The slow fall of Andrew Cuomo accelerated following the release of Attorney General Letitia James’s report regarding claims of sexual harassment by 11 women against New York’s powerful governor, now midway through his third term. The independent investigation, led by former acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, was unsparing in detailing Cuomo’s creepiness in his dealings with female staffers, aides, and underlings, who suffered demeaning interactions with the governor, including unwanted touching, sexualized innuendo, and come-ons.
When these allegations came up last winter, prominent Democrats across New York State called for Cuomo to step down, though President Biden—who has faced numerous charges of sexual impropriety himself—said that the process of investigation should play out. The release of the report, comprising 165 pages of salacious detail, has again prompted calls for Cuomo’s resignation from state legislative leaders, who will surely move to impeach him if he tries to wait it out. Attorney General James, a Cuomo ally, has called for him to step down, as has every member of the state congressional delegation. State Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs, installed in that position by Cuomo and renowned as the governor’s biggest supporter, acknowledges that the governor has to go. And even the president now agrees. As long as Cuomo had the implicit backing of the Democrats’ national leader, his continued tenure in office was sustainable. Now that even Biden has given him the thumbs-down, it’s hard to see how he survives.
Following an old pattern, everyone sees the writing on the wall, except for Cuomo himself. Cuomo is the most avid reader of his own press clippings and has long indulged in empty spectacles highlighting his grandiosity, including restoring FDR’s Packard limousine in order to drive himself across the new Kosciuszko Bridge in 2017. But the grossest embarrassment of his career was his botching of the state’s Covid response by forcing nursing homes to admit contagious patients into under-resourced facilities that would never be able to contain infection. Many thousands of elderly and infirm people died.
The national media, wedded to the narrative that the entire pandemic was Donald Trump’s fault, elevated Cuomo to the status of savior, an anti-Trump who would heal America just as Trump had palsied it. Cuomo—who probably never studied René Girard on the scapegoat or read deeply in the anthropological literature on the significance of sacrifice—embraced the charade, believing that he really was the hero of the drama, rather than a functionary in a national passion play in which he was cast as Trump’s foil.
It is fitting that, with Trump no longer in focus as national villain, the nation would turn to his double as the new bad guy. But Cuomo’s disastrous handling of the pandemic cannot, for political reasons, become the reason for his lustration: too many other Democratic leaders, including governors, took the same actions, and to deal honestly with the problem would destroy too many careers. Better to remove Cuomo for sexual indiscretions and then bury his major failures as a footnote.
Cuomo is thus the third major New York State Democrat in just over a decade to see his amazingly successful career likely wrecked by a sense of sexual entitlement. Former governor Eliot Spitzer and former attorney general Eric Schneiderman were discovered to have committed truly shocking acts. Spitzer was forced to resign as governor in 2008 after it emerged that he was procuring high-end prostitutes and trying to evade mandatory bank-reporting requirements by breaking large wire transfers into smaller amounts. Schneiderman emerged as a sexual sadist who took pleasure in beating and choking women.
The allegations against Cuomo, on the other hand, while plentiful and certainly sleazy, are far less extreme. The governor put his hand on a woman’s bare back at a wedding; he brushed away an imaginary spider off a woman’s shirt as an excuse to cop a feel at a public gathering; he made many clumsy overtures to women who worked for him. These actions are not excusable, and Cuomo’s efforts to spin them as gestures of innocent Mediterranean warmth are pathetic, but in an era when we learn that a Hollywood producer routinely raped actresses for decades and a mogul regularly flew teenage girls to cavort with him and his powerful friends on a private island, the governor’s actions—in comparison—come off as tame. It is unlikely that hints of criminal prosecution will turn into anything because, taken individually, it is hard to identify much that rises to that level.
By getting rid of Cuomo, the national Democratic Party will have a scapegoat who can bear the collective sins of the failed blue-state Covid response. Watching his fall from grace makes for good political theater, but away from the headlines, New York’s major problems fester.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images