ALBANY — Andrew M. Cuomo's life advice to young people has long been simple: Imagine your obituary, then work backward.
Before his resignation under fire Tuesday, he would have been remembered for building bridges and rebuilding airports, controlling spending, legalizing same-sex marriage; tough gun control, and leading the state though Superstorm Sandy and the COVID-19 pandemic over three terms in office.
But no more. Now a theme will be the fact that he was forced to resign over allegations of sexual harassment, an ignoble end for perhaps the most powerful governor in state history, political scientists said.
"No matter how much good you have done, in politics you are only as good as your last mistake," said John McEneny, a former Democratic assemblyman and a historian of New York State politics.
Several analysts agree Cuomo has been a gifted politician dogged by troubling interpersonal skills and a complicated relationship with his father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and their competing legacies.
"It is now near inevitable that Andrew Cuomo will be remembered in history as New York's most self-destructive modern governor," said Gerald Benjamin, a retired distinguished professor of political science at the SUNY New Paltz. "His aspirations were defined by his desire to exceed the achievements of his thrice-elected father Mario Cuomo's performance in office. He was almost there."
In the end, Cuomo, 63, was denied the fourth term he has sought in part to avenge the fourth term denied to his father in 1994, when he was defeated by a little-known Republican senator from Peekskill, George Pataki.
"Andrew Cuomo’s resignation is a disappointing end to what could have been a much lengthier political career with national possibilities," said Meena Bose, a political scientist at Hofstra University. "In more than a decade as governor of New York, Cuomo demonstrated energy and initiative in state policymaking, from budget negotiations to infrastructure development to crisis management, albeit often with poor interpersonal skills that have been evident from Cuomo’s start in politics."
Andrew Cuomo grew up in the white-hot heat of politics. As a teenager he lived first in a downtown Albany apartment with his workaholic father, then lieutenant governor, and later in the Executive Mansion. At 22 years old, Andrew Cuomo worked as a $1-a-year adviser to his father amid widespread expectations that he, too, would be governor someday. Like his father, he became a lawyer.
He spent decades cultivating political allies rather than friends and surrounding himself with enablers rather than advisers who could challenge his behavior, which political analysts said contributed to his crashing downfall.
"He needed some Brooklyn ward leader type who could say, ‘You’re full of crap,’ but no one says that to any Cuomo," McEneny said. He said legislators hired by Cuomo as commissioners were told, "You carry out the governor’s wishes. Period."
An Aug. 3 report by state Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, claimed a toxic, abusive atmosphere in Cuomo’s executive chamber emboldened him to sexually harass young women and drove his staffers to try to tamp down accusations. The report, in what it described as retaliation, claimed top staffers leaked former staffer Lindsey Boylan’s employment records to reporters with an intent to discredit her.
"It’s also the arrogance of power when he was surrounded by a lot of sycophants," said Paul Grondahl, a former Albany Times Union reporter who had interviewed the Cuomos many times and is the author a book on politics in the city of Albany. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupted in this case … I think he spent his life trying to understand his father’s legacy, to get out from his father’s shadow,"
Analysts lament that although Cuomo has a long list of accomplishments, he could have had many more in New York and nationally.
Cuomo succeeded in rebuilding New York to a level the state hadn’t seen in nearly a century: He led efforts to rebuild LaGuardia Airport, replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge, which he named for his father, and spearheaded the massive overhaul of Penn Station in Manhattan to create the Moynihan Train Hall.
In policy, he legalized same-sex marriage and crafted the nation’s toughest gun control law days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre.
Fiscally, he kept increases in state spending at about 2% a year, passed most budgets on time, and gained approval of a 2% cap on the growth of local property taxes that eluded the last three governors.
He also forced reforms in how police deal with their community, and in particular young Black men, following the Black Lives Matter movement and expanded rights and protections to women in the workplace as well as LGBTQ New Yorkers.
"Shakespeare wrote that, ‘The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,’" said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a longtime political reporter and commentator. "Whatever one thinks of what Cuomo did in regard to sexual harassment, he did an awful lot of good as a leader including, and perhaps especially, for Long Island."
Levy notes Cuomo drove state spending for major economic development on Long Island and well as major infrastructure improvement, including a third track for the Long Island Rail Road.
"Our water and air is cleaner because of a lot of the projects he did that languished for a very long time," Levy said.
Bruce Gyory, a political consultant, agreed Cuomo’s legacy is overshadowed by its end now, but historians will have the final word.
"It would be a fool’s errand to try to conclude how historians will gauge that," Gyory said. "Today we are only getting talk about what led to his end, not his governing productivity."
But he said the definitive historians’ ruling is likely a decade or more away.
"Andrew Cuomo’s legacy — like his decade as governor — is a roller-coaster ride with big ups and big downs," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll. "It will rightly include some notable achievements … however, those achievements may well be overshadowed, leaving Cuomo’s legacy to be defined — as in a Shakespearean drama — by personal flaws that demonstrated his character and proved his undoing."
Some of those flaws were shared by father and son, including a hot temper and a long memory for grudges, analysts said.
Cuomo has told reporters the 1994 upset of his father by Pataki devastated his family for years. But Cuomo saw an opportunity to advance his goal of becoming governor when President Bill Clinton appointed him as an assistant secretary for Housing and Urban Development. It followed Mario Cuomo’s valuable endorsement of Clinton in his presidential run.
In Washington, Cuomo would soon lead HUD and Clinton would become Andrew’s mentor. Cuomo’s inner office is replete with humidors and other gifts from Clinton and from Cuomo’s HUD days as well as photos with the president.
But after the Clinton tenure, Cuomo lost his bid for governor in a 2002 Democratic primary to H. Carl McCall. Yet, ever the fighter, he regrouped and tried to reinvent himself into a gentler Andrew Cuomo chastened by defeat and a nasty public divorce from Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, the former senator and U.S. attorney general, ending what tabloids called "Cuomolot." After setting his sights lower and earning praise as attorney general for one term, he won his first of three terms as governor in 2010 and set an unprecedented pace of building based on borrowing and progressive policies.
From March 2020 to February 2021, Cuomo rose to heights in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and gained a national and international stature he’d never seen before. His daily webcast news conference were a mix of stories about his dad and mom, his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo; and his three daughters. Schmaltzy as they could be, they were embraced nationwide as a counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s name-calling, tweeted assaults and denial of the threat of the COVID-19 virus.
He won an Emmy for his webcasts and his memoir on his leadership in the pandemic — for which he received a reported $5.1 million — was a bestseller.
But the carefully crafted image was cracking. Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior toward 11 women. The U.S. Justice Department continued an investigation under Trump over whether Cuomo provided inaccurate figures for deaths of nursing home residents after he required nursing homes to accept COVID patients from hospitals.
He was forced to empower James to investigate the sexual harassment claims against him. Soon, James and the Assembly expanded the probes to include the nursing home count, the alleged use of state employees to help edit his memoir, and reports that he gave preferential access for COVID-19 testing for his family and friends.
After multiple women accused him of harassment in the spring and after James’ report, Cuomo faced calls for him to resign from Democrats — including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and Republicans, many of whom he had angered for decades in leveraging support for his agenda.
In the end, he had no friends but a long list of enemies with pent-up rage.
"They just wanted us dead" said a staffer close to Cuomo.
"Andrew pursued a Machiavellian politics built not on love — more his father's predilection — but on fear," Benjamin said. "Fear makes no real friends. Ultimately, Andrew's abuse of his ever-growing power, near absolute in the COVID period, confirmed Lord Acton's observation of power's corrupting force. When Andrew's repeated excesses in the use of this power became known, when the hypocrisy in the contrast between the public person's policy stands and his abusive private behavior became known, there were few left willing to stand with him."