State Watch

The Memo: Disgraced Cuomo clings to power

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was pushed closer to political oblivion Tuesday after a comprehensive report found that he had sexually harassed 11 women, including 9 current or former state employees.

“I think he should resign,” President Biden said at a late-afternoon White House press conference. It was the first time Biden had directly called for the governor to step down.

Cuomo has been defiant in the months since allegations of sexual misconduct first emerged. But even a politician of his fierce tenacity and capacious ego will find it hard to withstand condemnation from a president of his own party.

Biden said he had not read the report from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James in detail. But, he said, “I just know the result.”

The report found corroboration for numerous allegations made against Cuomo. Announcing its findings James said, “I believe women, and I believe these 11 women.” 

The women had outlined conduct by Cuomo that included groping, unwanted kisses and inappropriate questions about their private lives.

Cuomo had few Democratic friends left even before Tuesday’s report, since a significant number had called for him to resign when the allegations first became public. But, even before Biden weighed in, some key figures had gone further than previously in seeking to push Cuomo out of the office he has held for a decade.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for his resignation in an afternoon statement. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, also did so, in a joint statement with two other members of New York’s congressional delegation, Reps. Gregory Meeks and Tom Suozzi. 

Neither Pelosi nor the trio of congressmen had explicitly called on Cuomo to resign before.

New York’s two Democratic senators, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, renewed their demands for his resignation, as did Cuomo’s long-standing bête noire, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

Even Cuomo’s own lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, turned against him Tuesday, describing his conduct as “repulsive and unlawful.” 

Given the chorus of Democratic condemnation, the national ramifications of the scandal may be limited. The GOP will have an uphill climb in trying to suggest Democrats are taking too lenient a line on Cuomo. 

Nonetheless, New York political consultant George Arzt, who worked for Cuomo on a past gubernatorial campaign, predicted that “it will be used by the GOP nationwide to raise money and to condemn Democrats.” 

The Republican National Committee criticized Biden early Tuesday for being too slow to disown Cuomo.

Cuomo continues to insist he did nothing wrong.

But his defense of his actions Tuesday was widely ridiculed, for understandable reasons.

Part of Cuomo’s defense is that he is tactile with everyone, and that lots of other politicians are, too. To support this argument, his team released a photo montage of him hugging and kissing various people, and of other prominent politicians doing the same.

It was a thin reed on which to hang a defense against allegations that include groping of subordinates.

Even some Cuomo critics suggested there could be an element of cunning to the bizarre defense, however.

“He created a distraction that people could talk about instead of talking about the report by the attorney general,” progressive strategist Rebecca Katz told this column. In 2018, Katz worked for Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star and left-wing activist who unsuccessfully sought to oust Cuomo in a Democratic primary. 

“To the extent that he can get people focused on the chaos and have the evening news show pictures of him smiling with people, he is distracting from the real things we need to talk about,” Katz added.

Those more substantive details included accounts of Cuomo’s behavior that epitomized older-boss sleaziness — with the older boss in question being the leader of the nation’s fourth most populous state.

He apparently suggested to one aide that they should “play strip poker”; made another comment that he was “lonely” owing to the pandemic and wanted to be “touched”; and, on another occasion, pretended to be reading the company logo on a woman’s t-shirt as he slid two fingers across her chest.

The report, which accused Cuomo of creating a hostile work environment, also left no doubt about the impact that his behavior wrought on people in his circle.

Alyssa McGrath, an executive assistant who accused Cuomo of making inappropriate comments and also staring down her shirt, was quoted by the investigators as saying, “What makes it so hard to describe every single inappropriate incident is the culture of the place. On the one hand, he makes all this inappropriate and creepy behavior normal and like you should not complain. On the other hand, you see people get punished and screamed at if you do anything where you disagree with him or his top aides.”

Cuomo has claimed that the allegations are outright false or the products of misunderstanding. In his video statement defending himself, he claimed one problem was “generational or cultural perspectives that frankly I hadn’t fully appreciated.”

One of the most controversial elements of his own defense was his suggestion that he was only trying to offer support to one accuser, Charlotte Bennett. Cuomo said he was advising Bennett in part because she had previously suffered a sexual assault, as had a member of Cuomo’s own family.

“I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best she could,” Cuomo claimed.

In an interview with Norah O’Donnell on “CBS Evening News” on Tuesday, Bennett said that if Cuomo did not resign, he should be impeached.

Experts on Empire State politics such as New York University professor Mitchell Moss, say that may not happen — at least anytime soon.

The big question, Moss said, was “what the legislature wants to do and when.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone can predict what happens. This is not a normal political problem, not a normal scandal, not a normal kind of disagreement.”

That’s for sure. 

For now, about the only certain thing is that Cuomo is disgraced and weakened as never before.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bill de Blasio Charles Schumer Gregory Meeks Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Kirsten Gillibrand Nancy Pelosi New York Sexual harassment
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