ALBANY – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation Tuesday under the weight of a sexual harassment scandal that engulfed his administration and derailed his political future, capping a remarkable and rapid fall for a governor whose national profile had risen to extraordinary heights during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo, a Democrat, said his resignation would take effect in 14 days, ending a decade-long run in the office he dedicated most of his adult life to keeping within his family – first as an adviser to his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, before winning three terms himself.
“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,” he said in his address.
With Cuomo stepping down, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul of Buffalo will make history as the first woman to serve as New York governor. Hochul, a Democrat, will be sworn in after Cuomo’s resignation takes effect and is set to fill out the remainder of his term, which runs through 2022.
Cuomo, 63, had defiantly resisted calls for his resignation over the the past five months, a period in which multiple women, including current and former state employees, publicly accused him of inappropriate or harassing behavior in some form.
His administration has also faced criticism for withholding the true COVID-19 death toll of nursing home residents for months, a decision that has attracted scrutiny from federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.
The most damaging – and ultimately fatal – blow came Aug. 3, when state Attorney General Letitia James’ office released a report that found Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, including nine state employees, violating various state and federal laws along the way.
Among them was an executive assistant who accused Cuomo of reaching under her blouse and groping her breast during a November 2020 encounter at the Executive Mansion, which Cuomo denies despite the attorney general’s report finding the woman’s claims “credible.”
On Tuesday, Cuomo announced his decision in an on-camera address after a lengthy presentation by his outside attorney, Rita Glavin, who sought to cast doubt on many of his accusers’ claims and denied Cuomo had ever touched them inappropriately.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said shortly after Cuomo’s announcement that President Joe Biden “made clear his views last week.” Biden last week called on Cuomo to resign.
“Our view is that this is a story about these courageous women who came forward, told their stories, shared their stories,” Psaki said. She added that Biden has not spoken with Cuomo nor was the White House given a heads up on the New York Democrat’s decision to resign.
In recent months, Cuomo had vehemently vowed to not resign, saying it was the people, not politicians, who elected him to his third term in 2018.
But Cuomo ultimately faced an untenable choice: Either step down or face impeachment, which looked increasingly like a fait accompli as more state lawmakers called for his ouster.
“(It) is abundantly clear to me that the Governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said in a statement Aug. 3 after refraining for months to call for Cuomo’s ouster.
Andrew Cuomo’s long rise, stunning fall
Andrew Mark Cuomo was first elected governor Nov. 2, 2010, marking a triumphant return to the state Capitol for the Cuomo family after his father served as governor from 1983 through 1994. He failed in his first bid for governor in 2002.
Since taking office in 2011, Cuomo used his unyielding aggression and distaste for bureaucracy to mold himself into the most consequential and powerful figure in New York government, flexing his muscle to push through major projects like the $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement and policy like the legalization of same-sex marriage.
He teetered between staying true to his moderate Democratic roots and moving more to the left as the party became more progressive, shepherding through a $15 minimum wage law in 2015 and paid family leave a year later.
Most of his tenure was with Republicans in control of the Senate, though he was able to cajole enough of them to support portions of his agenda, including stronger gun rights laws in 2013 and the same-sex marriage law two years earlier, which at the time made New York the largest state to do so.
In 2020, he rose to his highest level of national fame when his daily PowerPoint-driven briefings gained an international audience amid the coronavirus pandemic, with many supporters coming to view Cuomo’s hands-on approach as counterprogramming to a timid federal response led by then-President Donald Trump.
The televised briefings even won him an International Emmy award, and his popularity soared to a record 70% in polls. In October, he released a book, “American Crisis,” that recounted his response in the early days of the pandemic and landed on The New York Times Best Sellers List.
The book deal netted him an astounding $5 million from The Crown Publishing Group. But it has since become the subject of an investigation by James, who is examining whether he illegally used state resources to complete the project.
Cuomo’s hard-charging style and penchant for threats helped contribute to his demise, alienating state lawmakers who may otherwise have been more willing to stave off potential impeachment proceedings had they viewed the governor as an ally instead of an enemy.
In the end, his downfall was as swift as his rise was long: Cuomo resigned just five months after former aide Lindsey Boylan published an essay detailing his alleged harassing behavior, including a 2018 meeting in which he kissed her on the lips without consent as she left.
Boylan was followed by a number of other women who publicly shared similar stories of a governor who made inappropriate remarks and unwanted advances.
Among them was Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide who said Cuomo asked repeated, invasive questions about her romantic live during one-on-one meetings last May and June, as the state was responding to COVID.
In interviews with the attorney general’s investigators, Bennett said the governor asked whether she practiced monogamy and if she had ever been with an older man. Cuomo remarked that he would be comfortable being with a woman in her 20s, she said.
Taken together, Bennett believed Cuomo was propositioning her for sex.
“Without explicitly saying it, he implied to me that I was old enough for him and he was lonely,” Bennett, a Westchester County native and Hamilton College graduate, said in an interview with “CBS Evening News.”
The attorney general’s report corroborated the victims’ accounts with contemporaneous text messages, notes and interviews with those familiar with the encounters.
Cuomo denied any misbehavior, saying he never touched anyone inappropriately while acknowledging he makes jokes and sometimes asks his staff about their personal lives.
After the attorney general’s report, Cuomo rejected the most serious of claims, saying he did not grope the executive assistant and suggesting some of his aides misinterpreted his remarks as flirtations.
During a direct-to-the-camera address on Aug. 3, he went so far as to play a slideshow of photos of him and other famous politicians kissing and hugging various people, suggesting his behavior was normal.
“I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” Cuomo said. “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.”
Kathy Hochul to become NY’s 57th governor
Cuomo, who was the state’s attorney general from 2007 though 2010, becomes the second New York governor to resign amid scandal since the turn of the century. Eliot Spitzer stepped down in 2008 after his habit of soliciting prostitutes became public.
Hochul, 62, will become New York’s 57th governor, breaking a 244-year streak of males holding the state’s highest office.
She will also become the first governor to hail from outside New York City and the Hudson Valley since 1922, the final year in office for Gov. Nathan Miller of Cortland County.
She was first elected lieutenant governor when Cuomo won a second term in 2014. She replaced Robert Duffy, the former Rochester mayor who was Cuomo’s first lieutenant governor and declined to seek reelection.
A former Erie County clerk, Hochul served in Congress in 2011 and 2012 after scoring an upset win in a special election following the resignation of Rep. Chris Lee.
She lost her bid for reelection to Chris Collins, who later stepped down after he pleaded guilty to insider trading charges and was later pardoned by Trump.
Hochul is well liked in Albany, and she has dutifully crisscrossed the state to tout the Cuomo administration’s policies.
Now she will inherit immediate challenges: The state is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases as the delta variant spreads, leading to questions over whether the state will seek to reinstitute a mask mandate or other similar pandemic-era restrictions.
Cuomo remains under investigation
Cuomo and his administration remain the subject of several investigations or inquiries that could spell trouble for him even after his resignation.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares has opened a criminal investigation into Cuomo, and district attorneys in Manhattan, Westchester County and Nassau County have pledged to examine James’ report for possible criminality.
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn have been investigating Cuomo’s administration for its counting of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19.
For months, Cuomo and the state Department of Health refused to release the number of nursing home residents who died in hospitals, instead revealing only those who died in the homes themselves. As a result, the true death toll was underrepresented by more than 40% for months.
Cuomo’s office retained high-profile defense attorney Elkan Abramowitz to represent the governor and his team during the federal inquiry.
James’s office, meanwhile, is still investigating Cuomo’s $5 million book deal, which he struck in the midst of the pandemic. At issue is whether Cuomo used state resources on the book, which is prohibited by law.
“The investigation with respect to the book and whether or not public resources were utilized is ongoing and it’s separate and apart from this (sexual harassment) investigation,” James said Aug. 3.
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.