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Cuomo's road to deep danger

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday announces the findings of her investigation that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had sexually harassed several women. Credit: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Justin Lane

For the better part of a decade, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo got fans, boosters and loyalists to write off his highhanded, manipulative style as part of the real-world hurly-burly of politics — purportedly justified by the greater purpose of slaying dragons and working for the public.

When his closest aide, Joe Percoco, was brought up and convicted on corruption charges, Cuomo emerged insulated from that scandal. When it finally came out that Cuomo's office deliberately fudged death numbers in nursing homes, it only partially eclipsed what at least looked like active and forceful emergency leadership in a pandemic. When he incurred the wrath of the U.S. attorney’s office for abruptly ending the panel he created to investigate corruption, he paid no political price.

Cuomo artfully dodged those bullets. But the one fired Tuesday is different — not because it involves sexual allegations but because the state’s top law enforcement official, a ticket-mate from his own Democratic Party, has issued an official investigative report that found, for the first time, that this governor violated the law.

Even if there are no criminal charges in the offing, the 168-page report, authored by two independent investigators appointed by Attorney General Tish James, sounds like ammunition suited to the Democrats in power who have already demanded Cuomo's departure from office.

Cuomo is largely sticking with his long-standing rationales about his political relationships.

"Today, we are living in a superheated if not toxic political environment," he said in his prerecorded Checkers-style address. "That shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Politics and bias are interwoven throughout every aspect of this situation."

But if the subject of this very report was someone other than himself, what would Cuomo's response have been? Would it be anything other than a reflexive demand for a resignation?

Cuomo's political positioning, and battered reelection prospects, suffer from an aspect of this same issue that isn't sexual. For years, he appeared to command solid loyalty within his realm, even as by all accounts he drove his staffers, male and female, with fervid intensity.

Now the denizens of his domain have rebelled, which for him could be the greatest embarrassment of all, possibly a new signal to critics that Cuomo can no longer prod or command loyalty in his office or his party. The State Assembly, run by Democrats, has been gathering string for an impeachment, and even President Joe Biden said he thinks it's time for Cuomo to go.

"We find that the culture of the executive chamber contributed to the conditions that allowed the governor's sexually harassing conduct to occur, " said investigator Joon Kim, the former acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan. "Words that witnesses have used repeatedly to describe it include toxic, hostile, abusive. Others used words like fear and intimidation, bullying, vindictive."

That's why the current governor looked to spin the description, in part, as a strength that is old-school, like his habit of greeting people with hugs and pecks.

"I have always said my office is a demanding place to work and that it is not for everyone. We work really, really hard," he said. "The stakes we deal with are very high, sometimes even life and death. We have to get the job done. I promised you that I would and I will."

But that stance leads us to another possible wound — a probe of the prematurely triumphant book "American Crisis" that he published last year, for a $5 million advance, and the degree to which public staff and resources were deployed to write it.

As fewer fellow players show the old tolerance, Cuomo loses the ability to mount an offense, to agitate, to cow rivals and skeptics and even employees. His viability as a power player is in check like never before.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.