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Why Politicians Like Andrew Cuomo Refuse to Resign

Gov. Cuomo wouldn't be the first politician to ride out a political storm. If he does manage to survive, it might suggest the #MeToo movement has lost some of its sting.

Billboard of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
A billboard urging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign is seen near downtown Albany, New York. (Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images/TNS)
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With Virginia limiting its governors to a single consecutive term, Ralph Northam can’t run for re-election this year. It’s still startling that he’ll manage to finish out this term.

Back in 2019, Northam was embroiled in scandal. A photo on his medical school yearbook page showed a man in blackface. At first, the Democrat said he was in the photo, then he denied it. “Everybody in the Democratic Party that mattered demanded Northam’s resignation, not just in Virginia but nationally,” recalls Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

But Northam refused to step down. Two years later, the scandal is almost forgotten. 

Northam provides an example Andrew Cuomo might well be thinking about. The attention span for scandals is generally quite short. If he can stick it out, maybe people will get tired of the tale and just move on. “Cuomo is a smart political observer and he saw what his fellow Democrat did to hang on,” Sabato says. “It’s probable that he’ll be able to follow the same route, as long as he is as determined as Northam was.”

Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, clearly isn’t out of the woods. Over the weekend, two more women accused him of inappropriate behavior or sexual harassment, bringing the total to five. On Sunday, New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called on Cuomo to resign for the good of the state. State House Speaker Carl Heastie questioned Cuomo’s ability to continue leading, though he stopped short of calling for resignation.

Cuomo remains defiant. “There is no way I resign,” he said on Sunday.

Despite widespread criticism, Cuomo retains the loyalty of most rank-and-file New York Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that 40 percent of voters thought he should resign, compared to 55 percent who are opposed to the idea. Only 21 percent of Democrats wanted him to step down. “There’s just enough support for him to hang on, for now,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, author of The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandals

That parallels Northam’s experience. His poll numbers also stayed positive, if barely, even as party officials came out against him. Cuomo can draw lessons not only from Northam's experience, however, but also those of another Democrat.

Back in 2017, Al Franken of Minnesota resigned from the U.S. Senate after several women accused him of unwanted kisses and touching. In the years since, a number of Democrats have expressed seller’s remorse, believing the party made a mistake in forcing him out. “Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so.” Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker in 2019.

It’s notable that Kirsten Gillibrand – the Democratic senator from New York who led the charge against Franken – has not called for Cuomo’s resignation, although she did call his alleged behavior “completely unacceptable.”

“There’s a certain cautiousness after the Al Franken experience,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Walsh notes that Democrats are still facing a test, having criticized Donald Trump over the many allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, that the former president has faced. “It would look extraordinarily hypocritical not to hold Cuomo to the standard that was put out there for Donald Trump,” she says.

The fact is, however, that the allegations against Trump did not hurt him politically. He was elected in 2016 shortly after the release of a tape in which he’d talked about grabbing women by the genitals, which many Republicans dismissed as “locker room talk.” The allegations were not a focal point of last year’s elections.

“If I were in (Cuomo’s) shoes, I would probably be thinking, look at what this president got away with,” says Debbie Dougherty, who is writing a book about sexual harassment and workplace culture. “People moved on and it’s fine. I can survive.”

Cuomo in the #MeToo Context

The #MeToo movement, seeking to hold men accountable for sexual harassment, took off in 2017. The nominal trigger was the downfall of former film mogul Harvey Weinstein, but clearly many women were frustrated by the fact Trump hadn’t paid a political price for his taped assertion of sexual assault, not to mention his having defeated the first woman nominated by a major party for president.

Over the course of the next couple of years, more than 100 state legislators were accused of harassment or sexual misconduct. Dozens resigned or were removed from office, including Kentucky House GOP Speaker Jeff Hoover. Dozens of other candidacies were aborted.

In 2018, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned just hours after The New Yorker published an article detailing allegations of physical abuse from four women. His decision was swift, but not so fast that Cuomo hadn’t already called for him to resign. “My personal opinion is that, given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve as attorney general,” Cuomo said

Democrats fumed when an allegation of attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh as a teen not only failed to derail his appointment to the Supreme Court by Trump, but received a full-throated defense from Republican senators. Currently, the GOP is largely silent regarding complaints about hostile work environments or sexual harassment involving Ronny Jackson and Madison Cawthorn, newly elected members of Congress. 

“The Democratic base is definitely more sensitive to allegations of sexual harassment than the Republican base has been,” says Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist.

Cuomo Sets a Bad Example

Rottinghaus notes that scandals in general play differently during an era of polarized politics. Partisans are ready to call instantly for the head of an opponent, while trying to explain away sinners on their own side. Or they accuse the other party of hypocrisy for even bringing something up, having failed to purge their own people accused of similar things. 

When one side does everything it can to protect its leaders, it can start to seem self-defeating to go after your own. The ability to hang on thus becomes yet another symptom of polarization. “Talk to me about Cuomo after they arrest Trump,” read one tweet along these lines posted Monday.

One reason Northam was able to hold on two years ago was that the two other Democrats in statewide office got quickly wrapped up in scandals of their own. That left open the possibility the job of governor could fall to Kirk Cox, then the Republican House speaker. Instead, there was a sort of mutually-assured-destruction dynamic, with all three Democrats remaining in office.

No matter the proximate cause, politicians are always reluctant to resign. Sometimes, they hold onto the job as a chip they can use to bargain with prosecutors. Often, they believe themselves indispensable to their own agenda. Generally, the same sort of ego that leads them to believe they will triumph on Election Day makes them think they can outlast whatever charges have prompted calls for their dismissal.

They’ve made superhuman effort to secure power, so it should come as no surprise they want to retain it. “You can’t really be forced to go, unless they impeach you,” says Walsh, the Rutgers professor.

Walsh notes that Cuomo’s statements and apologies sound transparently coached. He keeps insisting he never meant any harm, while recognizing that his intention matters less than how his words and actions were received.

Dougherty, who teaches at the University of Missouri, says that the focus should be less about Cuomo as an individual than the culture he created. She notes that sexual harassment occurs in every kind of occupation – in classrooms, in the fast-food industry, in the National Park Service. The media pays more sustained attention, however, when cases involve high-profile figures in two particular professions – the media itself and politics.

More shoes seem bound to drop, and Cuomo may be out of office by the end of the week. He faces a simultaneous scandal involving his administration downplaying the number of nursing home deaths.

For now, however, Cuomo insists he will not resign. If he does manage to hang on, that could provide a demonstration to other powerful men accused of harassment that they just might get away with it, too.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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