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Cuomo Not Alone: Several Governors Have Stepped Down Due to Sex Scandals

In the past 20 years, most governors who have resigned got caught in sex scandals of one sort or another.

20210810-AMX-US-NEWS-GOV-ANDREW-CUOMO-RESIGN-EFFECTIVE-29-SMG.jpg
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
(Scott Schild | sschild/syracuse.com)
Andrew Cuomo owes his time as governor to a sex scandal. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in 2008 after having been a client of a call girl opened up the job, which Cuomo won in 2010.

Spitzer’s immediate successor, David Paterson, admitted to having multiple affairs. He later faced complaints about possibly interfering in a domestic abuse case, as well as ethics charges regarding free New York Yankees tickets.

Cuomo rose to the governorship from the post of state attorney general. His successor in that role, fellow New York Democrat Eric Schneiderman, stepped down in 2018, following a report that he had physically abused several women he had dated.

If it seems like New York politicians have been unusually prone to sex scandals, they aren’t alone. Historically, most governors who have left office have done so to pursue other offices, such as Senate seats or cabinet posts. Over the past couple of decades, however, a number of governors have stepped down due to sex scandals.

In Cuomo’s case, he has been accused by a dozen women of sexual harassment. A report from the office of state Attorney General Letitia James, released last week, found the accusations credible and said that the governor had created a toxic work culture.

Announcing his resignation on Tuesday (effective in two weeks), Cuomo blamed politics and insisted that he had never intended to harass anyone, insisting to the end that he was only guilty of old-fashioned endearments and gestures.

“In my mind, I have never crossed the line with anyone,” Cuomo said. “But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”

But the report concluded that the women who complained faced not only harassment but retribution from the governor’s office. And the issue with harassment is that sexism, not sex, is involved in demeaning women. Cuomo faced probable impeachment and removal.

"This is the right decision and is in the best interest of all New Yorkers," tweeted Eric Adams, New York City's likely next mayor.

Some recent governors caught in sex scandals have served out the remainder of their terms, including South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford and Kentucky Democrat Paul Patton. But sex has been at the root of most gubernatorial resignations over the past 20 years. Here's a look back at that history, starting with the most recent resignations:

Missouri Republican Eric Greitens


Greitens resigned in 2018, after facing felony indictments and several months of controversy regarding allegations that he had taken a nude picture of his mistress and distributed it without her consent. Greitens also faced complaints regarding campaign finance abuses. Greitens resigned as part of a settlement with the St. Louis prosecutor, and his lawyers agreed there had been enough evidence to justify filing the charge regarding the distribution of the photograph. The next month, Missouri state Rep. Jay Barnes, who led an investigation of the governor, filed a complaint with the state ethics commission about a group associated with Greitens that had been used to evade campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements. Greitens is currently running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.  

Alabama Republican Robert Bentley


Bentley agreed in 2017 to a plea deal that included his resignation and an admission of guilt regarding campaign finance violations. Bentley had been engulfed in controversy for more than a year after transcripts and tapes were released documenting his interactions with Rebekah Mason, a former aide with whom Bentley allegedly had an affair.  

Oregon Democrat John Kitzhaber


Kitzhaber stepped down in 2015, just three months after winning a fourth term. Kitzhaber was under criminal investigation for complaints that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, may have violated the law or ethics rules by advising him on energy issues while accepting fees as a private consultant on overlapping policies. Federal investigators dropped their case against Kitzhaber in 2017, without filing charges. In 2018, Kitzhaber paid $20,000 as part of a settlement with the state ethics commission, agreeing not to question its findings that he had repeatedly violated ethics laws, misusing his office for personal gain and failing to disclose conflicts of interest.  

Alaska Republican Sarah Palin 


Palin's resignation, coming less than a year after her candidacy for vice president in 2008, came as a surprise. She had faced ethics complaints regarding her dismissal of the state's top public safety official in a dispute over her desire to see her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper. Palin cited her legal expenses in her resignation speech, saying she had to clear her name from "frivolous" complaints. She said she wanted to spare the state having a governor operating under "lame-duck status."  

New York Democrat Eliot Spitzer


Spitzer announced his resignation in 2008, two days after The New York Times broke the story that he had been the client of a high-end prostitution ring. “Over the course of my public life, I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people regardless of their position or power take responsibility for their conduct,” the former state attorney general said. “I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.”  

New Jersey Democrat James McGreevey


McGreevey announced his resignation in 2004, admitting to an affair with Golan Cipel, his homeland security adviser who threatened to file a sexual harassment suit against him. McGreevey said it was a consensual relationship. "My truth is that I am a gay American," McGreevey said.

Connecticut Republican John Rowland


Rowland resigned in 2004, facing an impeachment investigation and a federal corruption probe regarding his relationships with state contractors. Rowland had accepted work done by state contractors for no charge, among other bribery complaints. By the end of the year, Rowland pleaded guilty to corruption. In 2014, Rowland was convicted separately on election fraud charges.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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