By Karen Tumulty
It is starting to look as if the question will soon be not if but when New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will be forced to resign. The New York Times has published a blockbuster story in which a second former aide to the governor has accused him of making unwanted sexual overtures. The account given to the paper by Charlotte Bennett, 25, is devastating and thoroughly corroborated.
The governor is not contesting her account, though he claimed he intended the things he said to Bennett to be playful and joking.
“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,” he said in a statement issued Sunday evening.
All of this comes as Cuomo, who only a few months ago was lauded as “America’s governor” for his bravura public performance during the coronavirus pandemic, is being beset by a scandal trifecta. In addition to credible accusations of sexual harassment, Cuomo faces federal probes into whether he hid the covid-19 death toll in New York nursing homes, and fresh attention to his abusive leadership style.
Bennett, who worked as a briefer and executive assistant to the governor, did everything by the book after she became uneasy about questions she said Cuomo asked her last spring about her personal life, including whether she was monogamous and whether she had ever had sex with older men. Cuomo is 63, and Bennett alleges he told her “he’s fine with anyone above the age of 22.” She reported what had happened and her discomfort about it to Cuomo’s chief of staff and special counsel. She accepted a transfer to another job within the administration where she would not have as much personal contact with the governor, but ultimately she left state government because she found Cuomo’s presence “suffocating.”
Her accusations — corroborated by texts and by others, including her mother, who say she told them about her interactions with the governor shortly after they happened — follow those of former state economic development official Lindsey Boylan, who alleges that Cuomo harassed her on multiple occasions and once planted an unwanted kiss on her lips. Cuomo denies that happened.
The governor, who until all of this began unraveling was seen as one of his party’s top presidential prospects for 2024, is up for reelection next year and may seek to move past all of this by declaring he will not run again. But I doubt that will be enough.
The Times said when it informed Cuomo about Bennett’s allegations, he praised her as a “hard-working and valued member” of his staff with “every right to speak out.” But he also said New Yorkers should withhold judgment of his behavior until an “independent review” of the matter is completed. But it is fair to wonder how truly independent this investigation will be if Cuomo were allowed to decide who will conduct it, as he originally planned. He has since backed off and asked New York Attorney General Letitia James and Janet DiFiore, chief judge on the state’s highest court, to select someone.
Calls for his resignation are now growing in New York, though more prominent voices, especially feminist ones, held their fire after the first accuser surfaced. New York’s own Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) led the charge for her colleague Al Franken of Minnesota to be forced out of the Senate when he confronted sexual harassment allegations. But she sounded surprisingly incurious about the merits of Boylan’s accusations.
“I have not read her allegations or her post, her Medium post,” Gillibrand told reporters Thursday, the day after Boylan wrote her account on that platform. “But as I said, everyone has a right to be able to come forward, speak their truth, and be heard. And that’s true for her and that’s also true for Gov. Cuomo.”
On Sunday, after the report of a second accuser, Gillibrand put out a statement that said: “There must be an independent, transparent and swift investigation into these serious and deeply concerning allegations.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also tweeted Sunday: “Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett’s detailed accounts of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo are extremely serious and painful to read. There must be an independent investigation — not one led by an individual selected by the Governor, but by the office of the Attorney General.”
They are absolutely right, though there will no doubt be a round of whataboutism if the allegations are borne out. Democrats will point out that Donald Trump was elected and survived in office despite being accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women.
For Democrats, there will likely be conflicting impulses when it comes to how quickly and decisively to move. As the #MeToo era dawned, many began to regret having stood by then-President Bill Clinton when he was found to have had an illicit affair with an intern. Gillibrand said the “appropriate response” would have been to demand his resignation. On the other hand, the general consensus among Democrats is that they acted too precipitously against Franken.
The right thing to do is simple: Look at the evidence, not the politics. If there is a scant upside to all of this, it might be that it suggests that women themselves no longer believe that such behavior by powerful men should be tolerated. What is depressing, however, is that the message has not gotten through to too many of the men themselves.