Today, just hours before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo held an obscene press conference to read covid statistics and call his former employees politically motivated liars, a pair of stories provided some of the most detailed accounts of his office’s culture to date. In interviews with 40-odd people who have worked for the governor over the years, reporters at New York Magazine and the New York Times describe a tangle of offenses in a political scene described as “a seedy adult summer camp,” where employees of all genders are bullied and belittled and women are recruited to sit around and look hot.
The stories that have emerged since an initial February disclosure are tricky precisely because of how varied they are; when not presented in aggregate the allegations can appear almost subtle. As Rebecca Traister notes, over the last three years “we have been conditioned to draw bright lines around certain inarguably bad actions.” I’d add that since Harvey Weinstein was exposed, the horrific example he set (coupled with reporters’ and their lawyers ‘desires to present clear-cut patterns of offense) has imposed a peculiar burden of proof on stories about misogyny and harassment: Misconduct is most often rendered as a powerful man doing the exact same awful thing in secret, over and over again.
That’s not the case with Andrew Cuomo, in part because he so clearly personifies the kind of pushy and bombastic asshole who would insist his office be staffed with beautiful young women, and in part because his problems as described are so wide-ranging. We have Andrew Cuomo joking to a female reporter about “eating the whole sausage” and forcing another to take a photo with him, hand on her waist. We have an anonymous account of Andrew Cuomo allegedly groping a colleague, and a story published on Medium about a forced kiss. We have women saying Cuomo “joked” with them about dating older men or asked inappropriate personal questions, that he preferred to hire and develop close relationships with aides who were “tall, thin, and blonde,” that it was well-known who he found attractive in the office.
We have him calling his female staffers nicknames like “Sparky” or “sweetheart” and encouraging a work environment in which people were harassed and belittled by their superiors, some of them women themselves. We have an unofficial dress code of high heels and luxury fashion that, if broken, would inspire the governor of New York to call an employee a “lumberjack.” And, as was prominently discussed in Traister’s piece, we have Cuomo repeatedly calling in women he’d met only briefly to take jobs they couldn’t refuse, jobs where they would then be either ignored or screamed at over minor slights. As one former employee, Kaitlin, recounted after meeting the governor at a party:
When Kaitlin turned to several of her former supervisors and mentors for advice, they repeated the same, explaining that, professionally, she had no choice but to go to the interview and take the job he offered her.
“We all knew that this was only because of what I looked like,” said Kaitlin. “Why else would you ask someone to come in two days after you had a two-minute interaction at a party?”
At its most vile, this looks a lot like the governor collecting women he finds attractive—or politically advantageous—and locking them into situations where their choices are to be admired or dominated. As one Black woman who briefly worked in his office said, “you don’t intend to incorporate me into government. You just like to show me to people.”
A curious theme in both the New York Times and New York magazine stories is that the people who experienced this behavior didn’t, or still don’t, consider what they experienced sexual harassment. Even after all this time, people don’t tend to think of having their gender used as a weapon to shame them as workplace misconduct. And in the weeks and months that come, these episodes will be rendered by many as the thin-skinned ramblings of damaged goods or snowflakes. It’s inevitable. Cuomo hasn’t hidden who he is, they’ll say. It’s old-fashioned politics. This is the way Albany works. These are demanding jobs.
But Traister’s report, in particular, did a phenomenal job of describing the millions of interactions that indicate to a woman she’s a girl first and a professional secondarily, if at all, something that’s monumentally hard to describe but, when you experience it, becomes a tangible and omnipresent weight.
I had a boss like that once. I sensed we got along in large part because I was a woman, and at that point very young. He once told me he had minor crushes on a number of our female colleagues, myself included, and when I finally quit because I was overqualified and underpaid he told me I was throwing my entire career away. Of course he couldn’t end my career; he was just another boss. But Andrew Cuomo is a wildly influential bully of a governor who, in addition to more serious allegations, appears to be running his office as a one-man failure of a Bechdel test. It would’ve been correct to believe what he was telling us all along.