In one of the most dramatic political downfalls in recent memory, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that he is resigning his office amid a welter of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.
The decision came a little more than a year after Cuomo emerged as the face of supposedly rational Democratic decision-making amid ex-President Donald Trump’s bungling response to the COVID-19 pandemic—and just one week after State Attorney General Letitia James released a devastating report that found the governor had subjected 11 women to unwanted comments and touching.
“I think that, given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing, and therefore, that’s what I’ll do,” Cuomo said Tuesday, adding that his resignation will be effective in 14 days.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, whom Cuomo described as “smart and competent,” will take over his position, becoming the first female governor in New York state history.
“New York tough means New York loving. And I love New York. And I love you. And everything I have ever done has been motivated by that love,” Cuomo said.
In defending himself on Tuesday, Cuomo insisted he never thought he’d “crossed the line with anyone”—and didn’t “realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” despite most of the allegations taking place in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The governor also blamed his woes on Twitter, lamenting that it’s “become the public square for policy debate.”
The AG report came months after an initial cascade of allegations and images from women about the powerful three-term Democrat’s abusive, demeaning, and sexist behavior, including—most seriously—a then-anonymous accusation that he groped an executive assistant in the governor’s mansion in Albany.
“Today closes a sad chapter for all of New York, but it’s an important step towards justice,” James said in a statement. “We must continue to build on the progress already made and improve the lives of New Yorkers in every corner of the state.”
Many of the state’s most powerful elected officials urged him to resign as a result, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“I want to commend the brave women who stepped forward and courageously told their stories,” Schumer said in a statement. “There is no place for sexual harassment, and today’s announcement by Governor Cuomo to resign was the right decision for the good of the people of New York.”
Yet Cuomo surprised many national observers, though few in New York, by attempting to ride out the crisis, claiming to be a victim of “cancel culture” and urging lawmakers to await the outcome of the attorney general’s investigation.
For a short time, the scandal receded. But then James’ report dropped. It not only substantiated the women’s accounts but revealed fresh information, including that the governor had suggestively touched and taunted a state trooper he had moved to his personal security detail. The attorney general concluded that the governor had harassed a total of 11 women and had violated workplace conduct statutes he had personally signed into law. State legislators scrambled into impeachment proceedings, even as Cuomo simultaneously denied and defended his behavior.
But the governor’s defenses showed plain signs of collapsing. President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on him to resign, while his attorneys offered flailing claims that his due-process rights were being violated. Multiple district attorneys, along with the Albany sheriff’s office, began prying into the attorney general’s report for evidence of criminal activity by the state’s highest executive. His top aide and confidant Melissa DeRosa resigned. And Brittany Commisso, the assistant who had asserted the governor molested her in his mansion, dropped her anonymity and came forward with further allegations and a demand Cuomo be held accountable.
Finally, the pressure overwhelmed even the entrenched Cuomo.
The unceremonious exit marked an incredible reversal of reputation and fortune for the governor, once viewed as a potential presidential contender and candidate for the Biden Cabinet.
During the worst of the global health crisis, Cuomo took his longtime posture as a tough, take-charge leader to a national audience with daily presentations on the novel coronavirus’ progress in the worst-hit state in the worst-hit nation. Thousands of frightened Americans from far-flung states tuned in to the broadcasts, and viewers and pundits alike declared themselves “Cuomosexuals.”
But the fawning affection the third-term Democrat received glossed over his earlier downplaying of the pandemic’s severity, his intervention to prevent an early lockdown in disease-wracked New York City, and his March 2020 order that nursing homes accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals. Experts agree these actions probably cost lives.
It also overlooked how Cuomo had spent years building his reputation and power by terrorizing staff, reporters, and other politicians. Cuomo’s behavior haunted him when reports surfaced that his administration had undercounted COVID-19 deaths in senior residences after issuing his order last year. In the face of federal probes and continuing leaks about his team’s efforts to conceal the extent of devastation in nursing homes, a state lawmaker claimed the governor had called and threatened to “destroy” him.
But arguably what felled the powerful governor was a series of sexual harassment allegations from former female aides. On Feb. 24, Lindsey Boylan, who had referred more vaguely to impropriety from Cuomo in the past, asserted that the governor had made numerous inappropriate comments to and about her and had kissed her on the lips while she served as an assistant on economic development matters.
Cuomo denied the accusations but more soon followed. Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old staffer for pandemic issues, came forward alleging the governor had propositioned her for sex and made comments and inquiries about her sexual history.
On March 1, a photo surfaced of Cuomo grasping a young woman’s face at a wedding. The victim claimed it was one of several instances of unwanted contact from the governor at the event. Cuomo attempted to play off his behavior as a sign of his old-fashioned glad-handing style. But even more women—including Commisso—went to the press or to human resources with stories of the governor’s creepy comments and touches.
The scandal proved how few friends Cuomo had in the New York State capital, the product of a brutal political style he had honed in New York for decades.
Cuomo entered politics at a young age, working on his father Mario’s campaigns for New York mayor and governor in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He earned an early reputation for ruthlessness: Ed Koch, who defeated his dad for the former office in 1977, accused his opponent’s son of disseminating posters reading “Vote Cuomo Not the Homo”—a reference to rumors about Koch’s sexuality. These claims would haunt Andrew in later years, as he styled himself as a champion for LGBTQ rights.
Mario Cuomo triumphed in his run for governor in 1982, a campaign the 24-year-old Andrew managed. His father’s success catapulted Andrew into jobs at a prestigious law firm, at an anti-homelessness nonprofit, and finally into President Bill Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he eventually became secretary.
In 2002, Cuomo sought to challenge New York Gov. George Pataki, the Republican who had dislodged his father from the governor’s mansion eight years prior. But Cuomo dropped out of the race after a disastrous gaffe in which he seemed to politicize the then-fresh 9/11 attacks.
Four years later, he defeated future Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro to become New York attorney general. He used the position to undermine first Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a prostitution scandal, and then-Gov. David Paterson. Having effectively pushed Paterson aside with the help of then-President Barack Obama, Cuomo won his first of three landslide victories for the governor’s office in 2010.
Cuomo proved to be an ideological shapeshifter, styling himself first as a tax-slashing fiscal conservative, then as a pro-labor populist, then as a reasoned champion of good government and good sense in the face of Trumpian mismanagement. What did not change was Cuomo’s approach to politics: aggressive and intolerant of dissent, and prone to rewarding political allies.
He came under federal scrutiny repeatedly between 2014 and 2016, first over his disbanding of a corruption commission he himself had established (when it begin to look into his own office) and then for his economic development programs, culminating in several of his top donors and aides—including his best friend and former campaign manager—being sentenced to prison.
But Cuomo managed not only to survive but thrive. He won a third term in 2018, saw his powers and profile grow amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and was even rumored as a potential replacement for President Joe Biden atop the Democratic ticket last year.
Now in disgrace, he awaits the result of criminal probes into his conduct.