New York Democrats have called for the governor to resign over sexual harassment allegations, but no national figures have joined the chorus
Flannery Amdahl’s memories of working for Andrew Cuomo are sharply at odds with the rock-star status the New York governor enjoyed last year.
“People talked all the time about how he would yell and berate and belittle people,” says Amdahl, 37, who describes the governor’s office as the most toxic and abusive place she has ever worked.
“His staff members copied that behaviour and so I felt like I was treated that way by my supervisor. I think it was rampant and well-known: everybody in Albany talks about how nasty the chamber is.”
As Cuomo goes from hero to zero, such complaints are just the tip of the iceberg. He stands accused of covering up the number of coronavirus deaths in state nursing homes. Amdahl, a former labour policy adviser, believes he should resign for this alone. But it is the other scandal consuming the three-term governor that offers particularly treacherous ground for national Democrats.
Four women have come forward to accuse Cuomo, 63, of sexual harassment. Charlotte Bennett, 25, a former aide, told CBS that during a one-on-one meeting last June, Cuomo’s questions led her to conclude that “the governor’s trying to sleep with me”.
Another former aide, 35-year-old Ana Lis, made allegations on Saturday night, telling the Wall Street Journal Cuomo “asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back … and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk”.
Before Lis came forward, Cuomo apologised for comments that made any of the women uncomfortable while denying inappropriate touching. Although an independent investigation is under way, he is facing calls to resign from the congresswomen Kathleen Rice, a Democrat, and Elise Stefanik, a Republican, as well as Democratic state officials.
But no other national Democrats have joined the chorus. The Axios website branded it the party’s “hypocrisy moment”, arguing: “Governor Andrew Cuomo should be facing explicit calls to resign from President Biden on down, if you apply the standard that Democrats set for similar allegations against Republicans. And it’s not a close call.”
The charge of double standards points to a steep learning curve for a party that has struggled to keep pace with shifting public attitudes towards gender roles, power dynamics and sexual boundaries.
Its hierarchy defendedBill Clinton over his inappropriate relationship with the young intern Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s. But in 2017, as the #MeToo movement held powerful men accountable, Kirsten Gillibrand, a senator who holds Hillary Clinton’s former seat in New York, argued that the former president should have resigned over the affair.
That same year, Gillibrand became the first Democratic senator to call for her Minnesota colleague Al Franken to quit over allegations of sexual misconduct. She was joined by others including Kamala Harris, who tweeted: “Sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone and should not occur anywhere. I believe the best thing for Senator Franken to do is step down.”
Franken did just that, but some critics now believe that he was the victim of a rush to judgment and should have been allowed to wait for the results of an investigation.
This time, although Gillibrand said Cuomo’s alleged conduct was “completely unacceptable”, she stopped short of demanding he resign before the investigation is done. It is a stance shared by New York’s other senator, the majority leader Chuck Schumer, as well as Joe Biden and Harris, now vice-president.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Friday: “The vice-president’s view is that she believes all women should be treated with respect. Their voices should be heard. They should tell their story. There’s an independent investigation that is happening now, being overseen by the New York attorney general, and she certainly supports that. “
But this puts Democratic leaders out of step with groups such as Women’s March, which was born out of the January 2017 protests against Donald Trump, who faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment and was caught on tape boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.
Rachel O’Leary Carmona, the executive director of Women’s March, said: “Any man that makes women feel unsafe at work should resign. That’s our blanket position on workplace harassment.
“We share the view that there should be an independent investigation but Cuomo himself has not even denied many of the harassment allegations and, for us, it’s about behaviour that is disqualifying. It could be illegal, but it also could not be illegal.”
Carmona urged the governor to take responsibility for his actions.
“Cuomo needs to be the person who’s talking about this and the onus for his personal behaviour should not be on other people. However, the Democratic party does need to set the standard here because women have been so poorly served, certainly in the last four years, and of course before.”
Just as the instant deification then instant demonisation of Cuomo has left many crying out for nuance and complexity, so it can be said that no two cases of sexual harassment in politics are quite the same.
Sometimes allegations are decades old and from before the accused was in office. In Cuomo’s case they are far more recent, implying the governor ignored the lessons of #MeToo. Sometimes the claims related to inappropriate touching or comments. Others involve rape or other forms of violence.
In 2018 Eric Schneiderman, an attorney general of New York lauded as a liberal advocate of women’s rights, resigned after being accused of physically abusing four women. Cuomo was among those who were quick to call for him to step down.
Later that year, Trump’s nominee to the supreme court, Brett Kavanaugh, was nearly derailed by allegations from Dr Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her at a party when both were teenagers. Harris, then a member of the Senate judiciary committee, was praised by fellow Democrats for her grilling of the judge during a bitter political fight.
In 2019 several women accused Biden of making unwanted physical contact. For example Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman, recalled a 2014 encounter in which he touched her shoulders, leaned in to smell her hair and kissed the back of her head. He released a video message that promised: “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I get it.”
The parallels were unmissable this week when Cuomo, whom Anna Ruch alleges put his hands on her cheeks and asked to kiss her at a wedding in 2019, explained that he often greets people with a hug and kiss, a habit acquired from his father, the former governor Mario Cuomo.
“I understand sensitivities have changed,” he told reporters. “Behaviour has changed. I get it and I’m going to learn from it.”
Last year Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, alleged that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. He vehemently denied the claim, which remained unsubstantiated and faded from the election race. Biden picked a woman – Harris – as his running mate and often highlighted his work as lead sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act.
His destiny was very different from that of Franken, once tipped as a presidential contender.
Larry Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “In hindsight, a number of the Democrats in the Senate who had pushed him to step down later expressed regret. They realised they moved too quickly, they didn’t know enough and the punishment didn’t really fit what they later learnt to be the misbehaviour.”
Jacobs added: “There is a learning curve and it’s about both understanding what happened and not being intimidated by Republicans who refuse to play by the semblance of decency. Remember back to Kavanaugh? They wouldn’t even investigate it and instead you had [Senator] Lindsey Graham shouting at the committee.
“I don’t think the Republican party is in any position to be lecturing anyone about how to handle sexual harassment. They seem to have actually gotten real expertise on how to evade it.”
Cuomo, who was housing secretary under Bill Clinton and last year delivered Emmy award-winning Covid-19 briefings, was long known to New Yorkers for his bruising, pugilistic, old-school style. As he fights for his political life – if he does not resign, running for a fourth term may become untenable – activists hope wider lessons will be learned not only by politicians but wider society.
Emily May, the co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, a global movement to combat harassment, said: “As a society we need to move the conversation away from just looking at these high profile individuals who create harm and really start to look at the ways in which harm is part of the everyday water that we swim in.
“Just because we fire Andrew Cuomo and Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, that doesn’t alone solve the problem. The bigger problem is still there, which is that harassment is seen as an acceptable part of our culture. That’s why so many of these people in power are doing it. So yes, we need to respond and uproot harassment wherever it lies but we also need to keep our eye on the ball.”