The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Andrew Cuomo keeps denying and fighting. The damage won’t be undone.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outside the Executive Mansion on Aug. 7 in Albany. (Hans Pennink/AP)
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New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) knows only one set of instincts when challenged: deny, resist and fight. This has marked a public career that has seen him as secretary of housing and urban development, state attorney general and now as a three-term governor of New York. He might think this has served him well. It has been his undoing.

He comes from a celebrated political family. His father, Mario, served three terms as governor of New York. Mario Cuomo was a skilled, highly intellectual politician, a gifted orator, a liberal icon at a time when liberalism was losing altitude to the rising conservatism of Ronald Reagan. Mario Cuomo also was a fighter, at times a ruthless one, especially when challenged or in his eyes mistreated. His son inherited some of the father’s attributes, though not all.

Mario Cuomo was seen as a future president, especially after delivering the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco. He famously had an airplane fueled on a tarmac in Albany in December 1991, ready to take him to New Hampshire to file for the 1992 presidential primary. At the last minute, he flinched. The White House dream in which many had invested evaporated. Bill Clinton, who was preparing a nomination campaign as a foil to Cuomo’s liberalism, was the beneficiary.

His presidential ambitions gone, Cuomo sought a fourth term as governor in 1994, the year that Republicans swept to power in the U.S. House and won much more around the country. Cuomo went down to defeat and became an elder statesman.

Andrew Cuomo picked up the mantle. He was tapped by Clinton for the Cabinet and rose through New York’s brawling political world on the strength of the family name, his own driving ambition and bulldozing style.

Journalists, analysts and politicians follow the scandal facing New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on WAMC's public radio show, "The Roundtable." (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

He has had his eyes set on a fourth term as governor, which would eclipse the record of his father, in whose shadow he has long labored. Now, thanks to his own doing, and a damning report from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, he might not last the year. His legacy has been soiled by hubris, temperament and a sense of entitlement.

The report from the attorney general, released this past week, describes a pattern of sexual harassment by the governor and the existence of a hostile workplace in which the governor set the tone. The report details testimony from 11 women; some on the governor’s staff, others who worked for the state. “I believe women, and I believe these 11 women,” James said in releasing the report.

The outlines of some of the accusations against Cuomo had been known before, though in less detail than included in the report. Some were newly revealed, including the case of a state trooper, whom Cuomo had recruited to be in his detail. She told investigators that his behavior toward her was “flirtatious” and “creepy.” On several occasions, he reportedly kissed her and she felt powerless to say no. One time he ran his finger from her neck down her spine. Another time he ran the palm of his hand across her stomach. She said she felt “completely violated.”

He was even more physical with others, according to the report, grabbing or touching a breast or a bottom. At a wedding, he reportedly touched the bare back of a young woman, who grabbed his hand to remove it. “Wow you’re aggressive,” the woman recounted him saying. Rebuffed but unrepentant, the report said, he “cupped her face in his hands” and asked if he could give her a kiss. He did not wait for an answer. It was his way.

His interaction with the women in the report was replete with suggestive, even repulsive, comments. He reportedly asked intrusive questions about their private lives and desires. One woman said he asked her what people were saying about the size of his hands, which she took to be a question about the size of his privates.

He humiliated women who worked for him, according to the report. He asked one to do push-ups in front of him and to memorize and sing “Danny Boy.” He had an explosive temper and was vengeful, and he was protected by his closest advisers, the report said. Those who worked around him, especially those not in his innermost circle, came to fear him, intimidated into silence.

To investigators, he denied many of the worst allegations, as he did publicly last spring when the allegations first were made. He also has said that his words and actions were misinterpreted. In the wake of the report, he has repeated those denials and said he meant nothing sexual in his interactions with the women who bravely stepped forward.

The report has put him back on his heels, defensive as never before.

This is the same Andrew Cuomo who was the darling of the Democrats in the spring of 2020, when he delighted in acting as the sparring partner of President Donald Trump over how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. His lengthy, daily briefings were carried live on cable television. He became a national TV personality. The briefings were filled with both facts and figures about the state of the pandemic, which was ravaging his state’s biggest city, and with ruminations about leadership — the wisdom of Andrew, as it were.

A year earlier, he was being talked about as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, but Joe Biden occupied the space he would have sought. At the height of Cuomo’s prominence during the pandemic, amid doubts about Biden’s strength as a candidate, some Democrats wondered aloud if he might be a better nominee to go against Trump. Fortunately for the party, that talk came to nothing.

Cuomo was awarded an Emmy for his daily pandemic performances and earned a fat book contract along the way. The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” is not an exercise in humility. He was, after all, on top of everything. Behind the curtain, however, lurked his undoing.

Few people who have known Cuomo have spoken positively about his personality, his work style, and his treatment of aides and advisers, let alone rivals and opponents. He was never loved widely by Democrats, whether in New York or Washington or elsewhere. He had a family name and he parlayed that into elective office and used elective office to exercise power freely and indiscriminately.

Now he is politically alone, abandoned by all but a few political allies.

Biden had said last spring when the allegations first became public that if they were proved accurate, Cuomo should resign. Last week, without hesitation, Biden said he stood by that comment.

New York’s two U.S. senators — Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats — called for his resignation. So did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

New York politicians — both members of Congress and the state legislature — have demanded he resign. So have prominent unelected Democrats. Numerous editorial pages have also demanded that he step aside. He waits in Albany.

Impeachment proceedings, as well as possible criminal investigations, loom.

James, at her news conference, said Cuomo had violated state and federal laws with his conduct. Prosecutors in several jurisdictions have indicated they could pursue an investigation. Cuomo’s lawyers are mounting a counterattack on the attorney general and some accusers. Deny, resist and fight. The damage, self-inflicted, has been done.