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From great heights, a great fall

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces on Tuesday that

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces on Tuesday that he will resign. Credit: Office of the NY Governor

An extraordinary chapter in New York’s story began its ending Tuesday when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, facing almost certain impeachment and conviction, announced he would end his third term. He will leave office on Aug. 24.

The decision to desert the political path that has dominated Cuomo’s life came after his allies and party deserted him, yet Cuomo still could not close the door until any significant hope of holding on was extinguished. His decision to resign rather than face impeachment spared the state a significant and dramatic distraction when it can ill afford one, and that must be acknowledged.

The extent of the fall was magnified by the heights Cuomo attained. Just months ago, his oft-televised leadership on COVID-19, lacking in other quarters, turned him into a national political favorite. Months later, a series of accusations led to a report that he mistreated women in the state's employ. While Cuomo denies any intent to harass, he acknowledged in his televised address Tuesday that he made these women uncomfortable even as he disputed the extent of his transgressions.

Those wrongs were compounded when he and his staff failed to follow the procedures required when such behavior is reported, rules that Cuomo himself championed and touted, and when they undertook efforts to undermine and retaliate against his accusers. Other troubling behavior from Cuomo being investigated includes allegations that staffers on state time helped produce a book for which he received a $5 million advance, that he and his staff purposely undercounted COVID nursing home deaths, and that he presided over a demeaning, abusive and fearful workplace.

INEXCUSABLE TREATMENT OF WOMEN

But it was his treatment of women that drove Cuomo out of office, and deservedly so. His actions toward his accusers induced fear because of the power differential between him and them. To have treated them so appallingly is inexcusable.

Even as Cuomo’s early exit either by his own choice or at the hands of the State Legislature became inevitable, his resignation announcement was shocking in the way it transformed the state’s political future and revised perceptions of his legacy.

The fact that the accusations against Cuomo are substantiated by evidence and testimony in a damning report from the state attorney general’s office, does not alter the reality that his downfall was political. His departure leaves a vacuum and a path to power many in Albany were glad to help create once the opportunity arose.

Like so many prominent men, Cuomo’s greatest strengths — unrelenting drive and force of will and manipulation to achieve goals — were also his greatest flaws. He will leave office with far more accomplishments than allies, and in so doing he will deprive the state of his services at a time when it very much could use them.

Cuomo’s accomplishments as governor divide between the significant and the momentous. When he took office in 2011, even simple tasks like producing an on-time budget had become impossible in dysfunctional Albany. Cuomo made the day-to-day governance of the state work at a time when few thought that could be done, and he made government responsive to needs.

GREAT SUCCESSES, PERSONAL FAILURES

The biggest wins include legalizing the marriage of same-sex couples and establishing a property tax cap. The most visible accomplishments include an extraordinary series of infrastructure improvements: rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge, completing the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, organizing massive improvements to Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, and furthering Long Island Rail Road projects like access to Grand Central and a third track on the Main Line.

All of this took the relentless hounding and manipulation for which he is known, and celebrated, and reviled.

From his early 20s on, Andrew Cuomo was the enforcer who allowed his father, Mario Cuomo, to be a statesman. But in the pursuit of his own political career, the son was never able to drop the ruthless tactics to become something more, even after his brash self-centeredness cratered his 2002 gubernatorial hopes and, he claimed, taught him the needed lessons.

It is hard to imagine a modern political undoing more imitative of Greek tragedy than Cuomo’s rise and fall. The multigenerational aspect. The great promise, preceding a greater crash. The hubris and hypocrisy. And the character traits that served his goals one day and empowered his enemies the next.

But Greek tragedies rarely focus on how the downfalls affected ancient Greece. Cuomo, in stepping down, did focus on how his saga was affecting New York, and that is to his credit.

There is a future now, for both the women with whom Cuomo stepped over the line, and a state shaped by his triumphs and failures. That future must include a change in the deplorable way women are treated, but it must also include leaders with the drive and competence and foresight and intricate knowledge Cuomo brought to the task of bettering New York.

The governorship of Andrew M. Cuomo was just a chapter in this extraordinary story, of a great state that must rise to serve its people, even when a leader falls.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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