Trigger warning: sexual assault
Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, had been considered a Democratic powerhouse for years. He began his career working on his father’s successful campaign for the same role, then serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration as well as Attorney General of New York. Apparent success as Governor led him to be rumoured as a contender for US Attorney General, if not for the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet before any of this materialised, Cuomo resigned in disgrace on 10 August 2021, following almost unanimous demands to do so from those he previously called supporters.
Over the last two years, Cuomo’s public opinion has experienced a tumultuous journey. In April 2020, while New York went into a state-wide lockdown, his Covid-19 briefings presented his no-nonsense demeanour as the perfect antidote to Donald Trump’s trivialisation of the virus. Hailed as heroic, by October, Cuomo had authored a book entitled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Though it was once a New York Times bestseller, hindsight has tarnished the book’s glow. Cuomo referred to the pandemic in past tense in the book, but by February 2021, New York had the highest hospitalisation rate in the country. Cuomo also compared himself to former New York Governor and eventual President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the benefit of hindsight, the book is very arguably an attempt on Cuomo’s part to use the improving circumstances to further his political goals.
Beyond the hubris that led to Cuomo’s early touting of victory over the pandemic, a deeper problem in his administration was uncovered in January 2021. Letitia James, New York Attorney General, exposed that the state’s health department had underreported the nursing home death toll from Covid-19 by up to 50%; not long after, a top Cuomo aide was recorded admitting this to lawmakers. The news received widespread bipartisan criticism, indicating how the Governor’s actions were indefensible; for the families of those in nursing homes, especially those who tragically died, the cover-up is an unacceptable travesty from an authority that is supposed to be trustworthy.
Withholding information and deliberately misleading the public betrays the expectation of the relationship between an elected official and their constituents, particularly in a time where trust in leadership is vital, such as the pandemic. An FBI investigation into the matter is ongoing, to reveal whether the actions of Cuomo and his team constitute a federal crime. Additionally, in April, investigations began into whether public resources were abused to develop and promote Cuomo’s book, prompting discussion that question whether Cuomo engaged in a pattern of corruption during his time as Governor.
Support began to crumble. Though he was previously famous for his domineering manner, renewed allegations of bullying came against Cuomo in February from Ron Kim, an assembly member from Queens, New York. Kim revealed to the New York Post that over a phone call Cuomo threatened to “destroy” him for his criticism of the handling of nursing homes and pressured him to withdraw his statements.
The Governor’s office responded by accusing Kim of lying about the interaction, and by referring to past allegations of his unethical behaviour: such direct attempts to discredit an assembly member for publicising Cuomo’s problematic temperament highlights the ruthless and problematic way in which Cuomo’s administration reacts to challenges. Kim’s words amplified existing allegations against Cuomo, and opened the floodgates for more to follow.
On December 13, 2020, Lindsey Boylan tweeted about the sexual harassment she had been subjected to during her time working in Cuomo’s administration, including the Governor comparing her to his ex-girlfriend and kissing her when they were alone. Her claims were largely ignored, in part due to complaints about her own behaviour which were leaked soon after she went public with her accusations. It appears that the damaged credibility of a victim can seriously influence the audience that the victim’s allegations can reach, as Boylan’s later attempt to tell her story was rejected by mainstream media outlets. Nevertheless, the attention brought by Kim, as well as an essay self-published by Boylan in February, prompted the testimony of other women who had experienced sexual harassment at the hands of Andrew Cuomo. There were now too many to dismiss or ignore.
Facing the beginnings of demands for his resignation, Cuomo authorised James, as state Attorney General, to carry out an investigation into the allegations. The report published on 3 August 2021 found that Cuomo had harassed eleven women, retaliated against Boylan, and tried to secretly collect information to use against the other women who had made allegations. For many of the victims, the fear of such retaliation had prevented them from previously pursuing official investigations; the atmosphere of the Governor’s office encouraged silence. It left victims vulnerable and accentuated the power of those who held it. The report described the Cuomo administration as a “toxic workplace”, and as “rife with fear and intimidation”, and its publication triggered impeachment proceedings to be organised by the state assembly.
It soon became clear that Cuomo had entirely lost the support of the Democratic Party: he faced calls to resign from President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and every Democratic member of Congress. And so, on 10 August, phrasing the decision as necessary to allow effective governing to resume, Cuomo resigned. Though he apologised to his accusers, he maintains that he has never crossed a line in his behaviour. Instead, Cuomo pointed fingers to “generational and cultural shifts that [he] just didn’t fully appreciate,” though much of his behaviour would have been inappropriate for the span of his professional life. The shift he refers to arguably only occurred due to the consequences that now exist for inappropriate actions; the #MeToo movement has given claims of sexual harassment in the workplace a larger platform, and equipped victims with heightened awareness that they do not have to suffer in silence.
The impact of the scandal is deepened when considered in the context of Cuomo’s earlier perception. He had been commended by leaders in the #MeToo movement for his strengthening of sexual harassment laws in 2019, demanded the resignations of politicians accused of sexual harassment, and had spoken in support of victims. However, his actions surrounding the allegations he himself faced revealed a vastly different side to Cuomo. His refusal to accept his own wrongdoing reveals that, despite appearances, the work of the #MeToo movement is still not complete. The fight against sexual harassment in the workplace environment requires those in power to understand that “generational and cultural shifts” have long since happened and must be appreciated. The alternative environment, where women did not need to be treated with respect, was never justifiable.
Andrew Cuomo and his administration’s actions violated multiple state and federal laws, prompting several criminal and civil investigations which continue despite his resignation, though the impeachment investigation has been suspended. The public reaction to the Cuomo scandal begs that even those with seemingly impervious power be held to the standards of professional behaviour.
Image: Diana Robinson via Flickr
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