Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that he will step down in 14 days, a stunning development that came one week after a damning report found that he sexually harassed 11 women.
With impeachment looming, it appeared he had no path to remain in office, but Cuomo portrayed his decision as made in the interests of New Yorkers.
“Government really needs to function today. Government needs to perform. It is a matter of life and death,” he said. “Wasting energy on distractions is the last thing that the state government should be doing. And I cannot be the cause of that.”
When his resignation takes effect, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will become New York’s first female governor. She will serve out the rest of Cuomo’s term and is expected to seek election next year.
The action punctuated a breathtaking turn of fortune for a powerful politician who had enjoyed national prominence and high approval ratings during the height of the pandemic.
The governor repeatedly denied that he touched anyone inappropriately, and on Tuesday, he reiterated his defenses and also thanked the women “who came forward with sincere complaints.” He apologized for behavior he said was meant to be endearing,” but that women found “dated and offensive.”
Attorney General Letitia James’ Aug. 3 report, compiled by independent investigators, had painted a much darker picture of Cuomo’s behavior. It elicited an avalanche of calls for the governor to resign, including from longtime friend President Joe Biden and several prominent unions.
Within five days of the report’s release, Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, resigned. James’ report describes DeRosa retaliating against one of the women who publicly accused the governor of harassment.
The report detailed sexual harassment allegations made by former and current staffers and a state trooper as well as people outside of state employment. One aide, Brittany Commisso, accused the governor of groping her, and inappropriately touching her on several other occasions.
The harassment allegations have overshadowed revelations that Cuomo’s aides doctored the number of deaths in nursing homes from Covid-19 on official reports, that friends and relatives of the governor were given priority for early Covid tests, and that Cuomo staffers helped write a book that netted the governor a $5.1 million payout. Promotion of the book has since been suspended.
On March 11 Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie launched an impeachment investigation and in the past week it became clear that an overwhelming majority of legislators supported an end to Cuomo’s governorship. Officials indicated this week that the impeachment inquiry would likely come to a close by the end August. But Cuomo’s announcement Tuesday will pre-empt it. A criminal investigation of a complaint filed by Commisso, however, could continue.
For more than five months, Cuomo has refused calls to step down. In response to James’ report, Rita Glavin, a lawyer for the governor, released an 85-page response.
“The governor has spent almost all of his adult life in the public eye,” Glavin wrote. “The sudden allegations of sexual harassment over the last number of months — allegations never made before about him — have been stunning to him because he has never conducted himself in that way.”
But the probe found the complaints specific and credible, and Cuomo’s defenses vague. In many cases he said he could not even remember the incidents.
For real estate, Cuomo’s fall from grace is bittersweet. For several years after being elected governor in 2010 he was a potent ally, deftly steering a business-friendly agenda through a divided and prickly legislature. But in the past few years, the governor has seemed to help property owners only when his interests aligned with theirs.
Despite receiving tens of millions of dollars in direct and indirect political contributions from the industry over the years, Cuomo in 2015 ignored a proposal by the Real Estate Board of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase affordability requirements in 421a, a lucrative tax break for multifamily development. Instead, he demanded REBNY reach an agreement on 421a with construction unions, which were insisting prevailing wage be mandatory on some projects receiving the tax benefit.
That led to an impasse and 421a’s expiration — and a virtual halt to new projects. It took more than a year to pass a replacement program, called Affordable New York.
Any doubts that real estate had lost Cuomo as a reliable partner were erased in 2019, when the landlord lobby was working to salvage a palatable reform of the expiring rent-stabilization law. Late in the process, Cuomo unexpectedly distanced himself from the negotiations, dared legislators to pass a measure without him and vowed to sign whatever they put on his desk.
Newly powerful Senate Democrats called Cuomo’s bluff, teaming up with their Assembly counterparts to pass a bill that shocked the establishment by drastically and permanently limiting rent increases on more than 900,000 New York City apartments and more than 1 million statewide.
“One day he is an ally; one day he’s an enemy. It all depends on his personal calculus,” one real estate source said. “You don’t know if you are going to get the handshake or the knife at any moment with Andrew Cuomo.”
Cuomo rose to national prominence in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic thanks to his daily press conferences. But his pandemic policies were a mixed bag for property interests, as the governor rejected calls to cancel rent but repeatedly extended an eviction ban, allowing tenants to withhold payment without fear of being taken to court.
This year, the governor included some REBNY priorities in his budget proposal, including a shortcut to convert office buildings to residential and a way for energy-efficient buildings to comply with New York City’s carbon emissions law and avoid huge fines. But both amendments ran into problems as Cuomo became increasingly consumed by the nursing home story and then the abuse accusations.
Cuomo has also been a longtime champion of New York’s construction unions, proving a critical ally in the debate over whether contractors working on publicly funded projects should be paid prevailing wage rates. He succeeded in getting a version of the requirement in last year’s budget, though it doesn’t kick in until January 2022. He also appointed the head of the city and state Building and Construction Trades Council, Gary LaBarbera, to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2017.
Hochul, a moderate Democrat and former Buffalo-area member of Congress, will likely be a business-friendly governor. But she also needs to round up political support for an election campaign and thus be disinclined to defy construction unions or tax-break critics when Affordable New York is up for renewal that year.
In her first days as governor, Hochul will be under pressure to speed up the state’s $2.7 billion rent relief program, which has been plagued by delays and technical difficulties.