There’s a frequently recurring narrative that plays out when a public figure is accused of sexual harassment: a chorus of defenders inevitably emerges to assert that the accused is actually a nice guy, historically respectful of women, and where applicable, has daughters who don’t appear to loathe him. Some of these defenders point out that the accused treated them well and never harassed them personally, as if that detracts from the credibility of the allegations.
When two former staffers accused New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, of sexual harassment in February, this ritual chorus of defenders was nowhere to be found. Few people raced to his side — in part because the usual lines of defense just don’t apply. Mr. Cuomo is not a nice guy, and he has mistreated so many people that the sexual harassment accusations seem like predictable transgressions in a litany of abuses stretching back years. (He does, however, have daughters, and they don’t appear to loathe him.)
The 165-page report issued Tuesday by the office of State Attorney General Letitia James cites a pattern of abuse that contributed to a toxic work environment in the governor’s office. Mr. Cuomo’s team has claimed that a pernicious work environment is just a feature of working in politics, a profession that is not particularly polite. But plenty of government employees will attest that no boss or colleague has ever in a professional setting invited them to play strip poker on a work trip, groped them or asked whether they have ever had sex with older men. Mr. Cuomo stands accused of doing all three. (He denies making inappropriate sexual advances.)
The governor has also been known to retaliate gleefully against people who get in his way, as he did against one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, trying to discredit her testimony and damage her professional reputation. His bottomless stamina for prosecuting his critics in this way creates an environment where other employees are afraid to hold him accountable, lest they find themselves on the receiving end of one of his aggressive payback campaigns.
All of these things have given people around Mr. Cuomo — and often, the general public — a sense that he operates like a macho Machiavelli who views other people as instruments for accumulating power and that he believes he is entitled to that power regardless of what the public thinks or wants. It is his political birthright, and public service appears to be a secondary consideration.
It’s unsurprising, then, that this sense of entitlement would extend to Mr. Cuomo’s treatment of women. Men who unapologetically harass women believe on some level that they are entitled to sexual attention from the women they harass. Instead, they offer mealy-mouthed statements that technically include the words “I’m sorry” but terminate in some variation of “that your feelings were hurt.”
“I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” Mr. Cuomo still maintains.
Perversely, his abrasiveness may have given him a sort of immunity to consequences until now, at least when it comes to his public image. Any time he exhibits terrible interpersonal behavior, it can be regarded as an intrinsic part of his personality. He’s established a reputation as a jerk who treats people badly, so people shrug when he proves, yet again, that he is a jerk who treats people badly. His behavior is normalized because it seems normal for Andrew Cuomo.
Mr. Cuomo himself reinforces this perception. When accused of bestowing an unwanted kiss upon a women at a wedding in 2019, he said, “You can find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people.” And “It is my way of greeting people,” as though the fact that he has always behaved this way excuses his actions. He will even point out that his father, one of his predecessors as governor, Mario Cuomo, did the same.
There’s a bit of grudging admiration in some circles for his tactics. Over his 10 years as governor, he has employed those tactics to get what he wants, from reportedly working to help Republicans maintain power in the State Senate to allegedly undermining an anticorruption commission his own office created once it became apparent that it was also scrutinizing groups with ties to him. There are people who have benefited from those victories. But being good at consolidating and buttressing power is not synonymous with good governance, and Mr. Cuomo’s strategic belligerence often masks his failures.
It’s also worth noting that some New Yorkers like the idea of a tough guy with sharp elbows in office because they conflate toughness with resiliency and sometimes fail to notice that what appears to be toughness may just be a lack of empathy. If the stereotype of New Yorkers is that they are all rude, brash, in-your-face personalities with New York City-size egos, Mr. Cuomo fits the bill.
Whether he’ll resign or risk impeachment remains to be seen. But for now, he remains defiant. Resigning would mean admitting that the power he has accumulated can be taken away as a consequence of his inappropriate behavior, a reality the governor appears to find inconceivable. It would also force him to acknowledge wrongdoing and possibly issue a real apology. And this tough guy may be too weak to own up to his failings.
Elizabeth Spiers is a Democratic digital strategist and the former editor in chief of The New York Observer.
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