flowers onstage — that’s belied by the fact that he tried to emerge as a governmental ally of the Me Too movement. In 2019, he signed legislation to combat sexual harassment in the workplace to much fanfare, requiring businesses to implement a sexual-harassment-prevention policy, extending the statute of limitations on filing harassment claims, and giving victims new protections against harassment.
There is a belief among some Cuomo supporters that if nothing more comes out, and James’s report reveals inappropriate behavior but no criminal wrongdoing, and Cuomo’s favorability remains high, then he can hold on and run again, facing what would surely be a bloody primary battle and general election.
As plans go, it ain’t a great one, but it is all they have left.