Cuomo's drive to dominate led to success, and his downfall

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares to board a helicopter after announcing his resignation, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in New York. Cuomo will resign in disgrace this week. His departure comes after a state investigation found he sexually harassed 11 women. It's a stunning reversal for a powerful politician who not that long ago was considered a possible contender for the White House. Observers and people who know Cuomo say his drive to dominate made him an effective governor. He passed landmark legislation and built new train stations, airports and bridges. But his accusers say the same habits also made him a bully who used his power to get what he wanted. They say he thought he could intimidate them into silence. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Back in 2018, when there was talk he might run for president, Andrew Cuomo insisted there was only one reason he would leave office early. And it wasn't the White House. “The only caveat,” he said, “is if God strikes me dead.”

Another possibility will be realized this week, when the Democrat resigns in disgrace, his allies gone, his legacy stained by allegations of sexual harassment. This ending was not brought about by a bolt from the heavens, but by 11 women who told their stories to investigators.

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For those who watched Cuomo's daily COVID-19 briefings and saw a beacon of strength and competence, Cuomo's departure from the governor's mansion may seem a stunning reversal. For New Yorkers, and especially those who butted heads with Cuomo, it is a story about how his drive to dominate made him the master of New York politics and brought about his downfall.

“My natural instinct is to be aggressive, and it doesn’t always serve me well,” Cuomo acknowledged in a recent memoir detailing his response to the pandemic. “I am a controlling personality. ... But you show me a person who is not controlling, and I’ll show you a person who is probably not highly successful.”

But if equating control with success led to Cuomo's accomplishments, it also precipitated his undoing. Many of Cuomo's accusers told investigators that the governor used his power, and the threat of retaliation, to harass them, believing they would never report him.

“The Andrew Cuomo I’ve known since 1995 has always been about power and control,” said Karen Hinton, a former aide to Cuomo when he was housing secretary under President Bill Clinton. “His bullying, his flirting, his sexual overtones are largely about controlling the person. He thought he'd get away with it because of that power and control."

Hinton is not among the 11 women at the center of the attorney general's report, but she has said Cuomo once gave her an uncomfortable hug in a hotel room that was “too long, too tight, too intimate.”

The investigation overseen by New York Attorney General Letitia James and led by two outside lawyers substantiated accusations that Cuomo touched women inappropriately, commented on their appearance or made suggestive comments about their sex lives. Most of the women worked in state government.

Cuomo has apologized for some of his actions, and said others were misunderstood. He has said some of the accusations are “unfair and untruthful” and driven by politics. While he was initially defiant, he announced earlier this month that he plans to resign Monday. He will be replaced by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is set to become New York's first female governor.

But not before one last emergency to challenge Cuomo in his final days. The arrival of Tropical Storm Henri on Sunday put Cuomo back in the familiar role of responding to a natural disaster. Whether it was Superstorm Sandy, winter storms in Buffalo or just a typical upstate snowstorm, Cuomo the executive always seemed to be most engaged in times of natural disaster, sometimes even personally responding to motorists stranded in snowstorms (always captured on film, of course).

The son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew seemed destined to follow in his father's steps. As a young man, he served as aide and campaign manager for his father before joining Clinton's cabinet. He returned to New York for a failed bid for governor in 2002, then won the attorney general's office four years later. In 2010, he ran for governor again and won.

Almost immediately, he began to leave his imprint on the state. He angered progressives by making deals with Republicans. He announced big economic development programs designed to turn around the upstate economy. He corralled votes for gay marriage, gun control and tax caps.

If he had won a fourth term in 2022, he would have surpassed his father's three terms in office.

Though he excels at the backroom deal-making culture of Albany, Cuomo never seemed as comfortable with the personal side of politics. He's not a baby kisser, but rather a political operator who knows how the sausage gets made and seems to enjoy the work.

Cuomo also appeared to delight in diminishing opponents and critics, be they reporters or political rivals. He mocked one GOP opponent as short, dismissed 2018 Democratic Primary challenger Cynthia Nixon as a “prosecco sipping" actress and regularly bedeviled his one-time friend turned nemesis, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo declined to comment to The Associated Press through a spokesman, who also declined to comment on his behalf. Cuomo's remaining loyalists have instead taken to social media to defend his accomplishments as governor, a list that includes the very sexual harassment laws he is accused of violating.

It's not the only contradiction in his long career.

He built more new bridges, train stations and airport facilities than any governor in decades, but he slashed funding to local governments struggling to pay for aging sewers and roads.

He bragged about investments in new businesses and in western New York, but many programs generated little besides state-funded commercials featuring Cuomo. Two of Cuomo's closest advisers were sentenced to jail for corruption related to spending on economic development. Investigations into Cuomo's role ended without charges.

He won an Emmy for his daily COVID-19 briefings and was so proud of the state's response that he wrote a book — even as his administration was accused of covering up deaths in nursing homes after it forced them to accept virus patients.

“The country was mesmerized by Gov. Cuomo's blunt talk about the pandemic, but he didn't even follow the experts,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, a good government group that has long butted heads with Cuomo. “That's emblematic of his style: The performance looks great, but when you get into the details, there are big holes and very little substance.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said it's too soon to review Cuomo's performance as governor, given that there are criminal investigations into the harassment allegations and questions about his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.

New York’s attorney general is also examining whether Cuomo improperly had state employees help with his book about the pandemic

Lawmakers will know more once Cuomo leaves office and they can assess whether his administration exaggerated some of its accomplishments.

“His legacy will also be based on what we learn,” Krueger said.

Cuomo hasn’t said where he will live after vacating the governor’s mansion in Albany. The Westchester County home that he once shared with ex-partner Sandra Lee has been sold. Lee, the cookbook author and television chef, has since moved to California, though she's been seen recently in Europe with a new boyfriend.

His next professional steps are also unclear. With a law degree and deep experience in brokering deals, Cuomo could work as an attorney or a real estate development executive.

Could he try for a comeback? His campaign coffers remain flush, with $18 million. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who both stepped down amid sex scandals, tried to run for office in New York City. Both lost.

In today’s post #MeToo climate, the public may be even less forgiving, according to Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.

“It will overshadow most voters' thinking,” Muzzio said. “He has a lot of accomplishments. He has been a master builder. When he got elected, the state was in a $10 billion budget hole. And he solved it without raising taxes. But will anyone remember that?”

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