On Tuesday, State Attorney General Letitia James released her much-anticipated report into the sexual harassment allegations brought against Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. James, a fellow Democrat, was unequivocal: Cuomo had harassed multiple women, including current and former government workers, breaking state and federal laws. However, James said that holding the governor legally accountable would be a civil, not a criminal, manner.
Cuomo’s political fate now rests in the state Legislature, and perhaps with James herself. The former Cuomo ally is a rumored candidate for governor next year.
Cuomo, the 168-page James report said, took actions to retaliate against at least one of his accusers, a former employee, who came forward with her story. According to the report, the third-term Democrat, who may still seek reelection next June, cultivated a toxic work culture rife with fear and intimidation, enabled “harassment to occur and created a hostile work environment.”
Women were subject to “unwanted groping, kisses, hugging, and…inappropriate comments.” Cuomo, the report detailed, grabbed the breast of one of his executive assistants.
“Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, many of them young women,” James said at a press conference Tuesday. “This investigation has revealed conduct that corrodes the very fabric and character of our state government.”
Cuomo, though, was defiant. “I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” he said in a video message released shortly after James spoke. “I am 63 years old. I have lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am, and that’s not who I have ever been.”
Months ago, when the sexual harassment allegations first came to light, most of New York’s political class, including Chuck Schumer and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for Cuomo to resign. He rebuffed the calls, borrowing from Ralph Northam’s playbook, and vowed to remain in office. As the state’s most powerful politician by far, Cuomo had the leverage to ignore everyone from Schumer on down. How would they make him go?
Crucially, the state’s power elite did not turn on him. The state’s major labor leaders remained in his corner; George Gresham, the head of 1199SEIU, recently attended a Cuomo fundraiser. Real estate developers and Wall Street titans, the backbone of Cuomo’s fundraising base, did not desert him either. Cuomo’s fundraising pace did slow, but campaign finance reports revealed in July that he has banked almost $18 million for a campaign next year.
One Democrat who did not call for Cuomo to resign all those months ago was Carl Heastie. The taciturn, cautious leader of the State Assembly, Heastie has the power to rally the votes to impeach Cuomo. Heastie launched an investigation, but it has proceeded slowly, waiting for the James report to drop. Now it has, and James has turned it over to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Will Cuomo go? He is still facing a federal investigation into his oversight of nursing homes during the Covid-19 pandemic. The deaths from coronavirus in his state remain a scandal, but tragically were never enough to spur calls for resignation on their own. But Cuomo’s substantiated pattern of sexual harassment, coupled with his cover-up of nursing home deaths, has tried the patience of many Democrats in the state. They may be ready to go for the kill.
National observers new to New York politics should understand that the impeachment dynamics here are very different from what Donald Trump faced in Washington. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats. It is the Assembly, the lower house, where gathering the votes to impeach Cuomo will be more of a challenge. The Assembly is dominated by older, more moderate lawmakers who are closer to Cuomo and generally more deferential to him. There are not enough younger progressives to sway Heastie. For Cuomo to be impeached, it will likely be up to lawmakers who have sat in the body for decades to pull the trigger.
The state Senate, where Democrats won a majority in 2018—and where Cuomo’s impeachment trial would take place—is a very different place. Much of the youth and dynamism is there now. Two senators are socialists and many more are aligned with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. They resent Cuomo’s triangulation and his history of bullying. Coupled with a Republican minority that is hungry to see Cuomo weakened, they can probably find the votes—the 63-member chamber, minus the Senate majority leader, plus the seven justices on the Court of Appeals, New York’s equivalent of the Supreme Court—to convict Cuomo and drag him from office.
An impeachment trial would be bloody. Some Democrats might argue that damaging Cuomo too much will open the door for a Republican, like Trump supporter Lee Zeldin, to win next fall. But New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic state that has not elected a Republican statewide since 2002. The actual threat of a GOP takeover is exceedingly minor.
The other factor, if an impeachment trial never commences or fails to remove Cuomo, is James. She is ideally suited, as a statewide elected official, to challenge Cuomo directly. As a Black woman from New York City, she is well-positioned to win votes from working-class and middle-class Blacks in the five boroughs, who have traditionally been reliable Cuomo supporters. With her record of standing up to Cuomo and Trump, James can probably consolidate progressive support as well, winning votes that Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s two previous challengers, took in the city and upstate.
James is in a complicated position, though, having led an investigation into the governor. She would need to begin aggressively fundraising in the next few months and peeling away the labor unions and well-heeled donors who always backed Cuomo. That might be possible. Also itching for a statewide run, potentially, is Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a fellow Brooklynite who is more popular with progressive Democrats and organizations. Williams nearly won a lieutenant governor’s race in 2018, though he has yet to prove, unlike James, that he can raise the millions necessary to contend with Cuomo.
Any ordinary politician would resign quickly or announce, at least to the Legislature, that he is no longer planning to run again. At the end of 2022, Cuomo will have been governor for 12 years—why bother with another four? He can walk away now before the real combat begins, a months-long slog that could culminate in his removal from office.
But Cuomo is not ordinary. He dreams of becoming, like Robert Moses, a titan of New York. He is still enraged that his father, Mario, lost his bid for a fourth term as governor and longs to surpass him. Cuomo does not know humility or discretion. He will fight for his political career till his last last dying breath.