Governors facing calls to resign: A New Jersey-New York tradition. How they've responded
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo responds to accusations of sexual harassment lodged against him by three women, including two of his former aides. New York State Team
Like a toxic pingpong ball, career-threatening scandal has bounced between the governors of New Jersey and New York for two decades.
Ever since New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey left office in a 2004 sex scandal in which he famously declared “I am a gay American,” governors from each state have traded places in the stocks under pressure to resign.
McGreevey. Spitzer. Paterson. Christie.
And now, Andrew Cuomo, who is facing calls to resign amid sexual harassment allegations.
Cuomo's descent from the Emmy-winning pandemic leader declining to run for president last year to the politically wounded governor potentially getting drummed out of Albany is the latest example of the shifting fortunes for governors in the pandemic.
California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, faces a recall effort. And the Republican governors of Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas have seen their popularity drop during the pandemic after initially strong public support.
But no one else in the country is under pressure to resign. Cuomo has acknowledged and apologized for behavior perceived as inappropriate. Adding to the pressure is his administration's undercounting of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes.
They are a pair of scandals of his own making, but also fitting a pattern of New York and New Jersey governors' existential crisis.
States of crisis: New York and New Jersey
While it's difficult to draw comparisons among any of those governors because each scandal had its own set of unique circumstances, their decisions to stay or go come down to a fundamental question, according to political analysts: Do they think they can weather the controversy?
Cuomo seems to think at this point he can withstand the calls for him to relinquish power, saying Wednesday that he is "not going to resign."
"I work for the people of the state of New York," he said. "They elected me, and I’m going to serve the people of the state of New York."
That could change, of course. Just look at McGreevey.
Married at the time to a woman, McGreevey had faced the threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit by a male lover he had hired. The first-term governor seemed intent on staying in office.
On Aug. 11, 2004, his chief of staff, Jamie Fox, told press secretary Micah Rasmussen that McGreevey was staying, Rasmussen said.
The next morning, the governor confirmed it: "McGreevey said, 'The one thing I can tell you is there’s definitely not going to be a resignation today,'" Rasmussen, now director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, recalled in an interview.
Then he announced his resignation that afternoon.
In short order, Rasmussen said, McGreevey concluded that the only way to move past the scandal was to give up the governorship. And Rasmussen said he believes it was "the decent thing to do" to allow the Democratic Party and the residents of the state to move forward.
McGreevey said it was "the single most important thing" he had ever done.
"Not only was I truthful and integrated for the first time in my life, but I rejected a political solution to my troubles and took the more painful route: penance and atonement," he wrote in a 2006 essay for New York magazine.
To stay or resign?
Four years later, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer faced a similar decision after news broke that he had hired a prostitute. He initially offered an apology and a vague look into his future by saying he "must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family."
But then he resigned two days later.
"I don’t for a moment question that I made the right decision for my family, those whom I love and for the state," Spitzer told the USA TODAY Network Albany Bureau a decade later.
In both instances, the governors had to calculate whether the toll of their respective scandals outweighed their ability to effectively do their job.
McGreevey had said in a phone call with his top staff that "the questions are never going to stop," according to Rasmussen. "The only way that I can end this is to resign."
And Spitzer realized he wouldn't have the political support he needed to avoid the calls for his resignation, and perhaps face impeachment.
Spitzer's lieutenant governor that succeeded him, David Paterson, resisted calls to resign in 2010 after his administration intervened in an aide's domestic violence case — which, coincidentally, was investigated by then-Attorney General Cuomo.
But Paterson agreed not to run for governor in the next election, paving the way for Cuomo to lead the state.
Staying in office and fighting
New Jersey returned to scandalous prominence once again in 2013, with questions about sudden lane realignments that caused a week of gridlock at the Fort Lee entrance to the George Washington Bridge.
The traffic scheme known as Bridgegate quickly overshadowed Gov. Chris Christie's resounding second term victory and cast doubt on his eventual viability in the 2016 presidential race.
Christie faced calls to resign and the Democratic-led Legislature held weeks of hearings that drew national attention. He refused to step down and instead commissioned an investigation into the matter.
Like Cuomo, Christie swiftly turned from an effective executive with White House chops to persona non-grata in his own Statehouse.
Unlike Cuomo, Christie had an opportunity to put some distance between himself and the scandal, said Carl Golden, a contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.
The traffic plot had been cooked up as a form of political retribution by a former aide to the Port Authority, David Wildstein, and carried out by former deputy director Bill Baroni and Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, according to federal prosecutors.
Baroni and Kelly's convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court; Wildstein pleaded guilty but negotiated a deal to have that cleared after the court ruling. Christie was not charged and was not found to have had involvement in the traffic plot.
"With Bridgegate, Christie could point to Bill Baroni and David Wildstein and Bridget Kelly," said Golden, who worked for Republican Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman (neither of whom were forced to resign, though Whitman did leave on her own volition to join the George W. Bush administration).
"Christie was a couple of steps removed from the core of this controversy, and he used that clearly to defend himself," Golden said. "Cuomo couldn’t be more directly involved."
As a practical matter of political survival, Cuomo's approach of apologizing but refusing to step down is "the smart thing" to do, said Julie Roginsky, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised Gov. Phil Murphy when he was a candidate.
Roginsky said she does not condone his behavior, but Cuomo has an opportunity in the current media environment to hold fast until some other narrative seizes the public consciousness.
"The reality is, with the rise of social media and a 24-hour outrage news cycle on cable television, outrage will turn to something else," she said.
"Maybe Cuomo’s calculus is wrong, but it’s the best thing he can hope for right now."
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.