Earlier this month the Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, sat down in front of TV cameras in the executive chamber of the state capitol in Albany to deliver one of the most awkward messages of his decade in office.
By then three women had accused him of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Among them was Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development adviser who in a Medium post alleged that while they were on board an official flight he proposed a game of strip poker and, in a separate incident, forced a kiss on her.
Given the uproar, Cuomo, 63, managed to remain remarkably composed. He struck a posture that could be described as contrite aggression, or aggressive contrition.
Speaking slowly and emphatically, as though addressing a class of pre-schoolers, he apologized while denying he had done anything wrong.
“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” he said, adding: “I never touched anyone inappropriately.”
To drive the point home, he repeated the phrase. “I never touched anyone inappropriately”.
The remark was intended to buy time, shoring up a crumbling political position while an independent investigation by the state attorney general, Letitia James, ran its course. It was not intended to deepen Cuomo’s travails by triggering a traumatic reaction in another alleged victim who happened to be standing a few feet away.
The Cuomo staff member was dutifully listening when he punched out that line about never having “touched anyone inappropriately”. According to the Albany Times Union, she grew emotional, later telling a supervisor he had done precisely that to her.
The female staffer said Cuomo had summoned her to the second floor of the executive mansion – his private quarters – supposedly to help him fix his phone. Then he shut the door, and in the Times Union’s account “allegedly reached under her blouse and began to fondle her”.
The allegation of aggressive groping took the maelstrom surrounding Cuomo to a new level. What began as a dispute over the apparent cover-up of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and escalated with claims of bullying against a fellow Democrat, Ron Kim, exploded into a fully-fledged sexual harassment scandal involving seven women.
The bush fires Cuomo is fighting have gained a momentum of their own, with a new revelation or political setback seemingly erupting with every hour that passes. Renowned for having an iron grip on his own political narrative – to the extent that last year he wrote a book heaping praise on himself for his handling of the Covid crisis, subtitled Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic – Cuomo is looking increasingly impotent as he watches his image unravel in what is fast becoming a fall from grace of legendary proportions.
“The governor is fighting day to day right now,” said John Kaehny, executive director of a watchdog group, Reinvent Albany. “He’s looking terminally afflicted with scandal – he’s going down.”
On Friday, several of the most prominent Democrats on the New York stage, including US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the House judiciary committee, called for Cuomo to go. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand followed, joining a growing army of Democrats demanding the governor’s head, notably 59 state lawmakers who the day before signed a joint letter calling on him to “put the people of New York first”.
William Sulzer in 1913. It is not an idle threat. The judiciary committee of the state assembly has already opened an inquiry into the sexual harassment allegations that is the initial step towards impeachment.
‘We need to be unwavering in our values’
Jessica González-Rojas, a Democratic assembly member representing parts of Queens and one of the 59 calling for resignation, said she was now going further and pressing for impeachment. It didn’t matter that Cuomo was a leader from her own party, she said. What mattered was accountability.
“We need to be unwavering in our values and hold on to those standards for anyone, no matter their political affiliations,” she said. “Enough is enough – we must stop being distracted by the misogynist behaviour and abuses of power of this governor.”
González-Rojas said she saw a strong common threat connecting the scandals battering Cuomo. To her, they all flow from the same source: his abusive wielding of power and the toxic and cruel culture that has proliferated around him in Albany.
“What we’re seeing here is a pattern of overarching behaviour that for years has been accepted by New Yorkers because they saw it as strength. But as we peel back its layers we can see it more clearly as deeply undemocratic and morally repugnant, and we are starting to hold him accountable.”
For González-Rojas, Cuomo’s misogyny was evident even in the mantra he championed during the devastating early days of the pandemic when New York was at the core of the crisis: “New York tough”.
“There are ways to lead,” she said, “that are about being compassionate, vulnerable, as opposed to the tough-guy image he puts forward.”
That tough-guy image continues to prevail, remarkably so given the opprobrium Cuomo is facing. In his responses to his female accusers, he has belittled one woman as a “known antagonist” and accused others of peddling falsehoods. In the case of Boylan, questions are being asked about who leaked damaging details from her personnel file.
On Friday, Cuomo maintained his pugnacious profile when he repeated his determination not to resign, insisting “I never harassed anyone, I never abused anyone, I never assaulted anyone, and I never would”. Throwing down the gauntlet to the growing band of Democrats turning on him, he cast their call for his resignation as an act of “cancel culture” and said: “I was not elected by politicians, I was elected by the people.”
But his bombast belies the fact that his hold on power looks increasingly weak as he is whiplashed by so many crises. Paradoxically, the scandal that could prove to be most perilous legally is the one receiving least attention – the nursing homes furor.
revelation – admitted in part by his top aide Melissa DeRosa to state lawmakers – that the administration suppressed the number of nursing home deaths by several thousand in order to avoid a federal inquiry. DeRosa claimed the move was made to avoid Donald Trump tying them up in knots, but it sounded suspiciously like a cover-up.
‘We have a duty to remove him’
The nursing home crisis sparked a federal investigation that could haunt Cuomo for months or years. But it was not until the storm turned more personal, with details emerging of his bullying behavior, that his stumble turned into free-fall.
It came in February from an unlikely party – the relatively unknown state lawmaker Kim, who told the New York Post that after he spoke out about nursing home deaths he received a call from Cuomo. According to Kim, the governor threatened him.
“You have not seen my wrath … I can tell the whole world what a bad person you are and you will be finished. You will be destroyed,” he said, according to Kim. Cuomo denied the account.
In an interview with NPR on Friday, Kim said the call was part of “a pattern of ‘[Cuomo] abusing his position of power”. The lawmaker added his voice to the calls for impeachment, saying: “We have a duty to remove him.”
Kim’s action in going public opened the floodgates. Since then a host of politicians, employees and reporters have lined up to add their own strikingly similar stories about the toxic culture Cuomo has nurtured around him. Among those emboldened individuals was Lindsey Boylan – and in her wake the six other women who came forward with reports of inappropriate sexual conduct.
The fate of the man lauded as recently as a year ago as “America’s governor” is rapidly taking on a significance greater than his own political future. Many see it as the next big test of the MeToo movement.
“This is a defining moment for survivor justice,” said Shaunna Thomas, a co-founder of the progressive women’s group UltraViolet. “We need to send a very clear signal – that harassment and abuse in the workplace must have consequences, and that includes not being governor of New York state.”