Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2021). The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The argument for impeaching New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is increasingly compelling. There have now been several seemingly credible allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo indicating a pattern of behavior that should disqualify him from a position of leadership and influence. Additionally, reports that the Cuomo administration deliberately undercounted deaths in nursing homes in the early days of the pandemic further undermine his standing. Cuomo has denied all of these allegations and has even suggested that he is a victim of “cancel culture,” though he did apologize for “making anyone feel uncomfortable.”
The laws regarding impeachment in New York are similar to the presidential impeachment process with one significant difference. A simple majority is needed in the state assembly to impeach, but a conviction requires two-thirds of a jury that consists of the state senate and the seven judges from the court of appeals. However, during the trial itself, Cuomo would not be able to serve as Governor. The Democratic leaders of both houses of the state legislature have called for Cuomo to resign, so it is clear he cannot simply rely on support from his own party.
Nonetheless, the politics of impeachment are not quite so simple because, while politicians from both parties have a strong incentive to call for impeachment or urge him to resign, there is much less of an incentive for them to actually get rid of him. There are two factions in the state legislature who, for political reasons that predate this scandal, dislike the Governor. One group is Republicans who see Cuomo as an outspoken partisan Democrat who is a beloved figure on the left. But, that is not the way he is viewed by many progressive New Yorkers, who represent the other group of legislators that most acutely dislikes Cuomo.
Republicans naturally would like to see Cuomo replaced by a member of their own party, which is not impossible should the 2022 midterms become a winning year for the GOP. Left-wing Democrats, on the other hand, would like to see a new Democratic governor who better reflects their progressive values.
The problem for both these factions is that their chances are much greater if a politically wounded Cuomo runs again in 2022. If Cuomo is impeached, New York’s current Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul, would replace him for the remainder of his turn and presumably would run as the incumbent candidate next year. Hochul, a moderate from upstate and hard to attack as too far left or too beholden to political bosses in the city, is precisely the kind of Democratic candidate who would be toughest for a Republican to beat. If Republicans impeach Cuomo they may find themselves running against a much more formidable general election candidate in 19 months or so.
Hochul would not necessarily have a clear path to the 2022 nomination even if she were the incumbent. However, a sitting governor unblemished by major scandal would be in a strong position against other candidates and any male Democrat who ran against her presumably could expect to explain why he was seeking to oust New York State’s first female governor. Ironically, these factors suggest the progressive wing of the Democratic Party may also have better odds against a wounded Cuomo than against Hochul.
Cuomo is facing a major investigation. Both President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have declined to join the calls for Cuomo’s resignation, choosing to await the outcome of the investigation. The results of the investigation are still unknown, but they will play an important role in Cuomo’s future. An investigation that suggests his innocence would strengthen his hand, but it is also possible that investigation will give further credence to the allegations, making the case against him even stronger.
However, Cuomo is unlikely to give up easily – especially given a poll released Monday found that 50% of New York voters did not want him to resign – and even his strongest foes presumably realize that impeaching Cuomo might well reduce their chances of achieving their larger political goals.
Still, there is another consideration that might just push Democratic legislators to go forward with impeachment. If Cuomo remains in office and decides to seek a fourth term, he could put New York Democrats in a difficult position. In a multi-candidate primary, even a weakened Cuomo, who already has a substantial campaign war chest and plenty of time before the 2022 primary, could still get a plurality of the vote and become the Democratic nominee. This would put New York Democrats in the position of either voting for a man with a badly tarnished reputation or seeing a Republican get elected. The former would leave Democrats vulnerable to legitimate charges of hypocrisy, while the latter would, from a policy perspective, be terrible for progressives and Democrats.
Impeachment, as we saw twice over the last two years, is a political process. That, not the merits of the case, could decide Cuomo’s future. The politics here are more complex than they might seem because – to many Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature – a weakened Cuomo would create more opportunities in 2022 than a new Governor Hochul. Nonetheless, impeaching Cuomo is the best way forward, particularly for Democrats. If the investigation results support the allegations, letting Cuomo remain in office would send a terrible message that New York Democrats think sexual harassment is secondary to political considerations.