The governor was at the peak of his powers — a rising star in the Democratic Party and the most feared figure in the state of New York. Within a week, it all came crashing down.
The year was 2008 — so long ago that word of Eliot Spitzer’s resignation arrived in newsrooms by fax.
The world has changed since then, but in ways that will only make it harder for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to survive the scandal now engulfing him. When the New York Times on Saturday night reported a 25-year-old former Cuomo aide’s devastating account of her experience with the 63-year-old governor, problems that had amounted to a dumpster fire for him immediately became an inferno.
The real estate industry would be wise not to count on Cuomo to help with anything during state budget negotiations, or during the rest of the legislative session, or quite possibly ever again.
Five reasons in particular foretell an ending similar to Spitzer’s nearly 13 years ago.
1. Cuomo’s alleged actions were worse than Spitzer’s.
Spitzer, who was married at the time, was found to have been sleeping with a $1,000-an-hour prostitute. The scandal undermined not only his credibility but the moralistic, law-and-order reputation he had built as a swashbuckling prosecutor. By the same token, Cuomo — who succeeded Spitzer as attorney general — has fashioned himself as a champion of women, a crusader against sexual harassment and a paragon of rectitude.
But Spitzer’s liaisons were with a consenting adult. Charlotte Bennett, by contrast, was a member of Cuomo’s staff, and the encounter she endured with him was unexpected and left her deeply shaken, according to the credible and documented telling she gave the Times.
The media have focused on Cuomo’s unmistakable overtures: asking Bennett how she felt about relationships with older men and whether she had ever been with one, and telling her he was fine with anyone over age 22 — classic sexual harassment.
But there was an even darker element of their dialogue, said Bennett, a former victim of sexual assault and an activist on the issue.
“The way he was repeating, ‘You were raped and abused and attacked and assaulted and betrayed,’ over and over again while looking me directly in the eyes was something out of a horror movie,” she texted a friend afterward.
Like Cuomo, Spitzer ruled by fear; other elected officials were afraid of his wrath, because he had the power and high approval ratings to crush them in any public fight. But, also like Cuomo, he had no friends to come to his aid or well of goodwill to fall back on.
Spitzer lasted six days after the scandal broke. This is Day Two for Cuomo, and already he has been forced to give ground twice on who will conduct the investigation.
2. The Al Franken standard has been set.
The Minnesota senator was ascendant among progressives and crucial to Democrats’ power in the U.S. Senate. But when his history of sexual harassment was revealed, his colleagues — led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — forced him to resign in 2018, ignoring his initially flimsy excuses and increasingly contrite apologies. They realized that they had to hold Democrats to the same standards as they did Republicans accused of similar misdeeds.
Franken’s career ended, and Gillibrand gained prominence. She’s still the junior senator from New York (a seat she was appointed to by Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson). Like Franken did initially, Cuomo tried to downplay his conversation with Bennett, saying he likes to joke around with his aides. That persuaded no one, because there’s nothing remotely funny about what he allegedly said. And Democrats don’t need Cuomo nearly as much as they needed Franken. It’s hard to see Cuomo faring any better.
On top of that, it’s the #MeToo era. Decades ago, a scandal like this might have blown over. These days, people get canceled for a lot less than the governor allegedly did. Society is not quite at zero tolerance for sexual harassment, but it’s getting closer.
3. There are multiple accusers.
When former Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan came forward with allegations against Cuomo, first on Twitter and later on Medium, the governor tried to depict her as a liar who had no evidence. He even tried to discredit her account of a flight on which she said he suggested, with a press aide and state trooper present, that they play strip poker.
Cuomo’s people said they searched but found no manifest showing a flight with only those people on board. But Boylan never said they were the only people on board.
Now that Bennett has come forward with her detailed account, backed up by text messages and recollections of people she spoke with, Boylan is no longer seen as an outlier or a fabricator — and Cuomo’s behavior seems more like a pattern than an aberration.
4. The allegations are plausible.
Cuomo did not specifically deny Boylan’s accusation that he kissed her on the lips, which is several orders of magnitude more serious than the other interactions she described. It’s well over what anyone might deem a fuzzy line between acceptable behavior and sexual harassment. Even Cuomo did not try to downplay the kiss as a well-meaning but misinterpreted act.
Bennett said Cuomo had told her he had been lonely during the pandemic and “can’t even hug anyone.” He had made it known publicly last year that he was looking for a girlfriend following his breakup with Sandra Lee. This context makes Bennett’s account more believable.
5. Politics will push him to resign.
Cuomo had a stranglehold on his office and seemed inclined to keep winning re-election. His ouster would open the race to many ambitious Democrats and even some Republicans who hitherto had no shot at even being taken seriously, let alone winning.
Republicans are already mocking Democrats for abiding Cuomo. Democrats, for their part, have little to gain from keeping him in office. Even when Cuomo was at the peak of his powers, he did precious little to help other Democrats win seats or advance their careers. (And when he did, his motivations were seen as selfish.) They have been taking shots at him for weeks — over nursing homes and emergency powers — something they had been afraid to do for years.
Few if any will stick their necks out for him now. The rest are likely sharpening their blades.