After New York Attorney General Letitia James’s report found that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had violated state and federal law by sexually harassing 11 women, Cuomo seemed intent on riding it out.
Just last week he denied the report’s charges and said that he wouldn’t resign. But with most Democrats, including President Biden, calling for his resignation, an impending impeachment investigation in the state legislature and public opinion now solidly against him, it all became too much for Cuomo. On Tuesday, he announced his resignation, effective Aug. 24.
When the allegations of sexual harassment first broke earlier this year, one of Cuomo’s political saving graces was that public opinion hadn’t turned against him. But in the aftermath of the report’s release, that quickly changed. Polls found that anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of New Yorkers thought Cuomo should resign or that the state legislature should start impeachment proceedings if he didn’t resign, including a majority of Democrats. With such strong opposition within his own party, Cuomo had few options available to him. He had reportedly tried to reach a backroom deal whereby he wouldn’t seek reelection in exchange for avoiding impeachment, but that clearly doesn’t seem to have been an option. The state legislature had been in the process of moving ahead with impeachment proceedings.
Some politicians have survived scandals, but as my colleague Nathaniel Rakich has previously noted, politicians faced with charges of sexual harassment have been forced out at a higher rate after the #MeToo movement in 2017, when claims of sexual harassment and misconduct in the work place have been taken more seriously.
Cuomo posed a serious liability to his own party. Sexual harassment is something that Americans, especially Democrats, view as a significant problem. In 2019, 80 percent of Democrats told Gallup that they thought sexual harassment was a major problem, while 62 percent of Americans overall thought the same.
But it was also easier for Democrats to push for Cuomo’s resignation because his successor, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, wasn’t herself mired in scandal, and as a Democrat, she would also keep the party in charge of the state. By comparison, one big reason the Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, didn’t resign following his blackface scandal in 2019 was that his immediate successors, both Democrats, all had their own problems: the lieutenant governor faced multiple sexual assault allegations and the attorney general had his own blackface scandal. Had Democrats pushed for all three to step down, the governorship might have ended up in Republican hands.
Hochul makes history now as the first woman governor of New York, but given she only has 15 months left to serve in Cuomo’s term, this also puts the 2022 New York gubernatorial election under a cloud of uncertainty as Cuomo — especially prior to the allegations — was expected to mount a bid for a fourth term.
If Hochul runs, the fact that she is an unelected incumbent could make for an interesting electoral dynamic. Right now, she’s not terribly well known — about half of New York’s registered voters in a recent Quinnipiac University poll said they didn’t have an opinion of her job performance. That gives Hochul an opening to make an impression with voters, but she doesn’t have much time. The 2022 campaign is already underway, and even though unelected gubernatorial incumbents who run for a full term have tended to win their party’s nomination, they also are more vulnerable to a primary challenge than elected incumbents. And in a blue state like New York, there are a number of high-profile Democrats who might throw their hat in the ring. That said, it’s early yet, and we still don’t even know if Hochul will run. But for now, we’re keeping an eye on what New Yorkers think of Hochul and what that means for the race for the governor’s mansion in 2022.