Welcome to the 16th edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and this week the center of political gravity in New York suddenly and violently shifted with Attorney General Letitia James’ unveiling of the results of the inquiry into harassment and sexual misconduct allegations against Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The governor has survived a lot throughout his long political career, and it’s a testament to his sheer influence in this state that he’s pretty easily powered through what might have been career-ending scandals for other politicians.
For example, he impeded and eventually disbanded the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption once it got within striking range of his own political misdeeds and cravenly created a so-called Women’s Equality Party that achieved nothing besides serving as a weapon against the progressive Working Families Party.
Cuomo’s been so talented at dodging disrepute that many New Yorkers might not even remember these events. That all changed in the aftermath of Tuesday’s announcement, as even his closest allies began jumping ship. The allegations had already been circulating for months, but it took James’ meticulous, 168-page report with its dozens of interviews to make them absolutely undeniable for the state’s power players. State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, a steadfast and longtime supporter, called on Cuomo to resign. So did Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. When it became clear after a ridiculous rebuttal — including a perplexing montage of photos of Cuomo hugging and kissing various people, as if to indicate that he didn’t only put his hands on women he was sexually interested in—that the governor would not back down, Heastie finally used the “i” word: Cuomo will be impeached.
To help you understand what’s happening, we repeated our strategy of having URL’s own S. Mitra Kalita send me the questions at the forefront of her mind, and I do my best to address them in a concise and straightforward way. Here goes nothing:
Felipe, WTF is going on?
I guess this’ll be the overview. Basically, the evidence has become overwhelming enough that no one can any longer plausibly deny that the governor engaged in a pattern of misconduct. It was pretty clear from before, with courageous accusers like Charlotte Bennett coming forward and laying out detailed claims against Cuomo, but many lawmakers and state political figures had said they’d wait for the attorney general’s report before making any final judgements. Now, the report is out, and it’s every bit as damning as could be expected. There’s really nothing left to say.
Will there be an impeachment trial?
Almost certainly. The formal impeachment investigation process in the Assembly actually already started months ago, as scandal swirled around Cuomo. It’s looking into not only the sexual assault claims, but allegations that the governor moved to obscure the total number of nursing home deaths and utilized state resources in writing a memoir about his ostensible leadership during last year’s Covid crisis, among other things. Heastie has said that the investigation, which is a precursor to a potential impeachment, will wrap up soon. It wasn’t certain before that this vote would be successful, but with this report in hand and political support for the governor imploding across the board, it’s almost certain that he’ll be impeached by the Assembly. After that, there will be a trial in the Senate (similar to how it works with presidential impeachments), where Cuomo’s lawyers will have to argue his case. As this process unfolds, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul would take the reins as acting governor. Standing in judgement will be the Senate and the New York Court of Appeals, which collectively could vote to convict and remove him from office permanently.
What do you think of Tish James’ role in this? She oversaw the investigation AND she might run for governor?
Certainly a lot of people want James to run for governor, and she would certainly make a formidable candidate. Reviews of her time as attorney general have largely been positive, and she has the track record, political connections, and managerial cachet to mount a strong campaign. Already, some prominent figures like Brooklyn Democratic Party chairwoman and Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte have indicated they would support James. The attorney general herself has held her cards close to the vest, not making any public statements that could be perceived as expressing an interest in running. Nonetheless, Cuomo’s people have already used that innuendo to try to discredit her investigation, with Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi saying in advance of the report’s release that there was “transparent political motivation of the attorney general’s review.” It’s not an argument that anyone seems to be buying, though. The report itself is clearly not a political stunt, and is abundantly thorough and well-supported by the available evidence. It remains unclear whether James will or will not run; this review will undoubtedly bring her positive public attention and set her up as the woman who brought down the harasser governor, which is not a bad springboard to a candidacy. Still, if she does run, she risks charges that this whole endeavor was an elaborate design to open up the field for herself.
Who becomes governor if Cuomo is impeached?
Hochul would become acting governor as the trial begins in the Senate and Court of Appeals. If there is ultimately a failure to convict him, Cuomo would return to being governor. If he is convicted, Hochul becomes the permanent governor in advance of the election next year. In New York, the governor and lieutenant governor run independently in separate elections, but most of the time candidates choose to run together, as a ticket. This is very much the case with Cuomo and Hochul, a former congresswoman who became lieutenant governor at the start of Cuomo’s second term and has often traveled around the state acting as a sort of surrogate for him. Despite their long association, she is clearly not standing behind him now, calling his behavior “repulsive” in a statement published soon after the report was released. Somewhat ironically, she would become the first female governor of the state if Cuomo is impeached in part for harassing female subordinates. She is likely to run for re-election if she ascends to the governorship, as a moderate Democrat.
Who is standing with Cuomo right now?
At this stage, practically no one. The man is politically radioactive and even his onetime allies can see the vultures circling. It’s now been reported that local district attorneys are taking steps to criminally investigate the governor, which will only pile on to his troubles. It doesn’t really make sense for anyone to publicly associate themselves with him right now, though I’m sure plenty of people are privately offering support.
What does this mean for New York’s fractured left? Break it down for us.
For all of Cuomo’s talk about being the most progressive state and the nation and enacting progressive priorities, it’s been more so despite his leadership than because of it (see the aforementioned support for the Republican-caucusing IDC). He’s proved a mighty obstacle for the dream of electing an unabashedly left-wing governor of the state, having handily defeated progressive challengers Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon in his last two primary races, respectively. With him out of the way, there’s not really a similarly powerful and well-known moderate candidate who can step in and lock up the nomination with an enormous campaign chest and endless connections. It’s also no secret that Cuomo used his considerable power to punish people and organizations that dared support his challengers; with him and his vengeful tactics out of the way, the left is in a much stronger position to mount a campaign for the state’s top office. James has been floated as a candidate, of course, as has current NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who defeated former IDC leader Jeff Klein in a 2018 upset, has also expressed interest. Even if a progressive doesn’t become governor, that wing of the party might have an easier time navigating a relationship with a moderate other than the fanatically power-hungry and vindictive Cuomo.
This newsletter was written by Andrea Pineda-Salgado and Felipe De La Hoz for URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets. Our collaborative elections coverage is sponsored by a grant from the Center for Cooperative Media.