ALBANY, N.Y. (AP/WETM/PIX11) — Democratic leaders at all levels of government have called for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign following Attorney General Letitia James’s report, including President Biden—once Cuomo’s close ally—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, nearly all New York State party leaders, and governors from other states. Rumblings of impeachment proceedings continue across the Empire State.
The damning report casts a dark shadow across the political future of a once-rising star of the Democratic party, whose tenure might end before his term expires at the end of 2022. Buffeted by sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo increasingly looks like he could be impeached and removed from office—something that hasn’t happened to the state’s governor in nearly 108 years. “It is extraordinarily rare. It’s only happened once in the history of the state of New York,” said Michael Dawidziak, political consultant and pollster.
A majority of members of the state Assembly, the legislative body that has the power to start impeachment proceedings, have already said they favor removing Cuomo if he won’t resign. Pressure has built since a team of independent investigators hired by the state attorney general concluded that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women.
The New York Assembly has been collecting data on four probes including the falsification of nursing home data during the COVID-19 pandemic, a multi-million dollar book deal, sexual harassment allegations, and the safety of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge downstate. Cuomo, a Democrat, has vowed to stay in office, rejecting the allegations against him as either fabricated or a misunderstanding of gestures and comments meant to convey warmth.
Cuomo seems more defiant than ever, disputing allegations in a taped response and saying “the facts are much different than what has been portrayed” and that he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.” He also alleged that the investigation itself was fueled by “politics and bias.”
He apologized for making staffers feel uncomfortable but chalked up some of the allegations to misunderstandings caused by generational and cultural differences, while flat-out denying the more serious allegations. Accompanied by multiple slideshows of Cuomo and other politicians embracing members of the public, the governor said the gesture was inherited from his Italian family.
If the Legislature goes ahead with impeachment, it will follow procedures that have some parallels with—and some important differences from—the process Congress uses to impeach presidents. Proceedings are also very different in New York as compared to other states.
If impeached, Gov. Cuomo would immediately be removed from power. Then, Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul would serve as acting governor, and Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, sitting Senate Majority Leader, would serve as acting Lt. Gov.
Here’s a look at how impeachment might work:
Like at the federal level, New York impeachments start in the lower house of the legislature—in this case, the Assembly. The state’s constitution says the Assembly can impeach officials with a simple majority vote for “misconduct or malversation.”
If a majority of members vote to impeach, a trial on Cuomo’s removal from office would be held in what’s known as the Impeachment Court. In this case, that court would comprise the state Senate—minus its majority leader, Stewart-Cousins—and the judges of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
There are seven appeals court judges and 63 senators, though not all would serve on the impeachment court. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Stewart-Cousins would also typically be members, but they are excluded when a governor is on trial. At least two-thirds of the jurors must vote to convict in order to remove Cuomo.
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said the chamber is working expeditiously toward filing articles of impeachment against Cuomo, though the process may take until September. It’s believed Heastie has more than enough votes to impeach when articles are prepared.
If Cuomo were impeached by the Assembly, the state constitution forces him to step aside immediately, according to some legal experts, and remain on the sidelines until his trial is complete. That’s a dramatic difference from what happens when the U.S. president is impeached.
Gerald Benjamin—an expert on the New York Constitution and a political scientist at SUNY New Paltz—said he believes the rules governing impeachment are clear: Cuomo would have to temporarily relinquish power to Hochul. “The constitution is clear. He remains governor until he is impeached,” Benjamin said. “Once they impeach him, she (Hochul) acts as governor.”
If Cuomo were to be acquitted by the Impeachment Court, he would return to office. If he’s convicted, Hochul would serve out the remainder of Cuomo’s term—through the end of 2022. The court could also opt to disqualify him from holding office in the future.
How quickly could this all happen? It’s not clear. The Assembly’s judiciary committee has scheduled its next meeting for August 9. A law firm representing the committee has given Cuomo until August 13 to turn over evidence to bolster his defense.
Heastie, a Democrat who said it was clear Cuomo could no longer remain in office, has said he wants to wrap up the investigation “as quickly as possible.” Drafting articles of impeachment could take time, but the Assembly could theoretically vote to launch impeachment proceedings before the probe is finished. One issue is that the Assembly, when it first began contemplating impeachment, asked investigators to look into a range of issues beyond sexual harassment.
There’s a discussion among lawmakers now about how to handle other parts of the inquiry, including an examination of Cuomo’s handling of data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, his use of state employees to help him with a $5 million book deal, and even potential safety issues on a newly built bridge.
“As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of things that are on the table, and what would happen is we’d have to see what the committee thinks the articles of impeachment should include,” said Judiciary Committee member Phil Steck, a Capital Region Democrat. “It gets complicated and I don’t see how we’re going to do this in a couple of hours.”
Lawmakers have yet to agree on key questions, like whether there will be public hearings. “Are the witnesses willing to testify?” Judiciary Committee member Tom Abinanti, also a Democrat, said. “Do the written documents support what we’re going to allege? We’re almost in the role of a grand jury and the prosecutor. We’ve got to decide: is the evidence sufficient and does it in fact constitute an impeachable offense? It’s not so easy.”
Can New Yorkers recall Cuomo?
In the meantime, many elected officials in New York are hoping that Cuomo will save the legislature the trouble and resign. So far, Cuomo has insisted he isn’t going anywhere, saying Tuesday he would focus on doing more for New Yorkers, even as other leaders called for his ouster. “I will not be distracted from that job. We have a lot to do,” Cuomo said.
Legislators in New York are now reacting and pondering impeachment, after hours and days of political chaos. “I will vote to send Articles of Impeachment to the Senate,” Assemblymember Anna Kelles, N.Y. District 125 (D), said.
Senators are ready to examine all of the evidence if Articles of Impeachment are delivered to their chamber. “I surely have feelings on the conduct of the governor. As far as an ultimate decision, we have to wait and see what the presented evidence says,” Sen. Tom O’Mara, N.Y. District 58, added.
Gov. Cuomo issued a response to the report, but many said it is not sufficient or appropriate. “His response basically was, ‘I’m the victim.’ I don’t think anybody’s going to see him as a victim,” Dawidziak continued.
Several county districts attornies requested the information from the Attorney General’s probe. Criminal investigations could proceed after that. Lawmakers from across the state are siding against the state’s leader and with the 11 victims who stepped forward.
“I have not heard any prominent democratic voice calling for him not to resign and calling for him to continue to resist,” Professor Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, stated.
New York political analysts are turning their attention toward 2022 for the state’s gubernatorial race. Reeher says he does not see a path for Cuomo to run and that Republicans have an opportunity to take the highest office in the state.
So far, all signs point to him running for a fourth term in 2022, and he has begun fundraising. Some polling earlier this year suggested the public’s support for Cuomo had slipped, but not dramatically so. No other Democrats have officially issued a primary challenge—though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t ruled out a run. On the Republican side, possible opponents include U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin and Andrew Giuliani, son of Rudy.
Democrats have to push against Gov. Cuomo in order to have a chance at the seat, according to Dawidziak. “He certainly is going to open up the gubernatorial process. You’re really leaving the Democrats absolutely no choice but to impeach him,” Dawidziak concluded.
As of Wednesday, no official articles of impeachment have been drafted, and Kelles said they are still collecting data on all four probes.