WASHINGTON — Andrew Cuomo’s era ended before his governorship, but he is no political dodo bird.
When Cuomo arrived in Albany, New York, nearly four decades ago, serving as the political muscle for his father, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, most state capitals — including New York’s — were cauldrons of conflicts of interest, casual corruption and sexual misconduct. Very little of it was considered scandalous.
The younger Cuomo went on to serve as a member of former President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, as the attorney general of New York and, for the last 10-plus years, as the chief executive of his home state. He even flirted with a campaign for president last year.
By the time he was governor, he knew all the levers of the state and federal governments and how to use his power over fellow politicians and his own staff members. In other words, Cuomo, 63, has had an up-close look at the use and abuse of power his entire adult life.
With his announcement Tuesday that he will resign rather than face near-certain impeachment and removal from office, Cuomo said his political extinction owed to his failure to adapt to the times. In effect, he said he is a political dinosaur.
“In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” he said. “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”
At some level, that’s true. But it’s also a cop-out. It wasn’t Cuomo or the times that changed so much as what the public knew about his conduct.
The New York Times reported extensively Tuesday on how Cuomo endorsed the #MeToo movement with gusto, even as he was making unwanted advances on women in his orbit. He used allegations of misconduct to call on Eric Schneiderman, then the state’s attorney general and a fast-rising star in Democratic politics, to resign.
It’s hard to square that with a dinosaur defense. In offering one, Cuomo admitted to political malpractice to absolve himself of responsibility for his own behavior.
“A year ago, Andrew Cuomo was considered by many to be a national hero. Now, he’s a national disgrace,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a New York-based political operative who works with progressives. “What changed? It certainly wasn’t Andrew Cuomo.”
There’s no question that Cuomo should have understood the dangers of failing to keep up with changing societal standards.
He has watched politician after politician — some of them close to him — continue to engage in behaviors that were illegal or improper even as they were treated more seriously with the passage of time.
State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Senate President Dean Skelos were convicted on corruption charges in 2015. Both had directed business to companies that paid them or members of their families — a practice with deep roots in state legislatures that then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and juries viewed as criminal abuses of power.
Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York was publicly shamed by the House after an ethics investigation found that he had abused the power of his office, including using official letterhead to solicit charitable donations. What was once normal — if unethical — had become forbidden.
But Cuomo didn’t ignore the changing atmosphere around him. He embraced and championed the #MeToo movement, as well as ethics reforms to combat corruption in state government. He knew standards of conduct for public officials were becoming more stringent.
In the end, with his political career hanging in the balance, Cuomo hoped to trade away his last chip to stay in power for a little while longer, said a person familiar with his thinking. Until Monday, Cuomo thought he might be able to make impeachment go away by promising not to seek a fourth term next year. Those hopes were dashed Monday when Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he wouldn’t be “negotiating any deals,” the source said.
Some of Cuomo’s critics worry that he will take the money he has left in his campaign treasury and mount a bid for another term next year despite his resignation. That would be a hell of a political story, but it would further undercut the dinosaur defense.
It’s tough to resurrect an extinct species.