William Sulzer circa 1911
Calls for New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to resign piled up this week after state Attorney General Letitia James released a damning report Tuesday detailing sexual harassment allegations against the Democratic governor. State lawmakers, members of Congress and even President Biden said Cuomo should resign, with no major figures in the state or national Democratic Party still defending him.
Cuomo remains defiant in the face of mounting criminal inquiries and deepening political fallout So far, the embattled governor has resisted those calls, as he did earlier this year when the allegations first came to light, leaving many predicting that the Democratic-controlled state legislature will impeach him later this summer. It has only happened once before in New York history, when Gov. William Sulzer was impeached and removed from office in 1913. In 2021, a group of former staffers who say they were harassed have taken on Cuomo’s powerful political machine, but in 1913, it was the opposite: The political machine took on a brand new governor, and won.
In the 1880s, when “Plain Bill” Sulzer finished law school and decided on a career in politics, one of the first things he did was join Tammany Hall, a political operation known for helping immigrants, funding political campaigns — and also for being notoriously corrupt. Tammany bosses regularly solicited and accepted bribes in exchange for their support. For the better part of a century, it controlled Democratic Party politics in New York, both the city and the state.
With Tammany Hall’s support, Sulzer was elected first to the New York State Assembly in 1890, becoming its speaker in 1894. The next year, he was elected to Congress, where he served for 16 years and chaired the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. He supported progressive policies like the creation of the Department of Labor and the eight-hour workday; he was also an early supporter of Jewish immigrants escaping Russian pogroms, according to historian Robert F. Wesser writing in the journal “New York History.”
Sulzer first tried to run for governor as a Democrat in 1896. He was well-liked by his constituents and was a “spellbinder” of a public speaker, according to one of his Tammany Hall mentors, but none of that mattered. There were no open primaries then, and the Democratic candidate was chosen by Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy. Murphy tapped someone else in 1896, and then again in 1898, 1900, 1902 … you get the picture.
In those years, Sulzer, perhaps annoyed by having his career stifled, built up a good relationship with the so-called Independent Democrats, who weren’t part of Tammany Hall and largely lived upstate. Which of course, further convinced Murphy not to choose him.
In the 1912 election, the Republican Party was going through some internal drama of its own, meaning whomever the Democrats nominated was likely to win. And since Sulzer had a broad appeal and a growing national profile, Murphy finally supported him. He sailed to victory that November.
During his inaugural speech in January 1913, he had a surprise: “No influence controls me but the dictates of my conscience and the determination to do my duty,” he said pointedly. Sulzer had decided to take on Tammany Hall.
He soon renamed the executive mansion in Albany the “People’s House,” appointed who he wanted to for his administration and urged the legislature to investigate the executive branch — his branch — to root out corruption. Had government contracts been awarded fairly? Were there state workers collecting paychecks for nonexistent jobs? He wanted to know.
He could also be “tyrannical,” Wasser wrote, firing people capriciously and accusing the legislature of working against him. And often, some critics said, his anti-Tammany bark was bigger than his bite.
“I am the Democratic leader of the State of New York,” he told the media. “If any Democrat wants to challenge that leadership, let him come out in the open and the people will decide.”
Three months in, he pushed his biggest reform: replacing party nominating conventions with open, direct primaries. It was a blunt provocation to Murphy, who had been quietly controlling things for decades.
When the legislature dragged their heels on the measure, Sulzer called a special session, forcing them to take it up. Publicly, he called Tammany-aligned legislators colourful names; privately, he threatened to stop state-funded projects in their districts. His tactics turned many legislators against him, and they voted down the measure.
Then they started investigating Sulzer. By August, they had discovered a “web of wrongdoing and chicanery,” Wasser wrote, including fake graft investigations, attempts to influence the stock market and campaign funds being transferred to his private account.
As newspapers increasingly called on Sulzer to resign, the state assembly impeached him.
At the ensuing trial, he hardly defended himself, sitting silently in the state senate chamber as the evidence piled up. On Oct. 17, 1913, he was convicted on three of the eight counts in a bipartisan vote and removed from office. He had been governor for less than 10 months.
As he left the governor’s mansion in Albany that evening, 10,000 supporters showed up in a “public demonstration of affection and esteem,” his lawyer later wrote.
He thanked the crowd, blamed the “Murphy High Court,” recited some poetry (“Invictus.” Yes, really.) and promised them that time would vindicate him.
So far, it hasn’t. After an attempted comeback failed, he practiced law in New York City until his death in 1941.