The only kind of pressure that might oust Cuomo

Why practical political pressure is a better bet than shame — or even impeachment

Andrew Cuomo.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

When the president of the United States calls on you to resign, and your own party's leader in the state assembly prepares for your impeachment, surely even the most ambitious and narcissistic governor would realize: It's time to go. But the incentives for someone in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's position are not so simple.

The scandal he faces is not simply one of embarrassment and poor judgment, such as former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faced when he went "hiking on the Appalachian Trail," or of old instances of gross insensitivity, such as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced when old pictures of him in blackface surfaced. Sanford was able to stage a comeback, and Northam to hang on, after expressing contrition. But Cuomo faces charges of abusive, discriminatory, and potentially criminal action that will be difficult to forgive if admitted to. If Cuomo resigns, that's effectively an admission of guilt, or at least an admission of political impotency; either would mean an end to his career. But the charges he faces are inherently difficult to prove in a criminal court. Sen. Al Franken resigned in the fact of much less-serious charges, and has since expressed keen regret at doing so. Given those facts, why not try to brazen it out in Trumpian fashion?

The message of "you must resign" is an appeal to honor and/or party loyalty, qualities that, in the most serious cases, are least likely to be present. That's precisely why the impeachment process exists, but impeachment is itself a political process, subject to all the same pressures as any other political act. Cuomo may well like his chances in that arena.

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If Democrats really want to demonstrate that Cuomo's political position has become untenable, the ones who need to start turning on him are the ones who have the closest view of his behavior. His chief of staff, Linda Lacewell; his director of operations, Kelly Cummings; the secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa; his special counsel and senior advisor, Elizabeth Garvey — these are the rats who need to start fleeing if their boss is to be convinced that the ship is sinking. And they are the ones the press needs to start asking questions of, along the lines of "what did you know and when did you know it?" and "do you still support him now that you know?" They'll still have careers to think of; they need to be made to feel that sticking with their patron is putting those careers at risk.

The press could also start asking plausible replacements for Cuomo whether they are ready to challenge him for the nomination if he refuses to step aside. Attorney General Letitia James seems likely to mount a bid from the left, but if Cuomo's only challenge comes from that ideological corner, he could use that fact to bolster his support from moderates and business interests. So will any high-profile moderate liberals like Sen. Kristen Gillibrand — who defined her career by pressing for Sen. Al Franken to resign — jump in as well? What about his Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul? She has said she won't call for Cuomo's resignation because of a conflict of interest (she would succeed him if he stepped down), but she could resign herself and prepare to challenge him if he refuses to do so.

Sexual harassment, it is often averred, is less about sex than about power. The same is true about removing a governor: it's primarily about power, regardless of ethics, loyalty, or law. Those who want Cuomo out should keep that in mind, and bring practical pressure to bear rather than counting on the governor's sense of shame to do the work for them.

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