“Melissa Quitting Made the Governor Resigning Inevitable”: With the Walls Closing In, Andrew Cuomo Finally Calls It Quits

It should have been a tip-off that something big was up. On Tuesday morning, an NY1 camera captured Governor Andrew Cuomo landing at the eastside Manhattan heliport, his first trip outside Albany since the release last week of a devastating report on sexual harassment allegations made against him. Cuomo’s arrival was news all by itself. But walking steps ahead of Cuomo was his longtime top lieutenant, Melissa DeRosa—two days after DeRosa had announced her resignation. She climbed in a black state car. Cuomo got behind the wheel and drove them to his Midtown office.

As the world now knows, Cuomo was heading there to deliver a stunning speech announcing his resignation, the abrupt ending to his nearly three terms in office and to a year of multiple scandals. And perhaps an ending to Cuomo’s four decades in public life—from his start as a teenage assistant on his father Mario’s unsuccessful 1977 run for NYC mayor to piloting Mario’s three successful runs for governor to Andrew’s turn as federal housing secretary under Bill Clinton to his one term as state attorney general to his return to Albany in 2011, this time as governor himself. To Cuomo’s allies, it was the epic tour of a gifted politician; to his enemies, it was a “reign of terror,” as one of them put it to me just after Cuomo said goodbye.

It was never more of a white-knuckle ride than in the past year, with DeRosa playing a crucial role up until the final moments—at first as a confidant, and then, ultimately, as one motivating factor in her boss’s resignation. She was not his political brain in the manner of Karl Rove to George W. Bush; Cuomo, for better and worse, was very much his own political theorist, strategist, tactician, and operative. But DeRosa’s title—secretary to the governor—was highly deceptive. Her role appeared close to that of a co-governor, on both policy and politics. She was one of the very few people in Cuomo’s shrinking inner circle who could sometimes tell him no. For many years the two were a highly effective team, with DeRosa instrumental in everything from raising the minimum wage to changing the rules so that women giving birth during the pandemic could have a support person with them in the delivery room.

Yet DeRosa’s closeness to the governor—she was labeled “Magnificent Melissa” in a self-promotional poster created when Cuomo was riding high during the pandemic—meant she became a key player in all the recent crises. When Cuomo landed a reported $5.1 million contract to publish a book of “leadership lessons” from responding to COVID, a draft of the text was reportedly labeled “MDR edits”—work she and other government employees reportedly did as volunteers. When Cuomo came under fire for the handling of the count of coronavirus deaths in New York nursing homes, it was DeRosa who apologized to state legislators, telling them “we froze” out of fear that federal prosecutors would use the true numbers against Cuomo.

DeRosa was also riding in a car with Cuomo in July 2020. She had recently learned that a 25-year-old staffer, who has said she is a sexual assault survivor, Charlotte Bennett, had complained about crude, suggestive comments made to her by the 63-year-old Cuomo. (Cuomo has denied any inappropriate behavior.) DeRosa confronted her boss. “I can’t believe that this happened,” she said. “I can’t believe you put yourself in a situation where you would be having any version of this conversation.” And then, when the car stopped for a red light, DeRosa opened the door and exited onto a midtown Manhattan sidewalk.

If only she had kept walking. But DeRosa had, by that point, been fiercely loyal to Cuomo for more than seven years. And so she got back on board, if not back in the car. DeRosa’s name makes the second-most number of appearances in Attorney General Letitia James’s report, after Cuomo’s. In December, 2020, according to the James investigation, DeRosa helped lead the effort to release a personnel file in retaliation against Lindsey Boylan, a former aide who had accused Cuomo, in a series of tweets, of being “a sexual harasser and abuser” who was responsible for the “most toxic team environment” Boylan had ever experienced. Cuomo’s alleged conduct—with Boylan, Bennett, and the nine other women described in the attorney general’s report—is the core issue, of course, and it is the reason his hold on his office crumbled. (He has denied all wrongdoing.) The reflex to punch back, hard, when challenged flowed from Cuomo; very little happened in his administration without his approval. And so the attempt by DeRosa and others in the administration to discredit Boylan became a pivotal misstep. Instead of undermining Boylan’s accusations, it likely helped embolden other women to come forward. (“With respect to legal questions relating to how a complaint should be handled, or whether personnel records could be provided to the public, Ms. DeRosa consulted with and relied upon advice of experienced counsel,” her lawyer, Sean Hecker, says.)

As James’s bombshell report ricocheted outward, DeRosa’s resignation was a blow Cuomo couldn’t ignore. “Melissa quitting made the governor resigning inevitable,” says a Democratic strategist who knows them both well. But it was hardly the only factor. The fallout spiral was widening, with the damage extending to Roberta Kaplan, the prominent lawyer who quit as chairwoman of Time’s Up, an organization fighting sexual harassment and assault, after Kaplan’s role advising Cuomo on his response to Boylan became public; and to Alphonso David, the governor’s former counsel, who is reportedly facing a revolt of the staff at the Human Rights Campaign, where David is now the organization’s president. The pressure on Cuomo from powerful associates trying to salvage their reputations was only likely to only grow. Perhaps more important, Cuomo’s firewall when it came to public approval ratings and elections was Black women in the city. The fact that one of their own, Tish James of Brooklyn, was detailing the governor’s repulsive behavior made counterarguments even more politically difficult. And Cuomo has always been a realist when it comes to counting votes; the numbers in the state assembly were solidifying against him. As a former Cuomo aide told me last week, “He doesn’t want ‘impeached’ next to his name, as his legacy.”

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