The Mercury (Pottstown, PA)
Powerful Democrat resigning over sexual harassment
NEW YORK >> Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation Tuesday over a barrage of sexual harassment allegations in a fall from grace a year after he was widely hailed nationally for his detailed daily briefings and leadership during some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By turns defiant and chastened, the 63-yearold Democrat emphatically denied intentionally mistreating women and called the attacks on him politically motivated. But he said that fighting back in this “too hot” political climate would subject the state to months of turmoil.
“The best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing,” Cuomo said in a televised address.
The third-term governor’s resignation, which will take effect in two weeks, was announced as momentum built in the Legislature to remove him by impeachment and after nearly the entire Democratic establishment had turned against him, with President Joe Biden joining those calling on him to resign.
The move came a week after New York’s attorney general released the results of an investigation that found Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women.
Investigators said he subjected women to unwanted kisses; groped their breasts or buttocks or otherwise touched them inappropriately; made insinuating remarks about their looks and their sex lives; and created a work environment “rife with fear and intimidation.”
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a 62-year-old Democrat and former member of
Congress from the Buffalo area, will become the state’s 57th governor and the first woman to hold the post. She tweeted that Cuomo’s resignation was “the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers.”
The #MeToo-era scandal cut short not just a career but a dynasty: Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, was governor in the 1980s and ‘90s, and the younger Cuomo was often mentioned as a potential candidate for president, an office his father famously contemplated seeking. Even as the scandal mushroomed, Cuomo was planning to run for reelection in 2022.
Republicans exulted in Cuomo’s departure but urged the Legislature to impeach him anyway, which could prevent him from running for office again.
“This resignation is simply an attempt to avoid real accountability,” state GOP chair Nick Langworthy said.
Cuomo prefaced his resignation with a 45-minute defense from his lawyer and his own insistence that his behavior — while sometimes insensitive, offputting or “too familiar” — had been used against him as a weapon in a political environment where “rashness has replaced reasonableness.”
“I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy because I truly believe it is politically motivated. I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful,” he said, but added that he didn’t want “distractions” to consume the state government as it grapples with the pandemic and other problems.
Cuomo may still face the possibility of criminal charges, with a number of prosecutors around the state moving to investigate him. At least one of his accusers has filed a criminal complaint against him.
The string of accusations that spelled the governor’s downfall began in news reports last December and went on for months.
“From the beginning, I simply asked that the governor stop his abusive behavior,” Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to accuse him publicly of harassment, tweeted after his announcement. “It became abundantly clear he was unable to do that, instead attacking and blaming victims until the end.”
As the scandal grew, Cuomo called some of the allegations fabricated, forcefully denying he touched anyone inappropriately. But he acknowledged making some aides uncomfortable with comments he said he intended as playful, and he apologized for some of his behavior.
He portrayed some of the encounters as misunderstandings attributable to “generational or cultural” differences, a reference in part to his upbringing in an affectionate Italian American family.
As Cuomo resisted calls to step down, state lawmakers launched an impeachment investigation, and his allies deserted him — not only over the accusations, but also because of the discovery that his administration had concealed thousands of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home patients.
The harassment investigation ordered up by the attorney general and conducted by two outside lawyers corroborated the women’s accounts and added lurid new ones. Investigators also said the governor’s staff retaliated against one of his accusers by leaking confidential personnel files about her.
As governor, Cuomo touted himself as an example of a “progressive Democrat” who gets things done: Since taking office in 2011, he helped push through legislation that legalized gay marriage, began lifting the minimum wage to $15 and expanded paid family leave benefits. He also backed big infrastructure projects, including construction of a new bridge over the Hudson River that he named after his father.
At the same time the behavior that got him into trouble was going on, he was publicly championing the #MeToo movement and surrounding himself with women’s rights activists. He signed into law sweeping new protections against sexual harassment and lengthened the statute of limitations in rape cases.
His national popularity soared during the harrowing spring of 2020, when New York became the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak.
His tough-minded but compassionate rhetoric made for riveting television well beyond New York, and his stern warnings to people to stay home and wear masks stood in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s brush-off of the virus. His briefings won an international Emmy Award, and he went on to write a book on leadership in a crisis.
But even those accomplishments were soon tainted when it was learned that the state’s official count of nursing home deaths had excluded many patients who had been transferred to hospitals before they succumbed. A Cuomo aide acknowledged the administration feared the true numbers would be “used against us” by the Trump White House.
Also, Cuomo’s administration was fiercely criticized for forcing nursing homes to accept patients recovering from the virus.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the state’s handling of data on nursing home deaths. In addition, the state attorney general is looking into whether Cuomo broke the law in using members of his staff to help write and promote his book, from which he stood to make more than $5 million.
The governor had also increasingly come under fire over his rough and sometimes vindictive treatment of fellow politicians and his own staff, with former aides telling stories of a brutal work environment.
Cuomo has been divorced since 2005 from the author and activist Kerry Kennedy, a member of the Kennedy family, and was romantically involved up until 2019 with TV lifestyle personality Sandra Lee. He has three adult daughters and appealed to them as he stepped down.
“I want them to know, from the bottom of my heart: I never did, and I never would, intentionally disrespect a woman or treat a woman differently than I would want them treated,” he said. “Your dad made mistakes. And he apologized. And he learned from it. And that’s what life is all about.”
Cuomo gained political experience early on as his father’s hard-nosed and often ruthless campaign manager, and went on to become New York attorney general and U.S. housing secretary under President Bill Clinton before getting elected governor in 2010.
New York has seen a string of high-level political figures brought down in disgrace in recent years.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 in a prostitution scandal. Rep. Anthony Weiner went to prison for sexting with a 15-year-old girl. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stepped down in 2018 after four women accused him of abuse. And the top two leaders in the Legislature were convicted of corruption.