Cuomo: Resign or stay put? In Virginia, we’ve been there, done that.

March 22, 2021 12:02 am

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media at the Javits Convention Center on March 24, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Andrew Cuomo should have known they’d come for him.

New York’s Democratic governor — often scolding and demeaning; at times a bully — had made plenty of enemies over the years. He appeared almost daily on cable news, painting a picture of a decisive, effective leader in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. It found traction, contrasted with then-President Donald Trump’s denials, inaction and dangerous absurdities that made doctors cringe.

His abrasive and condescending style with political adversaries, with the press, even with Democratic allies he considered rivals or insufficiently deferential to him lit a fuse. First came evidence that his administration had significantly shorted the count of COVID-19 nursing home deaths across New York. Then came claims from numerous women that Cuomo made unwanted advances ranging from indecent suggestions to groping. The resulting detonation has blown his governorship to bits.

Calls for his resignation are nearly universal. Even President Joe Biden — who also survived accusations of improper touching — said in an ABC News interview last week that if an investigation validates the women’s allegations, not only should he resign, he would probably be prosecuted.

Virginia has been there, done that and mailed the kids postcards.

Two years ago, separate, simultaneous scandals provoked loud and widespread cries for the departures of all three of Virginia’s top statewide elective officeholders.

First, on Feb. 1, 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam encountered the mother of all PR nightmares when a Republican blogger discovered a photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page showing one man dressed in blackface standing beside another in Klan regalia. That night, in a panic, Northam and his advisers issued a statement in which Northam apologized for appearing in the picture. 

The next day, however, after a late night of phone calls with old medical school friends and classmates, Northam reversed himself, announcing in a nationally televised news conference that he was not in the photo, but admitting to applying shoe polish to his face for a Michael Jackson dance contest in the 1980s.

As calls from state and national leaders reached hurricane force, Northam hunkered down to ride it out.

Prominent among those calling for Northam to go was Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a fellow Democrat who stood to succeed him and become Virginia’s second Black governor. His potential shortcut to the throne was sidetracked when two women alleged that Fairfax had sexually assaulted them in the early 2000s, allegations Fairfax has repeatedly and vehemently denied. Instantly, demands for Fairfax’s resignation ensued, relieving some of the pressure on Northam.

Then Attorney General Mark Herring, who also had clamored for Northam’s exit, disclosed that he, too, had once applied “brown makeup” and a wig to impersonate rapper Kurtis Blow for a party during his University of Virginia frat boy days.

For weeks, Virginia’s entire Democratic power triumvirate seemed to teeter at the precipice. But all three remain in office. Fairfax is a candidate in a large, diverse Democratic gubernatorial field.

Northam, uniquely barred by Virginia’s Constitution from seeking re-election, has proved to be one of the commonwealth’s most consequential governors. He went from being a pariah in the winter of 2019 to helping position fellow Democrats for electoral triumphs that fall that gave them majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time in a generation. Under full Democratic rule, Virginia has reformed its election laws, passed new gun control measures, decriminalized marijuana and approved its eventual recreational use and abolished the death penalty in making historically conservative Virginia the South’s most progressive state. 

A review of the yearbook scandal commissioned by the Eastern Virginia Medical School concluded that neither person in the photo could be identified and that the origin of the photo could not be determined.

Herring, who had been weighing a gubernatorial run, is seeking re-election — a prospect made more interesting by Northam’s endorsement of Herring’s primary challenger, Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk.

Fairfax’s situation most closely parallels Cuomo’s. He has insisted that the encounters with his accusers were consensual. Unlike Cuomo, no other women have made claims against Fairfax. He has not been charged in either encounter and, from the outset, has called for independent investigations that so far have not materialized. He filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit against CBS News over interviews “CBS This Morning” did with his accusers in 2019 and is appealing a lower court’s dismissal of the case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Set aside moral considerations for a moment and consider Cuomo’s dilemma from a realpolitik perspective: why should he unilaterally abdicate power given Virginia’s outcomes? Consider, too, how Trump shrugged off numerous women’s claims and even his own hot-mic boasts about taking obscene liberties with women only to be elected president and remain in office for a full single term. 

But in the second decade of the 21st century, how could anyone in such a position of power behave as though the misogynist “Mad Men” culture of the 1960s, when men sometimes considered the office a sexual hunting ground, still applies?

No one should imagine that sexual harassment or even sexual assault are vanquished. It still happens and, perhaps, always will. But now, at last, there are swift and terminal consequences for it in the #MeToo world. Companies spend huge sums of money training employees to identify, avoid and report sexual harassment and assault. It’s untenable for C-suite executives and even mid-level managers in today’s corporate world. Even consensual workplace romances are viewed harshly by HR departments, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a leading national outplacement firm. 

So how is it that the nation’s most powerful elected leaders — supposedly exemplars of the best in America — seem to get away with it? When did it become survivable in politics?

“Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers. 1992,” said political scientist Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

The claim by Flowers, a Little Rock cabaret singer and TV reporter, of a 12-year affair with Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, came as Clinton positioned himself in that year’s crowded Democratic presidential primaries. Days after The Star tabloid published the allegation, Hillary Clinton appeared at the side of her husband for a joint “60 Minutes” interview. He denied improprieties with Flowers but acknowledged “wrongdoing (and) causing pain in my marriage.” He survived it and subsequent revelations during his presidency. He was impeached over lying to a federal grand jury about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky but avoided conviction and removal from office in the Senate.

“Remember that just one election cycle before that, the frontrunner had been knocked out of the race over allegations of infidelity that he had denied,” said Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Government and Policy at George Mason University. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, then 50, withdrew from the 1988 Democratic field, done in by newspaper reports of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice, then a 29-year-old actress and model.

What changed?

“Much of it comes down to how the political figure handles the issue, whether … he is transparent and confronts the accusations honestly and is able to convince the public that certain private actions have no bearing on public performance” Rozell said. “I think that was the big distinction many people made in 1992.”

Will it work for Cuomo? Time will tell.

The New York legislature has begun an impeachment inquiry of Cuomo. And a new Quinnipiac Poll shows that while his support has slipped, 49 percent of state residents surveyed said he should not resign and 43 percent say he should.

As his number of accusers grew, he finally got around to apologizing, but in doing so, denied ever “touching anyone appropriately.” It had the feel of mea culpa prompted not so much by what was done but by getting caught doing it.

But for all his words of contrition, the lead of the story remains this: he flatly refused to resign.

If past is precedent, he probably won’t have to.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]