ALBANY — Just one of the state’s 56 duly elected governors has been impeached, and that happened more than a century ago at the behest of one of the most notorious political machines in history.
Should the state Assembly vote to impeach Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as expected, the process, presumably, will follow the same procedures it did in 1913 when Gov. William Sulzer was removed from office.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee has been conducting an investigation into Cuomo, parallel to an investigation by Attorney General Letitia James. The AG released her bombshell, 165-page report detailing how Cuomo allegedly broke federal and state law while sexually harassing 11 women on Tuesday, Aug. 3.
The Assembly does not need to investigate before bringing a motion to impeach to the floor to a vote, but Speaker Carl Heastie did charge the Judiciary Committee with that task. The AG’s report will be forwarded to the committee, and numerous reports say articles of impeachment will be drawn based in large part on those findings.
The AG’s report does not include information about potentially using state workers to work on a book that he was given $5.1 million for writing or of a state directive that moved COVID-19 patients into nursing homes.
The Assembly has for decades been dominated by Democrats, but members of Cuomo’s party, from President Joe Biden to Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, are now calling for his resignation.
If he tries to weather the storm, it does not appear there will be an issue getting the majority of the 150 Assembly members to vote to impeach. Once that happens, the governor is relieved of duty pending a trial and the lieutenant governor takes over.
At trial, evidence is presented by the Assembly with the state Senate and Court of Appeals acting as jury.
The governor can count, and despite a 15-minute, pre-recorded video denying any impropriety and an 85-page position paper written to counter the AG’s findings, there is little chance he would survive a trial.
While the punishment of an impeachment can only include removing a public official from office, and possibly prohibit that official from running again for office, there are a number of district attorneys across the state, including Albany County District Attorney David Soares, looking into possible criminal charges against Cuomo based on the AG’s report.
William “Plain Bill” Sulzer
Sulzer was born in New Jersey but joined the storied Tammany Hall after graduating from Columbia Law School. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1890 to represent the East Side of Manhattan, he became speaker in 1893 and stayed until he was elected to Congress in 1894, according to the Encyclopedia of New York State.
He stayed in Washington until 1912, supporting a number of progressive and/or liberal causes, when he was elected governor with Tammany support.
A break with the notorious political machine widened when Sulzer had several of its members investigated for graft and pushed for an open primary law, which would have weakened the iron clad grip Tammany had on New York City politics.
On Aug. 13, 1913, Tammany boss Charles Murphy ordered Assembly members to impeach Sulzer based on evidence of the governor filing false campaign contribution records. According to records at the time, Sulzer admitted to not filing $9,000 worth of donations, claiming it was a simple oversight and vowed to correct the ledger
In October, the Senate and Court of Appeals found Sulzer guilty perjury and filing a false campaign statement and the governor was removed from office.
“If I had served Mr. Murphy instead of serving the state,” Sulzer said at the time, “if I had obeyed Mr. Murphy instead of the dictates of my conscience Mr. Murphy would never have instituted this impeachment.”
Unlike Cuomo, though, Sulzer’s popularity was enhanced for taking on Tammany and the following November he ran and won for the Assembly on the Progressive Party line. He tried unsuccessfully to get the party’s endorsement to run again for governor in 1914 but did run on the American Party line, an independent party founded by Democrats. He lost badly, and declined the American Party’s nomination for president in 1916.
He retired to Greenwich Village where continued to practice law until he died in 1941.
On Aug. 13, 1974, the New York Criminal and Civil Courts Association wrapped up a six-month study into the removal of Sulzer 61 years before, according to Syracuse.com. They found that his impeachment was “illegal and unconstitutional” because Sulzer’s offenses had been “committed prior to the time that the Governor was elected to office.”
The report further stated that his trial had been “a hasty improvisation inspired by Charles Murphy, only after Sulzer declared his independence of Tammany Hall after his election.”