ALBANY — Up until a month ago, New York and California were both big states with governors in deep political hot water.
But with Andrew Cuomo having resigned on his own as New York's chief executive Aug. 24, a major difference in how the two states can deal with issues relating to competency in public office is now in focus: Californians have the power to recall leaders at the ballot box, while New Yorkers do not.
Some New York lawmakers are desirous of changing the status quo, proposing what could be a heavy lift at the statehouse. The legislation they back would authorize a constitutional amendment that would need both voter approval and passage in two successive sessions of the state Legislature to allow voters to have the power to recall those in statewide office.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said giving New York voters could provide state government with a new level of accountability by sending a message that mismanagement or scandals won't be tolerated even if the office holder involved wields considerable political clout as Cuomo did for years.
"I can see the appeal for recall," Stec said. "It would provide the grassroots voter to do something that perhaps the Legislature is not willing to do, for whatever reason."
While Cuomo's critics called for his impeachment after he faced allegations of sexual harassment from 11 women and earned $5.1 million from his published pandemic memoir about his "leadership" of the state during the crisis, the Democratic-led state Assembly authorized an impeachment inquiry. But it stopped short of moving forward with an impeachment proceeding.
It also remains to be seen whether the Assembly will release a full report and all transcripts from an investigation into Cuomo that was conducted by an outside law firm that delved into the book deal and the charges of sexual harassment.
However, an investigation by the state Attorney General's office into Cuomo's use of public employees for his book project is continuing. It is also possible that criminal charges could arise in connection with allegations that Cuomo inappropriately touched women, including one 33-year-old aide who has told news outlets he fondled her under her blouse at the state-owned Governor's Mansion.
Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, a former city court judge, said he supports arming voters with the authority to recall statewide elected leaders.
For the past 18 months, Morinello said, state government agencies have been far too sluggish in performing their missions.
"We have experienced non COVID-related delays from all of the departments at a time when they should have been providing expedited services to their constituents," Morinello said. "For the state to operate efficiently, the agencies shouldn't have to be saddled with distractions because of issues with the leader."
Having a recall option, Morinello said, can remove a controversy over leadership from "partisan politics" and let voters decide directly whether an official should remain in elected office. "The people should have the ability to move forward in a more expedited basis so the focus can be on governance and doesn't have to be on defense or dilatory tactics."
California is one of 19 states that allow recall elections. The process is generally initiated through a petition drive. The threshold level needed to authorize a recall election ranges from 15% to 40% of the number of voters who had participated in that state's previous election.
There are two separate bills in New York calling for the recall option to come to New York. One is authored by Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie. He is also a co-sponsor on the second measure, which was put forward by Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome; and Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Herkimer.
Tague said he advanced his bill after questions emerged about Cuomo's controversial March 2020 order requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients from hospitals, well before the first of the harassment allegations surfaced last December.
Tague said he was also motivated by what he called Cuomo's heavy-handed approach to using his executive powers to bypass the Legislature with a string of mandated restrictions on businesses and individuals during the pandemic.
"There would have to be a petition and secondly there would have to be a valid reason why you are recalling the individual," Tague said.
Veteran Democratic political consultant George Arzt said he believes the Legislature will reject the proposals for having the recall option come to New York.
"In this state, people are looking to settle things down rather than have some tempestuous fight that will take forever," Arzt said.
Arzt also said a recall fight could pave the way to "a kind of chaos that would be extremely perilous for state finances and for the delivery of the state services that people expect."
Good government advocate John Kaehny, director of Reinvent Albany, said imposing term limits on elected officials would accomplish more to improve ethics in state government than giving voters recall authority would.
Had Cuomo tried to remain in office, his third term would have expired at the end of 2022, and if a recall option had existed in New York, it is likely his days in office would have been numbered by the time voters addressed the issue at the ballot box, Kaehny noted.
A year ago, before the scandals enveloped Cuomo, his statewide polling numbers were relatively strong, Kaehny added.
In California, critics of Gov. Gavin Newsom have charged his policies have contributed to high taxes and homelessness.
But as the pandemic has continued, the list of complaints against him has included his management of the public health crisis and his attendance at a lobbyist's birthday dinner with people from several families at a time when he was discouraging such gatherings.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com