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Abandoned, alone and defiant to the end: The stunning downfall of Andrew Cuomo

ALBANY – On his first day in office in 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised to “bring back integrity” to the State Capitol.

Ten years and seven months later, laid low by a report that accused of him of serial sexual harassment, he announced his resignation and became the latest in a long line of state officials remembered not for integrity, but for ignominy.

Cuomo’s stunning decision to step down came after a dramatic monthslong descent under the weight of personal and governmental scandal.

The resignation of the 63-year-old Democrat makes Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo Democrat, the state’s chief executive at an exceedingly difficult moment in New York State’s history.

Cuomo, who in the late winter as sexual harassment allegations began to pile up, vowed there would be "no way" he would quit his job, reiterated that last week, even after an explosive set of sexual harassment findings against him by state Attorney General Letitia James. He said there was much important work to be done before his third term was to expire at the end of 2022.

But on Tuesday, he said he would walk away and joined a long list of former Albany politicians with this description hanging over his head: resigned in disgrace.

In the end, Cuomo was alone, abandoned by longtime political advisers, including his closest aide, Melissa DeRosa, as well as top union leaders who helped him rise in politics, legislators of all political persuasions and even President Biden, who last week called for his resignation.

The governor, son of the late liberal beacon Gov. Mario Cuomo, saw any remaining political capital quickly evaporate after 11 women, including several who served on his staff, accused him of inappropriate sexual comments and actions.

Cuomo desperately wanted something his father could not achieve when he was governor: a fourth term. Now, the son of Mario Cuomo will step down with more than 16 months remaining in the current gubernatorial term.

It was a stunning fall for a politician who gained national media attention during the early months of the Covid-19 crisis and whom loyalists have promoted for years as White House-ready.

An impeachment process in the Assembly, started in March, was accelerated with lawmakers saying the votes were already overwhelming to oust the governor when the full chamber planned to come back late this month or in early September.

The governor was accused of making repeated, unwanted and disturbing comments to one young aide, Charlotte Bennett, a sexual assault survivor, and groping another assistant, Brittany Commisso, during an incident at the Executive Mansion in Albany. Commisso made a formal criminal complaint last week to the Albany County Sheriff.

Cuomo was accused of violating federal and state civil laws, as well as possible misdemeanor charges for the groping incident. Cuomo steadfastly denied ever inappropriately touching anyone or making verbal sexual comments.

But Cuomo’s downfall was long in the making, as his hammer-over-the-head style of politics wore away whatever personal goodwill he might have once had with some Democrats across the state and he found himself abandoned by anyone who might have been able to throw him a public lifeline.

The governor pushed himself onto the national stage last year after the Covid-19 pandemic hit by holding daily press briefings to update New Yorkers on the march of the virus. But some of his actions have been criticized as having been deadly for some, like a March 2020 order that nursing homes had to take in Covid-19 positive patients from hospitals.

The discipline that Cuomo often displayed in his early years after being elected governor in 2010 also eroded: In the middle of the pandemic, he authored a book touting his own leadership abilities during the health crisis. He then refused to provide any financial details about the book deal.

In another political misstep, Cuomo also refused – until a recent report by James forced his hand – to provide complete information about how many nursing home patients died from Covid-19.

James accused him of undercounting the nursing home deaths. State data released since has revealed that about 15,000 residents of nursing homes and other adult-care facilities died from the virus. The matter is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.

But Cuomo’s entry into the “disgraced Albany politician” club – which includes a former governor, former comptroller and numerous state lawmakers just in the past couple of decades – was pushed along quickly after accusations late last year that he sexually harassed women.

First to publicly accuse Cuomo was Lindsey Boylan, who served a floor above Cuomo’s Manhattan office in his economic development division. She said harassment from Cuomo occurred between 2016 and 2018, including an allegation that he suggested she play strip poker on a state plane during an economic development trip to Buffalo, and another occasion where she said he kissed her on the lips in the Manhattan office. He denied the allegations.

On Feb. 27, the New York Times published an account of a sexual harassment allegation against Cuomo by Bennett, 25, a former executive assistant and health policy adviser to the governor. She alleged the harassment occurred last year at the state Capitol.

Cuomo, she said, sought to talk to her about her sex life, about whether she was open to dating older men and about how lonely he was during the pandemic.

It only grew worse for Cuomo following the attorney general’s report detailing an alleged groping incident at the Capitol and even a female member of the State Police detail assigned to protect his life reported he sexually harassed her.

Cuomo wasn’t just facing an impeachment vote in the Assembly in the coming weeks for the sexual harassment allegations, but also allegations that he may have used state resources for the controversial $5.1 million book deal he signed last year to write about Covid-19, the undercounting of nursing home residents who died from Covid-19 and revelations that he fast-tracked Covid-19 tests for friends and family members last year, going so far as to dispatch troopers to their homes to pick up the tests and rush them to a state lab in Albany.

The impeachment process will become moot, Assembly leaders said Monday, if Cuomo resigns. The state Senate, though, can still move to ban him from ever holding elected office again in New York State.

Cuomo and his former partner, celebrity lifestyle cook Sandra Lee, had previously broken up their long relationship. Cuomo had been married to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, for 15 years. They had three children before their bitter divorce in 2005.

Rise to power

A 1979 graduate of Fordham University, Cuomo was an adviser to his father when he was governor until his defeat at the hands of George Pataki in 1994. Andrew Cuomo earned a reputation as the “bad cop” of his father’s time in office.

With the help of his father, Andrew Cuomo was hired by then President Clinton for a post in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency over which Cuomo would serve as secretary. From that job, he was already angling a return to New York politics – this time with himself as governor.

Cuomo ran a gubernatorial primary against H. Carl McCall in 2002. That campaign put Cuomo in the doghouse with many Democrats, especially Black leaders who did not want McCall, an African American, to have to face a nasty and expensive primary bid instead of focusing all his energies on a general election campaign against Pataki. Cuomo dropped out of the run just a week before the primary, a contest he was projected to lose.

With the help of some close advisers, Cuomo spent the next several years trying to reclaim his battered standing in the Democratic Party, a strategy that worked in 2006 when he was elected state attorney general.

That job became available when its occupant at the time, Eliot Spitzer, decided to run for governor, a post he won in 2006. But Spitzer had his own fall from grace in 2008 after patronizing a prostitution ring. Cuomo began quickly angling for his own gubernatorial run, convincing David Paterson, who took over from Spitzer in 2008, not to run again.

In 2011, New Yorkers were weary of scandal after scandal. Cuomo promised a new start for Albany.

In the historic War Room at the Capitol, in front of family, friends and political allies, Cuomo on that Jan. 1 said: “People all across the state, when you mention state government, literally shaking their heads. Worse than no confidence, what they’re saying is, no trust. The words ‘government in Albany’ have become a national punch line."

Policies and controversy

Over the years, Cuomo pushed an aggressive series of fiscal and policy initiatives, including tax breaks and tax hikes; a crackdown on assault-style guns; marriage legalization for gays; paid family leave; and a ban on fracking of natural gas. He helped keep Republicans in control of the State Senate by approving a controversial redistricting map in 2012 and worked with several renegade Democrats who sided with the GOP in a power-sharing deal. Democrats took over the Senate after the 2018 elections.

Cuomo was not without controversies during his nearly three terms in office, including taking large donations from people and entities who benefited from his gubernatorial decisions. He disbanded a panel that he had formed to look into corruption in Albany.

Then there was the 2016 corruption case, which involved his close friend and most trusted government adviser, Joseph Percoco, among others, in a bid-rigging case. That case began with an investigation into the awarding of the RiverBend solar manufacturing plant construction and development project in South Buffalo as part of the state’s Buffalo Billion economic development program. Cuomo was not accused of wrongdoing; Percoco is still in federal prison.

But in blue New York, Republicans could not defeat Cuomo, who used his office to amass huge campaign war chests. His first gubernatorial victory in 2010 was a fiery one against Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino; most recently, in 2018, he defeated Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

Cuomo also pushed back successfully against challengers from the left, including actor and activist Cynthia Nixon in 2018. He had nasty fights with liberals in the small but influential Working Families Party, but then ran on their line three times.

On March 2, that party joined with a growing number of lawmakers and others calling on Cuomo to leave office. Working Families leaders said he was “unfit” to govern any longer, adding: “Andrew Cuomo’s reign of fear, harassment and intimidation cannot continue.”

Political intimidation

Cuomo’s style helped him navigate the complex Democratic politics of New York State. In the end, it also helped to bring him down, as Democrats abandoned – or did nothing to help – the governor’s attempt to keep living in the Executive Mansion.

Cuomo made political intimidation part of his daily routine, whether it was going after school superintendents and teachers early in his gubernatorial years or, more recently, threatening a state lawmaker with political retribution for his sharp and public criticisms over the state’s Covid-19 nursing home response.

That Cuomo would be largely on his own in the end was a day many predicted. In January, after James issued a report saying Cuomo undercounted Covid-19 nursing home residents’ deaths, Democratic lawmakers either stayed silent or rushed out to sharply criticize Cuomo.

Veteran Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said at the time of Democrats in the Legislature and their view of Cuomo: “They’d all line up and push him down a flight of stairs if they could just get rid of him.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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