Shortly after 2:30 p.m. on February 9, 2011, the now defunct Web site Gawker published an article about Christopher Lee, a Republican congressman from western New York State. In response to a Craigslist personals ad, which was posted by a thirty-four-year-old government employee from Maryland, Lee had described himself, by e-mail, as “a very fit fun classy guy,” lied about being divorced (he was married, with one child), shaved seven years off his age (he was forty-six but said that he was thirty-nine), and sent a photo of himself shirtless and coquettishly flexing a bicep. Even Gawker conceded that Lee’s actions had been “relatively banal.” Yet, by 6:13 p.m. that same day, Lee had resigned from his seat in the House of Representatives. “I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents,” he said in a statement. “I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all.”
A special election was soon held to fill Lee’s seat in Congress. Kathy Hochul, a Democratic county clerk from Erie County, won an upset victory. (“When she was in the auto bureau in Buffalo, she did a lot with the license plates,” one voter told the Times.) Hochul served an unmemorable half-term in the House, failed to win reëlection, and bounced into an executive job at M&T Bank Corporation. The stint in Washington raised her profile such that, in 2014, she was tapped to be Governor Andrew Cuomo’s running mate in his first bid for reëlection. As the lieutenant governor of New York, she is second in line to Cuomo, who now faces a number of accusations, including—but not limited to—unwanted groping and kissing of aides, the suppression of data on covid-19 deaths in nursing homes, and using state employees to help write a triumphalist and personally lucrative book about his pandemic response. If Cuomo were to resign, Hochul would become the governor. The story of her political ascent would rank among the most unlikely in state history.
But despite calls from fellow-Democrats in Congress and the New York State legislature for Cuomo to step down, and multiple state and federal investigations into his and his administration’s actions, the Governor is not resigning. After a decade as the most powerful figure in the state, he has treated the overlapping scandals he’s facing as yet another challenge placed in front of him, not so different from a tax-revenue shortfall or a hurricane. And, in the past few weeks, as he’s negotiated a budget with the legislature and minimized his interactions with the press, he’s given every sign of being ready to put this unpleasantness behind him. “The nature of being Governor,” Cuomo said recently, “is there are always multiple situations to deal with.”
In the decade between Lee’s resignation and Cuomo’s current situation, what counts as a career-ending scandal in American politics has been redefined. Donald Trump, of course, survived an entire term as President despite being accused of sexual assault and of using the Presidency to enrich himself, not to mention having several close aides go to prison on a variety of corruption charges—and being impeached twice, the second time on the ground that he incited an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol. But it wasn’t just Trump. In 2015, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, was indicted on federal bribery and other corruption charges for allegedly using his office to enrich a good friend and donor. Menendez waited out several years of legal proceedings—his charges were eventually dismissed—and remains in the Senate, where he chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. In 2019, an old photograph from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical-school yearbook surfaced, showing two men, one in blackface, the other wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam, a Democrat, apologized, then retracted his apology and denied that it was he in the photo. Then he simply stuck things out. Meanwhile, before the public furor about the photo had even subsided, his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault. Fairfax denied the accusations. Both Northam and Fairfax remain in their respective offices. Fairfax is currently running for governor.
In the past few weeks, as revelations about Cuomo were still emerging in the New York media, news broke that Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman and staunch Trumpist, was being investigated by the F.B.I. for potentially violating sex-trafficking laws. Gaetz has not resigned, either. “I may be a canceled man in some corners. . . . But I hear the millions of Americans who feel forgotten, canceled, ignored, marginalized and targeted,” he tweeted last weekend, achieving new heights in the rhetoric of never resigning. “I draw confidence knowing that the silent majority is growing louder every day.”
When Cuomo was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, his boss, Bill Clinton, refused to resign after being impeached for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But that was a different era, and, according to recent reports, Cuomo considers Northam a more useful model. In Virginia, where the governorship is closely contested, Northam hung on after polls showed that Black voters in the state were sticking with him. In recent weeks, Cuomo has held public events with prominent Black community and political leaders. Early on, his situation was also compared with that of Al Franken, the former Minnesota senator who resigned after several women came forward in 2017, saying that he’d touched them inappropriately in public. In 2019, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reinvestigated the Franken case and found that many of the Democratic senators who called for Franken to resign now regret doing so.
One lesson of the Franken case is that there are different degrees of allegations. Many Democrats remember Franken simply as an example of the risk of resigning too early. But, in 2017, many also saw Franken’s resignation serving a larger purpose: it preserved both the momentum of the nascent #MeToo movement and the Democratic Party’s authority to speak about the issues that the movement highlighted. And, although Franken’s friends and former colleagues in the Senate may now regret how they treated him, how many of his former constituents in Minnesota have noticed the difference between having Franken and his replacement, Tina Smith, in the Senate? In Virginia, meanwhile, it was said that the threat of a Republican takeover of power in the state kept Democrats from bailing on Northam. Such a threat does not exist in the same way in New York. The political context of the Cuomo case is more like Franken’s, but the allegations against him are much more damning.
For years, Cuomo was often described as someone who knew how to push every button and pull every lever of power. More recent reports have revealed that button-pushing and lever-pulling were often euphemisms for getting on the phone and yelling at people. Yet Cuomo continues to hold himself out as New York’s indispensable man, even as he bowed to many of his more progressive antagonists’ priorities on the budget deal he agreed to at the beginning of April. The scandals have even bled into Cuomo’s previously vaunted pandemic response. Restaurant workers in New York took to joking that every time a woman came forward and accused Cuomo of misconduct, the Governor would raise the indoor-dining-capacity limit by five per cent. County officials reported getting calls from a close Cuomo aide who was in charge of vaccine distribution, checking in about their loyalty to the boss.
Cuomo has dismissed the idea of resigning as “anti-democratic.” But why? Apart from a tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, pretty much the only responsibility the New York state constitution gives to the lieutenant governor is to step into the role of governor in the event “of the removal of the governor from office or of his or her death or resignation.” In other words, the job was designed to provide a democratic remedy for the Governor’s resignation. Cuomo—in a way not so different from Gaetz invoking his “silent majority”—is suggesting that, as long as the people are still with him, he need not resign. The latest polling shows that fifty-three per cent of New Yorkers still approve of the job he’s doing. But public support is not a defense against accusations—it’s closer to a justification. And many politicians who have made this kind of argument in recent years surely realize that, for their own sake if no one else’s, never resigning is often the best path out of a scandal.
New York now seems destined for at least several more months of political uncertainty, as the facts of Cuomo’s various scandals are weighed against the interests of different state actors and power centers. Just a few weeks ago, news coverage about Cuomo couldn’t help mention that March 12th was the thirteenth anniversary of the resignation of one of Coumo’s predecessors, Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer—who shared Cuomo’s reputation for self-regard and relentlessness—resigned after the revelation that he’d been hiring prostitutes. Resigning wasn’t some noble act. His performance of it, standing at a lectern beside his wife, was so fraught that it partly inspired the long-running television drama “The Good Wife.” Christopher Lee’s apology statement, for all we know, was written by a staff member. But they were responding to what they believed the moment demanded. They made no special plea about the will of the voters. (How many New Yorkers complained that Spitzer’s resignation was “anti-democratic”?) They were living in a different political reality. If we were still living in it, we’d already be talking about Governor Kathy Hochul.