For years, it’s been common knowledge that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a vindictive bully. But only now have allegations of sexual harassment come out, and, as is so often the case, a first allegation quickly spurred more women to come forward. We’re now at the “this is a pattern, and there are probably more women out there, but how many?” stage of the story.
Cuomo is currently facing an investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James and increasing calls to resign or, at a minimum, not run for reelection to a fourth term after three women have accused him of sexual harassment. The first two women, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, were aides to Cuomo, while the third, Anna Ruch, met him briefly at a wedding.
Ruch told The New York Times that within moments of being introduced to Cuomo, he put his hand on her lower back. When she physically removed his hand, he referred to her as “aggressive” and put his hands on her face—there’s a picture of this moment—and asked if he could kiss her. He then kissed her on the cheek as she tried to physically pull away.
Boylan described pervasive harassment from Cuomo, with some of his aides enabling it by tracking what meetings and events she would attend. “I had complained to friends that the Governor would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs,” Boylan wrote at Medium. But “I didn’t truly fear him until December 2016,” when he had her called out of a holiday celebration to meet with him alone. In 2018, she initially turned down a promotion because she feared it would put her in more contact with Cuomo, then accepted it with a series of conditions intended to preserve distance between them. Then, after a one-on-one briefing in Cuomo’s New York City office, “As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips.”
Bennett, who is nearly 30 years Cuomo’s junior and played middle school soccer against his daughter, recounted him repeatedly asking her about her dating life in a way she found inappropriate but could interpret “more as a father figure.” Then, when she mentioned a speech she would be giving as a sexual assault survivor, the relationship shifted: “The way he was repeating, ‘You were raped and abused and attacked and assaulted and betrayed,’ over and over again while looking me directly in the eyes was something out of a horror movie,” she texted a friend. “It was like he was testing me.”
Three weeks later, the Times reports, “the governor also started to ask questions about her personal life, including whether she was romantically involved, whether she was monogamous in her relationships and whether she had ever had sex with older men.” Bennett got the message: “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared. And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”
She reported the incident to Cuomo’s chief of staff days later and was transferred to a job where she wouldn’t have to have contact with him. Ultimately, though, she left state government, because: “His presence was suffocating.”
Each of the women’s accounts deserves full attention. Boylan and Bennett show that Cuomo had a pattern of harassing women in the workplace; Ruch shows that he didn’t restrict his abusive behavior to the workplace. Whether under his authority on the job for a long period of time or meeting him only briefly in a social setting, women have not been safe from Cuomo. As we’re often reminded, sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t really about sex, they’re about power. In Cuomo’s case, the same impulse that leads him to bully people in nonsexual ways is at play in these women’s accounts. And frankly, it’s in significant part that tendency to power plays and displays of dominance that elevated him early in the pandemic—too many people seized on him as an alternative to Trump because he exhibited much of the same bullying style of masculinity, but turned it to taking COVID-19 seriously rather than dismissing it. (That fact also got him a pass from too many people on his concrete failures in managing the pandemic.)
On Sunday, Cuomo responded to the first two allegations with a statement containing a textbook set of dodges: People misinterpreted his joking around, he “never intended to offend,” he wanted to “to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.” But now, now, ”I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.” He went on to deny any unwanted touching.
In line with the strategy of evasion in his statement, Cuomo initially tried to set up an investigation that would not be truly independent, but was ultimately pressured into allowing James to launch an investigation. Meanwhile, calls for his resignation are growing.
“The pattern of sexual harassment and predatory behavior by Governor Cuomo is unacceptable, and I believe the women coming forward,” New York City Councilman Antonio Reynoso tweeted. “Governor Cuomo must resign.”
”The time has come,” Rep. Kathleen Rice tweeted. “The Governor must resign.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has stopped short—so far—of calling for Cuomo to resign, but did call for him to cede the emergency powers he has held through the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo clearly thinks he can ride this one out. The big questions now are whether New York power players will allow him to do so, how many more women will come forward with stories of harassment by Cuomo, and what James’ investigation will turn up.