The Cuomo sexual harassment allegations are a test for Democrats

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Gov. Cuomo speaks while seated at a table, in front of the American flag and seal of New York State.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press briefing. | Getty Images

What happens next will show how seriously the party takes such allegations in a post-Trump era.

When the first woman came forward to report sexual harassment by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, prominent Democrats were relatively quiet.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), ordinarily a vocal advocate for survivors, said only that “anyone has a right to come forward to be heard,” before adding that “Governor Cuomo also has a right to be heard and he has come forward and has denied these allegations.”

But last week a second woman, Charlotte Bennett, reported that Cuomo had harassed her. The 25-year-old former aide told the New York Times that in spring 2020, with New York State still facing its first wave of Covid-19 infections, the 63-year-old governor began asking her inappropriate questions like whether she’d had sex with older men.

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” she said. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Cuomo denied the allegations but said that some of his comments might “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”

Then, on Monday, a third woman, Anna Ruch, stated publicly that Cuomo had made an unwanted advance toward her at a 2019 wedding (Cuomo has not yet responded specifically to this allegation). Now, prominent New York Democrats like Gillibrand, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called for an investigation. What happens next will show how Democrats handle sexual misconduct allegations against one of their own more than three years after the Me Too movement started making headlines, and just months after the departure of President Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women.

“This is absolutely a test for the Democrats,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Vox. “Do we hold elected officials on both sides of the aisle to the same standard?”

At the same time, Cuomo has had a bit of a roller-coaster year in terms of public opinion. His popularity rose in the spring thanks to his no-nonsense media briefings about the state’s Covid-19 numbers — a welcome counterpoint, for many, to Trump’s bizarre talk of injecting disinfectant. But Cuomo’s political star had already begun to fall before Bennett came forward, with some calling for his resignation over allegations that his administration covered up Covid-19 deaths in New York nursing homes.

At this point, Democrats may have little to lose by supporting an investigation into his behavior — or, at least, less to lose than if he were an important standard-bearer for the party in 2024 and beyond. In other words, if Cuomo is a test for Democrats, he’s unlikely to be the last one — or the hardest.

Lindsey Boylan reported harassment by Cuomo in December. Now more women are joining her.

The first report of harassment by Cuomo became public last December, when Lindsey Boylan, a former adviser to the governor and a candidate for Manhattan borough president, tweeted, “Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched.”

Boylan declined to speak to the press about her report at the time, and the governor’s office denied the allegation. But last Wednesday, Boylan published an essay on Medium offering more detail. In the essay, she says the governor subjected her to repeated inappropriate comments and behavior when she worked for him between 2016 and 2018, at one point planting an unwanted kiss on her lips.

Bennett tweeted in response to Boylan’s essay and later spoke to the Times in an account published last weekend. She says that Cuomo began harassing her last year, after she came to Albany to work on Covid-19 response. At one point, she told the Times, “He asked me if I believed if age made a difference in relationships and he also asked me in the same conversation if I had ever been with an older man.” Bennett ultimately left state government — and New York State entirely — and says her anger at Cuomo’s treatment led to her decision.

On Sunday, Cuomo issued a statement responding to questions about “some of my past interactions with people in the office.”

“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny,” the statement said. However, “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.” The governor also said that he supported an independent review of the allegations.

Then, in an interview published Monday, Ruch described meeting Cuomo at a wedding in 2019. After a seemingly normal conversation, she said, things took a turn when he put his hand on her bare back, then touched both her cheeks and asked if he could kiss her. The Times also published a photo, taken by a friend, of the encounter.

Cuomo has not yet responded specifically to Ruch’s accusation; in response to a request for comment from Vox, his office referred to the Sunday statement.

But even before Ruch came forward, prominent Democrats in New York had begun speaking up. After Bennett’s account became public, Gillibrand called for “an independent, transparent and swift investigation into these serious and deeply concerning allegations.” Ocasio-Cortez also called for an independent investigation, describing the allegations as “extremely serious and painful to read.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James is launching an investigation, according to the Times, and looking for an independent investigator to lead it. But at least one New York Democrat has called for more — on Monday, state Rep. Kathleen Rice became the first Democrat in the state legislature to say the governor should resign.

Others, so far, are reserving judgment. New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, for example, called for an investigation this week and seemed to advocate a wait-and-see approach.

“Sure we can cancel him, sure we can ask him to resign, sure we can demand that he resign and we move forward, but once we’ve canceled Gov. Cuomo, are we just creating, you know, this cycle?” she told the Times. “How can we do something other than cancel here to really get to the heart of creating a solution and the understanding and the humanity that it takes in a workplace environment to address this issue?”

What happens next will be a test of Democrats’ resolve

So far, there’s no indication Cuomo will resign. More likely, perhaps, is that Cuomo could choose not to run for reelection for a fourth term when his third is up in 2022.

But whatever happens, Cuomo is the first high-profile Democrat to face sexual misconduct allegations in the post-Trump era. Politicians on the left were quick to criticize Trump for his comments about being able to grab women “by the pussy,” as well as allegations that he assaulted, harassed, or otherwise violated multiple women over the course of his career. They also responded aggressively when Brett Kavanaugh, one of his nominees to the Supreme Court, was accused of sexual assault.

But Democrats have been more divided when it comes to allegations against members of their own party. When multiple women came forward in 2017 to report unwanted touching or kissing by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), several Democratic senators, including Gillibrand and then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), called on him to resign. But Gillibrand, in particular, later faced political blowback for the decision, with donors pulling back from her.

In 2020, when Tara Reade came forward to report that Joe Biden had sexually assaulted her in 1993, Democrats — including Gillibrand — largely defended him (a task made easier, perhaps, by the fact that Reade faced questions about her changing accounts of Biden’s actions as well as her previous writings on Russia).

Now Biden is president, Democrats control Congress, and Trump is no longer in the White House or on Twitter to remind Americans of the allegations against him. And what Democrats do about Cuomo will be, to some degree, a test of how seriously they take sexual harassment allegations in an era when they’re in power.

“It’s a lot easier when the accused is Donald Trump,” Walsh said. “But when the accused is someone as powerful as an Andrew Cuomo” — and a Democrat — “where will they be on this issue?”

There’s also the question of whether Democratic politicians — and ordinary Americans — are still committed to the ideals of Me Too. When the movement dominated mainstream discussion in 2017, sexual harassment and assault allegations against famous and powerful people made headlines multiple times a day. However, even new allegations about Trump last fall barely made waves as the country endured a pandemic and an election season in which the survival of American democracy was far from assured. And today, while the allegations seem to have hurt Cuomo’s approval rating — 48 percent of New Yorkers disapproved of his performance in a poll released this week, up from 38 percent before Bennett’s allegation became public — a slim majority of Democrats in the state still think he should serve a fourth term.

On the other hand, Cuomo was already damaged in the public eye when the most recent allegations came to light. After his spring boost in popularity (and the publication of a bestselling book on his Covid-19 response), he became embroiled in scandal last month over allegations that his administration covered up the full extent of Covid-19 deaths in New York nursing homes. He denied it, but some called on him to resign over the allegations — which came after he had already faced criticism for his administration’s policy of requiring nursing homes to admit Covid-19 patients, potentially putting residents at risk. Certainly any possibility of a presidential run — something floated by some after his performance in the spring — seemed closed.

Then there’s his personality. Cuomo may be powerful in New York politics, but he’s not known for being charismatic or charming. As Walsh put it, “people liked Al Franken” — they don’t necessarily like Cuomo. “You’re not hearing a big line of defense of folks saying, ‘this doesn’t fit who he is, this isn’t the man we know’” — because Cuomo has long been known as kind of a bully.

All this means Democrats may not pay a huge political price right now for recommending an investigation — and, depending on what that investigation finds, for going further and calling for a resignation.

But the allegations against Cuomo will be just one of many tests of Democrats’ values in the coming months and years. Another is shaping up in Virginia, where Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax is running this year to replace Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat whose term is ending. The second Black American to win statewide office in Virginia, the 42-year-old Fairfax has been seen as a rising star in his party and is coming up second in some primary polls, behind former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Fairfax has also been accused of sexual assault by two women. He has said the experiences were consensual, but the women have called for a legislative hearing on the matter, according to the Washington Post.

The Virginia Democratic primary will take place in June. To some degree, how the party handles Fairfax’s candidacy — and the women’s reports — may be a bigger test of its commitment to the values of the Me Too movement than what happens in New York.

Overall, though, Democrats will have to adjust to an era in which their politicians are the ones in the spotlight — and there’s no more Trump to distract from any misdeeds they may want to hide. As Walsh put it, “This is a moment of reckoning.”

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