The story of NY’s only gubernatorial impeachment

The 39th Governor of New York, William Sulzer
The 39th Governor of New York, William Sulzer
American Press Association, New York, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The 39th Governor of New York, William Sulzer

The story of NY’s only gubernatorial impeachment

With impeachment of Gov. Andrew Cuomo being discussed, it’s worth revisiting the only time it’s been used on a governor.
March 3, 2021

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1913, just as the sun began to set over the New York state Capitol Building in Albany, the High Court of Impeachment gathered to decide the fate of then-Gov. William Sulzer.

After a 21-day trial featuring hundreds of hours of testimony, the clerk read each article and presiding judge, Edgar M. Cullen, Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals, asked the jury, composed of the state Senate and the justices of the New York Court of Appeals, “How say you, is the respondent guilty or not guilty?”

Just 11 months earlier, Sulzer had been elected governor in a landslide, putting Democrats in control of both chambers of the Legislature.

With everyone from Republican elected officials to Democratic state legislators and members of Congress calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be impeached over his handling of nursing homes in the COVID-19 pandemic and recent allegations of sexual harassment from two former employees, it is useful to look back at the only impeachment of a governor in New York’s colorful and interesting history.

The roots of Sulzer’s impeachment began in 1912, an extraordinary year in politics. President William Howard Taft was running against his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt. In Roosevelt’s home state of New York, the Progressive Party nominated Oscar Straus, TR’s former secretary of Commerce and Labor. Republicans nominated a corporate lawyer, Job E. Hedges. What would the Democrats do?

As I describe him in my book, Bitten By the Tiger: “Sulzer was a tall man with sandy-colored hair, whose lanky frame and controlled movements gave him the air of a trained athlete. He dominated rooms with an intense gaze and his piercing blue eyes. Sulzer’s eyes led constituents to believe in his deep sincerity, but they could also flash with anger and turn into cold hard steel, intimidating opponents.”

Sulzer had gone from the Tammany Hall political clubhouse in Manhattan to Assembly Member (and one-term Assembly Speaker) to member of Congress. In Albany, he played a role in ending imprisonment for debt, creating a prevailing wage regulation, abolishing corporal punishment in prisons, establishing the New York City Public Library, and, ironically, for the punishment of corrupt election practices. In Washington, D.C. he authored 25 bills that became law. Some were symbolic: acts to raise the battleship “Maine” and light the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Other legislation was more substantial: raising the pay of letter carriers, creating postal savings banks, creating the Bureau of Corporations (important in enforcing antitrust laws) and creating the U.S. Department of Labor.

He was inaugurated as New York’s 39th governor on Jan. 1, 1913. Instead of the customary military procession, “Plain Bill” walked alone from the Executive Mansion to the Capitol. Shouts of “hurrah!” echoed as the crowd grew frenzied.

Yet Sulzer’s ambition, like many New York governors before and after, was to be president. He had watched as Woodrow Wilson had blazed a trail to the White House, in large part on his record as a reformer, specifically one who took on New Jersey’s corrupt political machines.

New York’s political machines were alive and well in New York in 1913. The most powerful was Tammany Hall and its boss, “Silent” Charles Francis Murphy.

As soon as he was inaugurated, Sulzer declared his independence from Boss Murphy, cutting off patronage appointments and freezing out Tammany Hall. It was not all good government: Sulzer began filling patronage positions with men who would be loyal to him personally. More than just trying to defang Tammany, the governor was building a Sulzer Machine. One of the biggest points of contention was control of the state highways. At stake was the sum of $50 million, approved as a bond issue the previous year. It was a staggering sum in 1913 and enough to make some people very rich, especially Charlie Murphy, a silent partner in a highway contracting company.

Of course, the fight was not all one sided. Tammany was able to fight back. Before adjourning, the Legislature had created a committee to investigate “the various State departments.” The Frawley Committee, as it came to be called, conducted private and public hearings. Their immediate focus was Sulzer’s 1912 campaign committee. New York’s Corrupt Practices Act provided that all candidates for statewide offices had to sign a sworn statement detailing their campaign contributions and spending.

Through six weeks of hearings, the Frawley Committee heard damaging testimony showing that the governor’s signed statement was false, that Sulzer had raised significantly more money than he had reported, and that he had used that money to speculate on the stock market under various “secret” trading accounts.

A crowd eight-deep gathered on a hot, sweaty August night when the Assembly convened a few minutes after 10:00 PM to consider the Frawley report. The floor of the Legislature was a battleground: the vote was 79 in favor – three more than necessary for impeachment – with seven GOP members voting with 72 Democrats to impeach. There were 45 votes against impeachment, including Republicans who saw this as an intramural fight and did not want to be drawn in and the four Progressive members who supported Sulzer’s reforms.

William Sulzer, governor of New York, had been impeached for “willful and corrupt conduct in office, and high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The eight articles of impeachment were expansive, but the three key counts charged Sulzer with making and filing a false statement on his campaign accounts, perjury in verifying this statement, and suppressing evidence by threats.

The High Court of Impeachment then tried the governor, per the state constitution. A stream of witnesses testified, revealing manycampaigncontributions – from bankers, liquor dealers, brewers, and politicians – had not been reported on Sulzer’s 1912 campaign finance report.There were political reasons for Sulzer, who presented himself as a “man of the people” to conceal these contributions. Thirty-nine donors testified. Only four had been reported. They also detailed tens of thousands of dollars in unreported checks and cash. As one of the impeachmentmanagers noted, “I concede that the failure to report one contribution might be an accident; the failure to report two contributions might be a coincidence; the failure to report a hundred is a crime.”

The biggest surprise of the trial was not whathappened in the court but what did not happen: Sulzer never showed up, nor did he attempt to tell his side of the story, at least under oath. His silence allowed public opinion to shift against him, and he was found guilty by a two-thirds vote on the three main charges. A further vote of 43 to 14 removed him from office that day.

Significantly, some of the judges and several Republican senators declined to vote to prevent Sulzer from holding office in the future. Later in 1913, he would win a race for Assembly and return to Albany but that triumph was short-lived and he soon faded from the political scene.

Underlying the trial was the crime for which Sulzer was really punished: disloyalty to Tammany Hall. If one of the most important skills in politics is the ability to count votes, Sulzer seemed too late to understand the threat majorities in both houses of the Legislature loyal to Charlie Murphy posed to Sulzer’s success as governor and, in fact, to his career.

Anyone with Sulzer’s experience in politics and knowledge of the Tammany organization should have known that Boss Murphy would not – perhaps could not – let Sulzer destroy his organization without a fight.

And fight they did. Faced with Sulzer’s threat to Tammany Hall’s political power, the machine responded with the most powerful political weapon at its disposal: impeachment.

The cry of impeachment has been heard often in the recent past: both former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi and ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned before the Legislature summoned the will to determine their fates. This week, impeachment has begun echoing through the Capitol, growing louder the last couple of days. What will the Legislature do? Here’s hoping a glimpse of the past helps inform the future.

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Jack O’Donnell
is Managing Partner of O’Donnell & Associates, a solutions focused government relations firm, a veteran Democratic strategist, and the author of Bitten by the Tiger: The True Story of Impeachment, the Governor, and Tammany Hall.
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