You could practically see and hear the ground shifting underneath Governor Andrew Cuomo. On Saturday evening The New York Times posted a devastating story: highly detailed, highly credible accusations of sexual harassment from Charlotte Bennett, a former aide to Cuomo, three days after another former staffer, Lindsey Boylan, said Cuomo had planted an unwanted kiss on her lips. The governor flatly denied Boylan’s claims; after the Bennett story broke, he released a fairly anodyne statement in which he was careful to make it clear he took her allegations seriously, said he never made any advances, and called for an outside review, adding that he would make no further comment until the review was complete. Behind the scenes Cuomo seemed to believe that he had been misunderstood by Bennett. As in other skirmishes, politicians who did not like him were taking shots, and he would calibrate—to use one of the governor’s favorite words—his way through the trouble, as always. He would fight this one out. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Most of which rapidly proved untenable, only deepening the crisis engulfing New York’s three-term governor—and calling into question whether Cuomo understood that the circumstances this time were very different from those of his previous political battles. In his initial Saturday night response, Cuomo appeared to be creating a home field advantage for the “independent” investigation, decreeing that it would be conducted by former federal judge Barbara Jones. Jones’s integrity is not in doubt—but the fact that the accused was selecting his interrogator, and that Jones had once worked with a longtime top Cuomo adviser, Steve Cohen, provoked a new fury. The backlash was also partly because of some thorny Cuomo history with investigations: In 2014, he abruptly unplugged the Moreland Commission, an ethics probe, when he decided it had served its purpose in pressuring the state legislature—and when the commission had started asking questions about Cuomo associates.
That Cuomo would try to avoid handing this new investigation to the logical investigator, the state attorney general, made plenty of sense, at least for him. His two most recent predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, were seriously damaged by A.G. probes—probes conducted by the office of then attorney general Andrew Cuomo. But as criticism rolled in and escalated Saturday night and Sunday morning—with Cuomo giving particular weight to comments from the leaders of the two houses of the state legislature, Democrats Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, whose support he needs in upcoming state budget negotiations—the governor backpedaled. First he tried to dictate that the review of his behavior be controlled by the state attorney general, Letitia James, and the chief judge of the state court of appeals. James quickly shot down that gambit, and Cuomo agreed that she alone would take over, a stunning retreat for a man famed for getting his way.
Even more remarkably, the governor issued a new statement, one including a very rare apology—or as close to an apology as anyone can remember in Cuomo’s long public career. “I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” Cuomo said. “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
Which fell well short of fully accepting blame and responsibility. But it was very much in line with Cuomo’s apparent failure to recognize that this current scandal is of a different character than other controversies, even the ongoing uproar about his juggling of nursing home COVID-death statistics. First and foremost is the nature of the conduct itself: creepy questions about the sex life of Bennett, a 25-year-old executive assistant, health policy adviser, and survivor of sexual assault. Bennett told the Times that Cuomo suggested he was “fine” sleeping with any woman over the age of 22, and that to her the message was loud and clear: “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me.” Cuomo, 63, has tried to play off the remarks as “levity and banter,” but he has conspicuously not denied making them.
The second difference, though, could be even more corrosive to the governor’s hold on his job—and on his legacy. Cuomo’s brand has always been toughness, using muscle and manipulation to bend government to his will. His justification—and to many voters, his appeal—has been that his aggression and ruthlessness were necessary to deliver for the public. Maybe he was a bully, but it was for righteous causes: better bridges and airports, lower taxes, tougher gun laws. And Cuomo has never been accused of being corrupt in the obvious, conventional way—using his position to line his pockets. He wanted power so he could use it on behalf of the people of the great state of New York, who would otherwise be at the mercy of self-interested Albany insiders. The notion that complaints about Cuomo’s behavior were all from political enemies, and were part of the inside game, has protected him for a long time. Sexually harassing female subordinates, however, is nothing but selfish. Cuomo can make no claim to it serving the greater good.
The governor’s defense will likely be based in asserting a gap between his intent and Bennett’s perception of Cuomo’s words—and that Cuomo never touched Bennett. Resigning has not been on the table, as embarrassing as things have become in the past few days, particularly because Cuomo sees calls for him to quit as coming primarily from his longtime antagonists on the left. Which elected officials could speak up and nudge him toward the door? Probably none, short of President Joe Biden. For now, though, Cuomo insiders are most worried about whether any other accusers might come forward, and how credible their accusations might be. Almost exactly one year ago, Cuomo was beginning his daily televised pandemic briefings, and his ascent to enormous public acclaim. “From a P.R. standpoint the dangerous thing is: The more sainted you become, the harder the fall will be, if there is one,” a former Cuomo adviser told me at the time. Now the governor is heading down the other side of the mountain.
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