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A Brief History of New York Impeachments

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eye on the news

A Brief History of New York Impeachments

Whatever Andrew Cuomo’s ultimate fate, he is in uncharted political waters. March 18, 2021
Politics and law
New York

New York governor Andrew Cuomo was a media hero for most of 2020 for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now he’s in deep political trouble after suppressing information on nursing-home deaths and being accused of sexual harassment by several women, one of whom accused him of possible criminal assault. Prominent Democrats, including 59 state legislators, Mayor Bill de Blasio, several congressmen, and both of the state’s U.S. senators, have called on Cuomo to resign. The Democratic speaker of the New York state assembly has authorized the assembly’s Judiciary Committee to begin an investigation, the first step to formally impeaching the governor. So far, Cuomo has flatly refused to resign, denying guilt and asking for people to withhold judgment until the facts have been established. That stance makes impeachment more likely every day. So it’s a good time to review how some earlier governors of New York have been removed from office before the end of their terms.

In fact, removal has only happened twice—the first in colonial times. After the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 forced King James II to flee to France, Jacob Leisler, a prosperous fur merchant and landowner, seized control of New York City and then the province of New York, supposedly in the name of new monarchs William and Mary. When the new governor that William and Mary had appointed finally showed up in 1691, Leisler resigned but was promptly arrested, tried for treason, and hanged.

The second, and more relevant, occasion occurred in 1913, when newly elected governor William Sulzer was impeached and removed from office after a governorship of only ten months. His demise came at the behest of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that dominated city and sometimes state politics for decades.

Sulzer got his start from Tammany, notwithstanding its eventual role in his downfall. Born in New Jersey in 1863, he worked as a cabin boy aboard a brig and a grocery clerk before taking classes at New York’s Cooper Union and Columbia Law School. After reading law at a local firm, he was admitted to the bar in 1884 and, that same year, began working for Tammany Hall as a stump speaker for various campaigns on the city’s East Side. Thanks to Tammany and its grand sachem, Richard Croker, Sulzer was elected to the New York state assembly in 1890. He served for five one-year terms, the last two as speaker of the assembly, a powerful position in New York politics. He was careful to do Boss Croker’s bidding: as Sulzer himself explained, “all legislation came from Tammany Hall and was dictated by that great statesman, Richard Croker.”

As Sulzer’s political career advanced, his loyalty to Tammany waned. In 1894, he was elected to Congress, where he would serve for 18 years, the last two as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In Congress, he supported progressive policies, such as an income tax, the creation of the Department of Labor, the eight-hour work day, and the direct election of senators. Sulzer announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1896 but did not get backing from Tammany. He ran again in 1898 (the governorship had a two-year term until 1938), and this time Croker actively opposed him. Sulzer kept trying for the nomination, though. By 1912, when Democrat and Tammany loyalist John A. Dix was governor and wanted another term, reform Democrats such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a state senator, opposed him as a Tammany man. Sulzer was acceptable to both factions of the party and, with the Republicans split by Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Progressive Party, easily won the November election.

Once in office, Sulzer immediately sided with reformers. He cut Tammany Hall off from patronage, the source of its power, and called for open primary elections—anathema to political machines—while opening investigations into corruption in the legislature and the executive branch.

Tammany Hall retaliated, as political machines do. The majority leader of the state senate, Robert F. Wagner, refused to confirm Sulzer’s appointments. The state comptroller, another Tammany man, froze payrolls to prevent Sulzer’s projects from advancing. A joint commission to investigate corruption, led by state senator and Tammany loyalist James F. Frawley, claimed that Sulzer had been misusing campaign funds and had committed perjury. Two days after the commission announced those findings, the assembly—led by still another Tammany man, speaker Al Smith—voted to impeach the governor.

By this point, Sulzer had lost his political support. Reform-minded progressive Democrats still backed him, but there were too few in Albany to save his job. The trial began in September 1913. A month later, Sulzer was convicted on three counts by a vote of 43–12. While he had lost support among the political class, the governor still had much popular support: it was reported that 10,000 people came to the executive mansion to see him leave Albany. Sulzer won election to the assembly that November as a candidate of the Progressive Party, but never won office again despite several attempts on third-party tickets. He returned to the practice of law. There have been several attempts to clear his political record, but none has succeeded.

New York impeachments are not quite like federal ones. As with the House of Representatives, the New York assembly has the sole power of impeachment, with a majority vote needed for a successful one. But the subsequent trial is held not in the state senate but in the Court for the Trial of Impeachments, whose membership consists of the members of the state senate, the lieutenant governor, and the chief judge and associate judges of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. (The New York Supreme Court, despite its name, is only the court of first instance for serious cases.) A two-thirds vote is required for conviction. If the governor is on trial, then the lieutenant governor and the president pro tempore of the Senate, both in the line of succession to the governorship, are excluded from the court.

Impeachments have been rare in New York’s history. Only three officials were impeached in the nineteenth century, and two were acquitted. None have been impeached since Sulzer, the only New York governor impeached since the American Founding. Whatever Andrew Cuomo’s ultimate fate, he is in uncharted political waters.

Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images

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