The Threat of a Cuomo Comeback

Absent further action by the state legislature, the governor could run for his old job next year—and a recent poll suggests he would have a shot at victory.

A black-and-white photograph of Andrew Cuomo
Seth Wenig / Getty

Dealing with Andrew Cuomo, I wrote after interviewing him in early 2019, is like playing a manic chess game. He tries to guide every move, constantly recalculating and recalibrating. He uses his hands for emphasis and dominance—at one point he reached over, grabbed my ankle (I was sitting with my legs crossed), and held it tight. He stares people down; he berates; he talks and talks, counting on his ability to break whomever he’s talking to.

Now, credibly accused by 11 women of a range of sexual harassment and misconduct, the king seems toppled. But given their past experience with Cuomo, some observers wonder if he has one last grand gambit left: a resignation speech that might double as a reelection-campaign launch.

Cuomo’s exit press conference yesterday began with a defensive presentation by his lawyer, which the governor followed up by offering his own long explanation of his behavior, bashing his political enemies, and touting his record. He seemed more proud than chastened. He was resigning to avoid impeachment—but reporters and Twitter wags were quick to note that avoiding impeachment would also mean Cuomo wouldn’t be barred from running again next year for the job he’s just decided to quit.

If a vindicating comeback run is Cuomo’s plan, though, he’s pretty much the only one who believes it would work.

Many of the revelations in the state attorney general’s report about the New York governor’s years of sexual harassment are new and searing. But the fundamentals are not. “The odd part about these workplace stories,” Cuomo’s former chief of staff Josh Vlasto wrote in an electronic chat that was included in the report, is that “it’s not even close to what it was really like to work there day to day.” He added, “It was so much worse. The abuse and the mind games.”

Cuomo and his closest aides have never denied that the imperious, domineering behavior for which he was known was well beyond what most politicians or offices would consider normal. Their explanation was that he was facing down a level of dysfunction in Albany that made him like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men: You needed him on that wall. You needed that kind of intensity, that kind of aggression, to bring the state government to heel. The state budgets were consistently, comically, late until he came in. Gay marriage and gun control and infrastructure projects were talked about for years, but they never became law until he rammed bills through with his particular blend of Macbeth and Machiavelli. And COVID-19? Well, when New York got hit so early and so hard that a field hospital had to be set up in Central Park, many felt he was the grounding, reassuring presence that guided New Yorkers and the rest of the country through. Just 15 months ago, Cuomo was popular: People were ordering “Cuomosexual” T-shirts, enjoying videos of impressions of his daily musings, and chattering on Twitter about whether he had pierced nipples.

His instinct was to fight the allegations, Cuomo told New Yorkers yesterday. He wanted to stay, because that’s the kind of guy he is, and because he is so proud of them and their perseverance together through the pandemic. The report, he insisted, was a fraud. But truth, he contended, doesn’t matter in the face of so much politics. When the other option is terrible—face more weeks of damning stories and become the first New York governor in a century to be impeached—quitting can start to look more appealing, especially if you can hold out hope for a comeback.

So Cuomo resigned with an implicit dare to the people who had chased him out: Try to make any of it work without him. “We made New York State the progressive capital of the nation. No other state government accomplished more to help people,” he said. “Today so much of the politics is just noise. Just static. And that’s why people tune it out.”

Here’s how, roughly, a Cuomo resurrection might work, according to people who know New York politics and Cuomo and were ready to game it out: The state government, which was taking months and months to work on its own investigation and impeachment proceeding, could shift back to its status quo of lackadaisically not doing much of anything at all. The state budget will likely come in late, and unbalanced, and packed with the kind of priorities popular with the progressives among elected officials but less so with voters at large. The Delta variant and whatever comes next could send the state back into lockdowns, and teachers’ unions will continue resisting vaccine mandates, complicating school reopenings. Gradually, voters might start to forget the specific and detailed accusations laid out in the report, and grow nostalgic for the governing that Cuomo spent most of his resignation speech talking up.

“He’s done a hell of a job on everything from access to voting to infrastructure to a whole range of things. That’s why it’s so sad,” Biden, who is personally close with Cuomo, said at the White House after the governor’s announcement. In the fun-house mirror of politics right now, the desperate could squint and almost see a bumper sticker in that.

But in a measure of how toxic Cuomo is at the moment, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quickly tweeted to clarify that Biden “responded to a specific question today about @NYGovCuomo work on infrastructure. He also made clear it was right for @NYGovCuomo to step down, reiterated his support for women who come forward, and made clear you can’t separate personal behavior from other work.”

A government mess isn’t all it would take for such a ploy to work. First, Cuomo would have to get past the daunting legal challenges raised by the allegations. The assembly could still decide to proceed with impeachment. At least five district attorneys are looking into allegations in the report, and one of Cuomo’s former executive assistants has filed a criminal complaint in Albany County; he may also face claims of civil liability.

Even if he manages to deal with those challenges, for Cuomo to mount any comeback, the race to succeed him next year would have to be uninspiring, with enough candidates to split the vote and none of them really breaking through. A poll out Monday from the firm Slingshot Strategies showed low name identification among voters for any of the dozen likeliest options, which on the one hand means that it’s anybody’s race, but on the other hand means that, for the moment, it’s no one’s. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who’ll take Cuomo’s job when he officially leaves office in two weeks, is planning to run for a full term next year and has brought on the kind of political team that makes clear she’s serious about it. Will New York’s most prominent female politicians, Attorney General Letitia James and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, really discard their gubernatorial ambitions and line up behind the state’s first female governor?

And all of a sudden, Cuomo could reemerge, claiming to be chastened, and still sitting on a $18 million campaign bank account, which is probably more than any other candidate could raise, and run against the political establishment that chased him out. That Slingshot Strategies poll also found that as of last week, 26 percent of voters would support him in a primary, which was nearly three times the level of support any of the other potential candidates had.

In 2002, Cuomo pulled out of a gubernatorial primary a week before voting started, to avoid outright losing it. Four years later, he began tracking back. He ran for attorney general and won, then ran an investigation into Eliot Spitzer, the last governor who resigned in scandal, before winning his first term as governor. But if he’s thinking history will repeat itself, he should realize that “the world around him is incredibly different,” says Gustavo Rivera, a state senator from the Bronx who had wanted to see Cuomo resign long before any of the recent scandals hit. “If there’s anybody in the world who’d be trying to figure out some angle to come back, it would be him—but we’re not going to let him,” Rivera told me. “The reason why he resigned is that he realized that the forces arrayed [against] him were too much.”

In the week since James’s report was released, Cuomo has been cut off from most of the small circle of advisers who rushed to the governor’s mansion or onto conference calls for him in the spring, when the first accusations were made public. Loyalists, some of whom are enraged by what has come out, have stopped talking to him. They are confused by his initial denial of the severity of his predicament. Watching how ties to Cuomo have already triggered attacks on Robbie Kaplan, the attorney who argued for legalizing gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court, and Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a number of Cuomo allies told me they were wary of reminding anyone that they were connected to the governor, even to be quoted blindly.

Yesterday, I called Dick Gottfried, an assemblyman who’s represented the West Side of Manhattan for more than 50 years, since before Mario Cuomo was in office. He’s seen it all in New York politics and government. Could he see a possible Cuomo comeback?

Gottfried took a long pause. “You never know,” he told me, “but it’s hard to imagine.” He considered the situation a little more. “There’s just so much here that he would have to somehow try to overcome, and if he had handled this 180-degree different from the start, then there might be prospects for a comeback, but it’s hard to see how that would happen.”

When I asked Gottfried whether he agreed with Cuomo that the governor had straightened out Albany, this time he went for a more theatrical pause. “Ummmmm … no,” he said.

But before anyone spends too much time guessing about a political comeback for Cuomo next year, Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim wants everyone to remember that the sexual-harassment accusations in the attorney general’s report were only part of the complaints against the governor. Just to list the most prominent, Cuomo is also being investigated because of claims that he used taxpayer resources to produce a book about his pandemic response, which earned him $5 million; and that he hid how many people in nursing homes died of COVID-19 last year. The latter complaint earned Kim a phone call from Cuomo. “I will destroy you,” Cuomo said, according to Kim, who then went public and called the governor an abuser.

Those investigations are ongoing on the federal and state level. “The reason why we haven’t heard much in the last few weeks is because it involves and implicates a larger orbit of individuals and groups,” Kim told me. “Resignation doesn’t absolve an executive from any of the crimes he may have committed.” What he saw in Cuomo’s exit speech was less politics than a man aware of how his words might be used against him in future court proceedings. Then there was this warning on Twitter from Casey Seiler, the editor of the Albany Times Union: “Do you people have any idea how many stories about @NYGovCuomo are going to come out once he loses the vast retaliatory powers of the Executive Chamber?”

Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney who investigated Cuomo in 2016 for public corruption and obstruction of justice, finished the day of the resignation suspicious about its terms. “I was a little taken aback that he said his resignation is effective in 14 days, and it may be overly cynical on my part, but I believe Andrew Cuomo is a person of mischief,” he said on his podcast. “I hope there’s nothing nefarious about the 14 days, but it strikes me as too long a period. You don’t have to give two weeks’ notice to resign as governor.”

That’s the kind of battered paranoia Cuomo breeds among the people who have dealt with him—even now, at what seems like the end, they think he must be up to something.