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Andrew Cuomo blames ‘political pressure and media frenzy’ in farewell speech

Kathy Hochul takes over as governor on Tuesday, becoming the first woman to hold New York state’s highest office.

By: New York Times | New York |
August 24, 2021 11:23:44 am
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Written by Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Katie Glueck

On his last day in office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, a three-term Democrat once envisioned as a national standard-bearer for his party, appeared alone.

Abandoned by virtually every political ally he once had, the governor held no public event Monday, confining his lone appearance to a prerecorded farewell address where he defiantly cast his resignation as the unavoidable outcome of a rush to judgment on sexual harassment allegations made against him.

Cuomo, seated by himself and staring into a camera, characterised a damning 165-page report by the state attorney general’s office as a “political firecracker on an explosive topic,” forcing his resignation and clearing the way for his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, to succeed him.

Hochul takes over as governor Tuesday, becoming the first woman to hold the state’s highest office and the first governor in more than a century to have deep roots in western New York. A ceremonial swearing-in event will be held Tuesday morning; she will then meet with leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, and make her first virtual address as governor at 3 p.m.

Over the next few weeks, Hochul, from Buffalo, New York, will contend with difficult policy decisions as she steers the state through a dire public health crisis, an expiring eviction moratorium and a summer marked by gun violence. She will have to do so while putting together her staff, introducing herself to most New Yorkers and repairing relationships between the governor’s office and City Hall, as well as the state Legislature.

Political considerations may quickly kick in as well: Hochul, who has already said she intends to run for a full term next year, would have significant advantages of incumbency — but she will be closely watched in coming months by other Democratic hopefuls looking for any opening to run.

Later this week, she is expected to appoint a lieutenant governor, a second-in-command who she has said will be from New York City as she looks to balance her ticket in her run for governor next year.

In recent days, Hochul — who spent much of her tenure as lieutenant governor traveling New York — has visited with leaders across the state, and has begun to announce new members of her administrative team.

She named Marissa Shorenstein, a seasoned Albany strategist, to head her transition team, and announced that her top two aides will be women. Karen Persichilli Keogh will become secretary to the governor, the highest-ranking appointed position in the state, and Elizabeth Fine will be Hochul’s counsel.

Keogh was New York state director for Sen. Hillary Clinton; advised Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection campaign; and helped Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as she transitioned from the House to the Senate. More recently, Keogh, a friend of Hochul’s for years, was head of global philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase.

Fine, general counsel and an executive vice president of Empire State Development, has served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton, counsel to the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign, and general counsel for the New York City Council under Speaker Christine Quinn.

Even so, Hochul has said she will take up to 45 days to assess whom she may retain from the Cuomo administration, with New York still fending off a pandemic and its economic effects.

Cuomo saw his star rise during the pandemic, and he sought to reemphasise those moments in his farewell speech, trying to conjure memories of what many New Yorkers had liked best about his leadership. Cuomo invoked his father, the former Gov. Mario Cuomo; he referenced his administration’s efforts to combat the coronavirus — and suggested a state law to mandate compliance around vaccines and masking in some circumstances; and he reached for language that had powered his popular briefings at the start of the pandemic.

“Always stay New York tough,” he advised.

But Cuomo’s chief motive was to once again question the fairness of the state attorney general report that found he sexually harassed 11 women — despite his broadsides Monday, Cuomo initially backed the investigation.

The report offered corroborating evidence for eight accusers whose allegations were already public, most of them current or former state employees. It also included three previously unreported accounts of sexual harassment by the governor. Investigators conducted interviews with 179 witnesses and accumulated tens of thousands of documents.

In a sign that Cuomo may not be fully ready to exit the public arena, he likened the report to a firecracker that started a “political and media stampede,” adding in the 15-minute speech that there “will be another time to talk about the truth and ethics of the recent situation involving me.”

“The truth is, ultimately, always revealed,” he said.

Under immense political and public pressure, Cuomo announced he would resign two weeks ago after the attorney general’s five-month investigation, which concluded Cuomo had engaged in a pattern of troubling behavior toward women that ranged from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching.

In his dwindling hours as governor, Cuomo granted clemency to six men, issuing one pardon and commuting the sentences of five individuals. The most notable case involved David Gilbert, a leader of a radical left-wing militant organisation, the Weather Underground; he participated in the infamous 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland County, New York, that left a guard and two police officers dead.

The commutation does not undo Gilbert’s conviction on second-degree murder and robbery charges, but it makes him eligible for parole; his case will be referred to the state parole board for possible release.

In his farewell address, Cuomo sought to remind New Yorkers once more of progressive policy achievements under his watch even as he issued parting shots to the left wing of his party with which he has tangled frequently.

In a combative address that had none of the regretful overtones of his last major public discussion of his future, Cuomo ticked through his administration’s efforts on green energy and marriage equality, raising the minimum wage and curbing gun violence.

He also issued a vigorous defense of his relatively centrist politics, rebuking the “defund the police” movement and attempts at “demonising business,” and suggesting that his administration had sliced through the bureaucracy that often stymies government.

“We have developed over the last decade a new paradigm of government in this state,” Cuomo declared. “A government that actually works, and actually works for people.”

Cuomo had kept mostly out of sight since announcing his plans to resign Aug. 10. He filed his retirement papers with the state, signed a handful of bills into law and was busy moving his belongings out of the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, a place that has long held significance for Cuomo and his family.

The governor, whose aggressive governing style relied more on fear than comity, left with few political allies at the end of his tenure. One state senator, granted anonymity to discuss would-be private conversations, said that “no one has heard from him.” President Joe Biden, a longtime friend of Cuomo, has not spoken with him since the attorney general’s report came out, a White House official confirmed Monday.

His inner circle has contracted and some who have spoken with him over the last week described him as convinced that he could have been vindicated in the court of public opinion over time — a belief that was evident in his remarks Monday, although some allies did not believe his farewell address was the appropriate venue to make that case.

Others close to him criticised the governor’s speech as self-aggrandising and disingenuous, arguing that Cuomo ultimately resigned because he knew his removal through impeachment was inevitable, not because, as the governor said Monday, his staying would “only cause governmental paralysis.”

Cuomo has busied himself with last-minute duties of the job, focusing in particular on responding to severe weather that battered the region.

Over the last few days, Cuomo reemerged in person, holding two storm-related briefings and directing his personal lawyer, Rita Glavin, to conduct a 22-minute virtual presentation Friday designed to push back on the attorney general report. Glavin also sought to cast doubt on the accounts from many of the women who accused the governor of inappropriate behavior.

As he departs, Cuomo leaves with a platform he can use to continue voicing his grievances; a following, however big or small, of loyal supporters whose admiration he earned during the pandemic; and a massive $18 million campaign war chest, by far the most out of any politician in the state.

On Monday, Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide, issued a statement seeking to tamp down speculation swirling about Cuomo’s political future. DeRosa announced her plans to resign two days before Cuomo did, and her resignation — she is being replaced by Keogh — goes into effect at midnight as well.

“He looks forward to spending time with his family and has a lot of fishing to catch up on,” DeRosa said. “He is exploring a number of options, but has no interest in running for office again.”

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