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After Cuomo's decade in power, 2021 became his 'horrible year'

Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo prepares to board a

Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo prepares to board a helicopter after announcing his impending resignation on Aug. 10, 2021, in Manhattan.  Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

ALBANY — After 10 highflying years as governor, 2021 was Andrew M. Cuomo’s annus horribilis, when he tumbled from the national heights to resigning in disgrace, staining his legacy and taking down friends and family with him.

Just 12 months ago, Cuomo was cruising in his third term. Now, he’s out of office. He’s facing a criminal complaint alleging that he groped a staffer. Potential civil lawsuits loom related to other sexual harassment claims. The state ethics commission is trying to force him to surrender $5.1 million in proceeds from a book deal. A U.S. Attorney is investigating sexual harassment complaints against Cuomo as well as his administration's nursing home policies.

Top allies who came to his aid in 2021 lost their jobs, including his brother, Chris Cuomo, the former CNN anchor, and James Malatras, the former State University of New York chancellor.

"It was one of the grandest falls in national politics we’ve seen in a long time," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant who worked both on and against Cuomo election campaigns. "One year ago, he was on top of the world … And when they took out the king, they took out everybody with him."

"The lesson here is not the arrogance of power. It’s the arrogance of wanting to remain in power," Sheinkopf said. "Every elected official, they’re subject to a reaction when they stay too long. Andrew stayed too long."

Cuomo, a Democrat, was in the third year of his third term when 2021 began. Certainly, he had some previous bumps: His former closest aide had been convicted in corruption scheme; a politically stronger and more progressive State Legislature had begun to take some control of the state’s agenda after years of Cuomo calling all the shots; and his dominating style left him with few allies among lawmakers.

But the COVID-19 pandemic had lifted his profile and approval ratings astronomically. He got the Legislature to grant him total control over the state’s response. His daily televised briefings in 2020, portraying a very hands-on approach, contrasted with then-President Donald Trump. Some Cuomo fans even asked whether he’d be a better Democratic presidential candidate than Joe Biden.

By January 2021, Trump was no longer in the White House and his presence can’t be overlooked in the rise and fall of Cuomo, one analyst said.

"Cuomo benefited enormously from the contrast with Donald Trump. Had there been another president in office, I don’t think Cuomo’s star would have risen so rapidly and so high," said Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University political scientist. "Once Trump was gone, things changed dramatically for Andrew Cuomo."

It began unfolding for Cuomo in January when state Attorney General Letitia James issued a report saying the administration might have underreported COVID-19 nursing home deaths by as much as 50%.

Cuomo disputed the report, saying the administration merely tallied hospital and nursing home deaths differently. But the issue opened the door for a rapid series of developments.

Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Queens), a harsh critic of Cuomo on nursing homes, accused the governor on national television of calling him on the phone and threatening to destroy his career.

Kim’s actions eventually led to two former staffers going public with claims that Cuomo sexually harassed them. Ceding to public and political pressure, Cuomo agreed to grant James authority to investigate.

Weeks later, the state Assembly launched an impeachment inquiry of Cuomo, focusing on sexual harassment, nursing homes and claims the governor used state personnel and resources to write a memoir that netted him a $5.1 million book deal, along with other matters.

On Aug. 3, James issued a report saying Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women. The Assembly signaled it would quickly begin impeachment proceedings. Cuomo denied any wrongdoing and called the investigations politically motivated. But he said he could not continue in a political climate that was "too reactionary" and he resigned, effective Aug. 24.

"For Cuomo, the troubles started and ended rather suddenly," said Lee Miringoff, Marist College pollster. He likened it to President George H.W. Bush, who went from an 80% approval rating in 1991 to losing the election to Bill Clinton in 1992.

The difference is, Miringoff said, Cuomo "created his own undoing."

In the following months, several Cuomo allies who participated in efforts to blunt the harassment claims, discredit one accuser or produce the book lost their jobs. Besides Malatras and Chris Cuomo, another to fall was Alphonso David, the governor’s ex-counsel, fired from the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT advocacy group.

Two top officials from Time's Up, an organization whose mission is to protect women from harassment, resigned. CEO Tina Tchen and board chairwoman Roberta Kaplan had given Cuomo staffers feedback on how to respond to one of the governor's initial accusers.

Sheinkopf said Cuomo ruled like an "imperial governor" for nearly 11 years — which eventually meant he had no allies when trouble struck.

"He thought in order to get things done, he had to take total control and make the Legislature look like fools," Sheinkopf said. "When he took total control over COVID, it was too much. The book was too much."

Reeher said Cuomo’s bullying and controlling style was "kind of a known secret" but yet "relatively contained from the public." While no one predicted such a rapid fall for the then-governor, he said "people who were aware of his leadership style and excesses were saying someday" it would cost Cuomo.

"Ultimately, it was a combination of the sexual harassment allegations and the women coming forward, the revelations on the nursing home data, the control they were exerting on COVID and the really bad smell around the self-congratulatory book," Reeher said. "It was really self-inflicted."

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