Cuomo Resigns After Harassment Findings Obliterate Support, Leaving Legacy of Ambition and Aggression
The political survivor could no longer hold on after abandonment by close advisors and top Democrats, as impeachment hearings loomed. Kathy Hochul will be New York’s next governor — and the first woman to lead the state.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation Tuesday, in a seismic leap one week after a devastating report he commissioned following complaints about his conduct found he sexually harassed multiple women.
His resignation will take effect in 14 days, Cuomo said in a video address, clearing the way for Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to become the first woman to lead New York State.
“The best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing,” said Cuomo, who is in his third term and previously gained national attention last year when New York was the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic.
During the 20-minute address, the Queens-reared son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo veered from expressing new contrition about his actions to denying the allegations to touting the legacy of his decade in New York’s top office.
“In my mind, I never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” the 63-year-old Democrat said.
Cuomo had made similar statements before while steadfastly defending his conduct — going so far as to release photo montages showing him hugging and kissing colleagues and ordinary New Yorkers, declaring such physical gestures a normal part of politics.
But the accounts compiled in dozens of interviews by investigators Joon Kim and Anne Clark, brought in by State Attorney General Letitia James, made Cuomo’s defense increasingly untenable. So did calls, led by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for him to step down.
The state Assembly had been moving to impeach Cuomo — but it wasn’t immediately known whether the inquiry would proceed. A conviction by the state Senate could bar Cuomo from ever again seeking statewide office.
‘The Right Thing to Do’
His resignation announcement came a day after one of his accusers, executive assistant Brittany Commisso, told CBS News and the Albany Times Union what she had told the investigators: that Cuomo closed a door to a room in the Governor’s Mansion and grabbed her breast under her shirt — then denied it ever happened.
On Monday, Albany District Attorney David Soares said he’s proceeding with a criminal investigation, and called for any other women with complaints to contact his office.
The resignation also came within a day of a state Assembly committee — charged with investigating grounds for impeachment against the governor — announced that it was moving forward with an impeachment process, laying groundwork to begin proceedings.
After saying he’d reserve judgment until seeing the AG’s report, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) declared following its Aug. 3 release: “He can no longer remain in office.”
Hochul, a Democrat from Buffalo who briefly served in Congress, is slated to serve the remainder of the term through the end of 2022.
In a statement, Hochul said Cuomo’s decision to step down is “the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers.”
“As someone who has served at all levels of government and is next in the line of succession, I am prepared to lead as New York State’s 57th Governor,” Hochul added.
Toxic Work Environment
Cuomo’s downfall started late last year when a former staffer, Lindsey Boylan, asserted on social media in December that Cuomo had harassed her “for years.” She later wrote that he’d kissed her on the lips and proposed a game of strip poker — with the second claim corroborated by investigators who interviewed at least one witness.
Then another former aide, Charlotte Bennett, gave media interviews in late February detailing uncomfortable private interactions with Cuomo, in which he allegedly asked her about her interest in dating older men and complained of his loneliness as he led New York’s battle against COVID.
Bennett said she believed Cuomo was “grooming” her for sex with him. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told The New York Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”
In the weeks and months that followed, several other women who worked with or in Cuomo’s office spoke about how he made sexually inappropriate remarks and advances — and how his top staff fostered a toxic work environment.
After Cuomo got pushback for attempting to handpick his own investigator, the governor in March relinquished responsibility to James. Echoing complaints Cuomo and his inner circle made in public statements, his attorneys on Friday complained in a letter to James that the investigators were biased against him and did not conduct a fair or complete probe.
Citing accounts from multiple Cuomo employees, including Bennett, Commisso and an unnamed state trooper who described groping and inappropriate comments, the investigators found the governor had violated state and federal anti-workplace harassment laws.
They also determined that Cuomo’s office had broken its own sexual misconduct reporting rules by having staffers field Bennett’s complaint instead of sending it to a personnel office, and illegally retaliated against Boylan by attempting to distribute disparaging information. Cuomo’s personal attorneys defended the Boylan actions as permissible under the law.
“We conclude that the culture of fear and intimidation, the normalization of inappropriate comments and interactions, and the poor enforcement of the policies and safeguards, contributed to the sexual harassment, retaliation, and an overall hostile work environment in the Executive Chamber,” the report states.
Cuomo is the second New York governor in recent years to resign, following Eliot Spitzer, who left office in 2008 after being exposed for patronizing prostitutes.
No Way Out
The sexual harassment complaints were not the only claims of misconduct Cuomo was facing as the James investigation unfolded.
Among issues the Assembly Judiciary Committee was examining were the governor’s underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes at the virus besieged the state last spring; Cuomo’s use of state staff to help write a pandemic memoir for which he received $5.1 million; and whether his family, top aides and allies received preferential COVID testing early in the crisis.
Although the governor is resigning, the Assembly can still move forward with the impeachment process, which would head to a trial in the State Senate and could bar Cuomo from running for statewide office in the future.
Heastie’s office did not immediately respond to questions on whether the chamber would continue with the impeachment.
Echoing Hochul, Heastie said in a statement that Cuomo’s resignation “is the right decision.”
THE CITY reported Monday that top Cuomo staffers were calling around Albany looking to cut a deal to avoid impeachment or resignation, in which Cuomo would agree not to run for a fourth term.
As some state lawmakers called on Cuomo to resign in March, the governor rebuked their remarks and authorized an investigation by James’ office. While Cuomo initially gave deference to James’ investigation, his attitude changed as the inquiry progressed.
Cuomo cast doubt on the independence of the investigation and the two outside lawyers hired by James’ office, dubbing the inquiry a “review.” His attorney kept questioning the report and the investigation in the minutes leading up to the governor’s resignation.
The Attorney General’s 168-page report, a culmination of the five-month investigation, blindsided the governor and his top staff, who were not given the heads-up on its release.
Some Defenders Defected
In the days since the bombshell report landed, longtime allies and aides to Cuomo peeled away from the governor’s sides, some urging him to step down to no avail.
The biggest hit to Cuomo came Sunday night, when his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, announced her resignation — a surprise to some in the executive chamber and in political circles around the state.
DeRosa, the state’s highest unelected official and one of Cuomo’s fiercest defenders, was implicated in the report for orchestrating his defense and coordinated to discredit some of the women who accused him of sexual harassment, according to the report.
It wasn’t just people in the executive chamber who were aiding the governor’s defense. Several past administration officials, including former press aides, were called in to help build a media strategy to defend his reputation.
The fallout over their involvement has been swift.
Roberta Kaplan, a prominent lawyer and chair of Time’s Up — an advocacy group born out of the #MeToo movement — resigned Monday over her involvement to discredit Boylan. The board of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading national LGBTQ-advocacy group, announced Monday that it is investigating the role of its executive director, former Cuomo chief counsel Alphonso David, following the report’s details about his involvement in the Boylan efforts.
David said in a statement that he had “no knowledge of any incidents of misconduct” involving the 11 women referenced in the report.
‘A Greek Tragedy’
Cuomo’s resignation announcement marked a stunning fall for a lifelong politician who was raised by a father beloved by many New Yorkers, who married into the nation’s most prominent political dynasty and who became a symbol of the United States’ fight against COVID-19.
Former Gov. Mario Cuomo is largely remembered as a great orator and beacon for liberal politics, placing ideology before political pragmatism.
Andrew Cuomo is not his father.
“We can’t understand Andrew Cuomo without understanding Mario Cuomo. It’s something of a Greek tragedy about Andrew Cuomo that has always existed because of the shadow of his dad,” said Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University. “He’s been so obsessed with the fact that his father lost his fourth term.”
On the road to avoid the same fate as his father, younger Cuomo spent the last decade casting himself as a builder, both in the physical sense and conceptually.
He shepherded massive infrastructure projects reminiscent of the Robert Moses-era, like beginnings of the long-delayed Second Avenue Subway, the newly rebuilt Tappan Zee Bridge named after his late father, remodeling LaGuardia Airport and building coalitions among unlikely bedfellows.
That’s a stark contrast to his father, whose legacy is deeply staked in what he didn’t do: run for president.
“This idea that he’s got to have as many things in the diorama as possible stems from the fact that his father didn’t have enough concrete stuff as a legacy,” Greer added. “That kind of blind ambition to do that has led him to this point — the steamrolling of individuals and creating this culture of governance by fear and bullying and machismo.”
Andrew Cuomo got his start working on his father’s 1977 mayoral campaign, in which the elder Cuomo lost to Ed Koch. He went on to run the homeless shelter organization HELP USA, which continues to operate, and become secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton. Before becoming governor, he served as New York’s attorney general.
Described as an inscrutable tactician by many in the political sphere, Andrew Cuomo is largely known for his nuanced and often times Machiavellian ability to navigate politics — a double-edged sword that made several progressive measures a reality in New York but left a trail of scorn in its wake.
Unlike his predecessors, Cuomo came into the job as governor already knowing the power levers and how the state worked — having watched his father govern decades before and working on his re-election campaign, and during his time as attorney general. That helped him consolidate power among state agencies and centralize it within his office.
“Cuomo has been far less dependent than others because he did have knowledge,” said one longtime political observer. “He’s into the micro in a way that previous governors have not been. When the MTA wasn’t working to his satisfaction, he took control of it and did it himself. That’s a real change from history.”
One of the signature achievements of the younger Cuomo’s administration was legalizing same-sex marriage in 2011, a time when few states had succeeded. It seemed an impossible feat. Previous attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in New York failed given Republican control of the State Senate at the time.
Five months into his first term as governor, Cuomo reportedly cajoled Republicans by winning over deep-pocketed GOP donors and organizing a coalition to pressure Democratic senators and amenable Republicans.
But a lot of the “hard work” — gathering support and whipping votes — had already been done by advocates, said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), who was first elected in 1970 and served during the terms of eight governors — soon to be nine.
“His accomplishments — it’s important to note that on an awful lot of them he came on board very late after others had done all the hard work,” Gottfried told THE CITY.
The four Republican state senators who voted in favor soon found themselves out of office, casualties of legalizing same-sex marriage. James Alesi, who represented Western New York chose not to run for re-election, while the other three upstate lost their reelection bids. But their sacrifice was not unrewarded.
Cuomo announced his resignation in a different Albany, where Democrats, some of them ultra-progressives, now hold a supermajority in both houses.
That has weakened Cuomo’s hand and emboldened critics. Among them: Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens), who went public earlier this year to say that the governor had personally threatened to “destroy” him after Kim condemned his handling of COVID in nursing homes.
To many TV viewers, Kim’s complaint and the women’s sexual harassment accounts presented a shockingly different side to the Cuomo they’d come to rely on as an antidote to President Donald Trump during the pandemic, with millions tuning in to the governor’s daily briefings.
Some fans dubbed themselves “Cuomosexuals,” and his banter with his younger brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, initially earned both good reviews.
New York ‘Better Off’
Longtime allies who shed their support for the governor and called on him to resign or face impeachment following the attorney general’s report nonetheless highlighted the accomplishments of his administration.
“Our union will always be grateful for when his leadership supported our members,” said a statement from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store workers union, lauding Cuomo for signing a $15 minimum wage law in 2016.
Even as he lobbied the governor to resign to no avail, Jay Jacobs — the head of the state’s Democratic Party and one of Cuomo’s fiercest allies — withdrew his support but fiercely defended Cuomo’s record, declaring that ultimately that New Yorkers “are better off having had Andrew Cuomo as our governor.”
“It is my hope that the legacy of the progressive change he brought to our people and the renewal of infrastructure he brought to our state will outshine the darkness of this sorry episode,” Jacobs said in a statement last week.
But many of his most vocal detractors, who come from Cuomo’s own party, say many of the progressive laws in New York were slowed or watered down by the governor, or are tinged with an asterisk because they’re marred with exemptions and loopholes.
For instance: in his resignation speech, Cuomo declared a $15-an-hour minimum wage a defining achievement.
But the fine print showed it would take years for much of New York to reach the advertised goal. Until 2021, the $15 minimum wage was limited to New York City. The hourly wage went up to $15 this year in Long Island and Westchester, and $12.50 upstate, which will eventually reach $15 — but depends on the inflation rate.
“The minimum wage increase is an issue where the labor movement and a lot of progresive advocates and legislators made it happen and once they got all the pieces together he got on board,” Gottfried said of the governor.
The same thing could be said about Cuomo’s reluctant approval to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, Gottfried said.
‘A Dirty Little Secret’
Cuomo’s ambitions also reached into advocacy for women as he pursued female votes — creating the Women’s Equality Party and promoting slates of proposed laws. He will be remembered for the seemingly inexplicable gulf between his words and actions.
One he signed in August 2019 makes it easier in New York for women to prove workplace sexual harassment — removing an earlier requirement that the harassment be severe or pervasive in order for a woman to sue an employer.
The day after signing that measure, Cuomo aked a female state trooper on his detail why she didn’t wear a dress, the trooper told the attorney general’s investigators, saying also that the governor on later occasions ran his finger along her spine and touched her stomach.
As he was drumming up support for the bills in June 2019, Cuomo declared:
“I think we have a moment in time today to recognize a major problem that has existed — a dirty little secret of society — which is that sexual harassment, sexual abuse of women is a widespread, pervasive issue that has gone on for years in a male-dominated society where men write the laws from their perspective, and a male-dominated society where men enforced the laws.”