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Cuomo refuses to resign amid Democratic uproar over sexual harassment accusations

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) at a May a news conference in Washington. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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An increasingly isolated Andrew M. Cuomo defiantly refused to resign as New York’s governor Friday after a majority of his state’s congressional delegation joined calls from most state legislators for him to step down amid a growing sexual harassment scandal.

Cuomo (D) instead attacked the lawmakers, who by the evening included the state’s two U.S. senators, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as being “reckless and dangerous” for using news reports and the public testimonials of women as a basis for pushing him from office before an independent investigation concludes.

“The people of New York should not have confidence in a politician who takes a position without knowing any facts or substance,” he said. “Do I think it is responsible to take a position on a serious allegation before you have any facts? No, I don’t think it is responsible.”

Cuomo, 63, has held on to office by arguing that a full investigation of the claims against him will vindicate his behavior, even as he has been evasive about some of the particulars of what may have happened with the women. He avoided a direct question Friday about whether he had what he understood to be a consensual relationship with any of his accusers, saying only that he had “not had a sexual relationship that was inappropriate, period.”

Several Cuomo advisers said Friday that he was planning to rely on his support among Black voters, particularly in New York City, and to dispute or downplay every charge until he is vindicated by the investigation now beginning under the state’s attorney general, Letitia James (D), or until he is removed from office.

“People know the difference between playing politics, bowing to cancel culture and the truth,” Cuomo said Friday. “Let the review proceed. I’m not going to resign.”

It took only a matter of hours Friday for Cuomo to lose the support of most of his congressional delegation, as well as Schumer and Gillibrand, who had previously said they were withholding judgment until James’s investigation was completed.

“Due to the multiple, credible sexual harassment and misconduct allegations, it is clear that Governor Cuomo has lost the confidence of his governing partners and the people of New York,” Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and Gillibrand said in a joint statement. “Governor Cuomo should resign.”

The rapid shift ended weeks of hesitation by Democratic leaders, who had held out hope that a full investigation of Cuomo’s actions could be completed before a verdict was passed on his term in office.

The initial delay by Democratic leaders represented a marked departure from the quick demands that previously greeted high-profile men accused of wrongdoing. Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was fired from his company three days after actresses accused him of sexual misconduct in 2017. Weeks later, the head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, resigned days after a producer accused him of propositioning her.

In Washington, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought the resignation of Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) later that year, a day after he was accused of propositioning and touching the leg of a fundraiser for his campaign. (He did not resign, but he did not seek reelection.)

Second thoughts among some Democrats about the 2018 resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), and subsequent allegations, including claims made about Biden’s behavior and accusations against Brett M. Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice, have prompted an evolution in thinking about how to confront such incidents.

Amid more sexual harassment accusations against Cuomo last week, nearly two dozen women elected to the state legislature drafted a joint statement of concern — not because of the allegations but because they worried about growing calls for his immediate resignation without a full investigation.

“As an African American woman, tons of my people have been incarcerated without having due process. There should be due process,” said State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), who organized the statement independent of the governor’s aggressive damage-control efforts.

The worry, she said, was not just that Cuomo could be railroaded. It was also for his accusers. “They deserve more than just a newspaper article,” she said. “They deserve to be heard.”

The call for an investigation to be completed first has faced increasing pushback as the number of accusers against Cuomo has grown. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (D) said he expected Black support for Cuomo to begin to fade, comparing the governor’s defiance to that of former president Donald Trump.

“Black voters are not a monolith, but they have been supportive of the governor over the years,” he said. “But I think that’s starting to erode.”

Cuomo has been accused of workplace harassment, improper touching or both by five women, including four who worked for him. An allegation by a sixth employee was referred by the governor’s office to local police for investigation Wednesday. Many others, male and female, have described a hostile and abusive workplace in which young women were frequently treated differently.

Over a dozen members of the state’s congressional delegation have called on Cuomo to resign, with many releasing statements simultaneously Friday. Among those calling for his departure were House Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Antonio Delgado, Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn B. Maloney.

Members of the delegation and their staffs began coordinating a response after a large minority of Democrats in the state legislature came out Thursday to call for his resignation.

“The dam had to break at some point,” said one Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Forty Democratic members of the State Assembly signed on to that effort, and the body launched a new investigation of Cuomo’s conduct that could serve as a potential first step toward impeachment. The state’s Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), has also called for Cuomo to step down.

One official in Albany said that the State Assembly had the votes to impeach Cuomo but wanted to conduct an investigation first. The officials said that would begin next week.

Cuomo aides were dealing with constant rumors, two advisers said, of more women coming forward. “It’s hard to know what to believe and what’s coming next,” one adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

A count Thursday by the Associated Press found that 121 members of the state Senate and Assembly, or about 57 percent of elected legislators, had backed calls for his resignation. That included 65 Democrats.

“He doesn’t have a lot of friends in the legislature,” said state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, one of 16 Senate Democrats who signed a letter calling for Cuomo’s resignation this week. “He has spent years making enemies.”

Behind the scenes, Cuomo has taken a pugilistic tone, defending his conduct and believing he can survive, allies say. His advisers expect him to continue making appearances to discuss coronavirus vaccination efforts.

Other Democrats and women’s advocates, meanwhile, were balancing what they described as a far more complicated set of factors than present in the first months of the #MeToo movement to inform their decision whether to call for resignation. Included are the nature of the allegations, the potential for an authoritative investigation and patterns described by multiple accusers.

“I think we have seen it be a disservice to survivors who have spoken up when there has been too little investigation,” said Ally Coll, co-founder of the Purple Campaign, an effort to end workplace sexual harassment. “We are seeing a logical leveling out in the process here being more formalized, and from my position as an employee advocate and policymaker, that is a good thing.”

Cuomo’s home-state senators, in particular, had been much more cautious after playing pivotal roles in calling for Kavanaugh to withdraw his Supreme Court nomination and for Franken to resign. Gillibrand had been the first senator to call for Franken’s departure, which Schumer later encouraged, and both pushed for Kavanaugh to withdraw after raising concerns that the FBI would not be able to do a full investigation of the allegations against him.

But some of the accusations in both cases have since been called into doubt, including claims against Kavanaugh pushed by Michael Avenatti, who was later convicted of extortion in an unrelated case. No formal investigations were launched in either case — a Senate ethics probe was short-circuited by Franken’s departure and Republicans resisted expanding an investigation of Kavanaugh to include all of his accusers.

Gillibrand, who has also argued in recent years that President Bill Clinton should have resigned over his affair with a White House intern in the 1990s, said in a recent podcast interview that the #MeToo movement was always anchored in the idea accusers need to be taken seriously, not in the idea of snap justice.

“No one is in favor of letting only one side tell their truth. That has never been a part of #MeToo,” Gillibrand said. “You were just saying ‘Believe them’ so you will investigate.”

Even Cuomo’s most prominent accuser, former aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, argued in a CBS News interview that Cuomo’s resignation should be conditioned on the investigation finding that he had done what she claimed. She has accused the governor of asking about her sex life, suggesting that he would date someone her age and, in a subsequent meeting, asking whether she had found him a girlfriend.

Debra Katz, Bennett’s attorney, said: “In the aftermath of Al Franken, there was a lot of regret that people jumped to the conclusion that he had to step down. Not every allegation of sexual harassment should be treated the same way. They should be treated seriously, and they should be run to ground.”

Cuomo also has shifted his views. While he now says he will not resign, in 2018 he promptly called for the departure of then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) after the New Yorker published a report in which four women accused Schneiderman of physical violence in their relationships. Schneiderman defended himself by saying the violence had been a part of “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity” and denied assaulting anyone.

That explanation did not convince the governor, who sought Schneiderman’s resignation even as he requested a formal investigation.

“My opinion is that, given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve as Attorney General, and for the good of the office, he should resign,” Cuomo said in a statement at the time.

Six months after the New Yorker article, New York prosecutors announced that the allegations against Schneiderman were credible but that “legal impediments, including statutes of limitations, preclude criminal prosecution.”

Cuomo was asked Tuesday by a reporter how he could reconcile his immediate calls for Schneiderman to resign with his pleas that he be allowed a full investigation. He said the difference was the severity of the claims.

“There are obviously allegations and then there are allegations, and there is a spectrum of allegations,” Cuomo said. “There are capital crimes, and there is physical violence.”

In response to the five women who said he improperly touched or made comments to them, Cuomo has denied any inappropriate touching and said that he never realized at the time that his banter with employees caused them harm.

A sixth accuser has alleged that he fondled her under her blouse at the Executive Mansion and that she told him to stop, according to the Albany Times Union. Cuomo has denied the account, which The Washington Post has not independently confirmed.

More accusations like that one could shift the calculations of many of the leaders and women’s advocates now focused on investigations.

At this point, however, women’s advocates are hopeful that the Cuomo case will be remembered as one in which his accusers were heard and the truth of their accusations was fully vetted.

“I think we are evolving and evolving quickly as a country about how to respond to these issues, but the truth is we haven’t had a national consensus,” said Terri Poore, policy director for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “So a fair process is a good direction to take in response.”

Colby Itkowitz and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.