The sexual harassment allegations against Governor Cuomo are both shocking and understandable at the same time. Women at the highest levels of government are not immune from the sexist pressures brought by powerful men, whose sense of immunity too often forces their victims into silence.
I do not know the details of those allegations, but no one is above the law and I salute Attorney General Leticia James for her insistence that her office is the only one that should be naming an independent investigator to delve into them.
It is discouraging that it took three tries for the governor to realize that for an investigator to be viewed as truly independent, it was important that neither he nor anyone he appointed should be tasked in part with choosing that person.
This is not a time for politics as usual. This is a baseline imperative by which we should assess how seriously our leaders accept that the old rules have changed. Women are equal partners in governing our state, our city and our nation, and no one should feel the kinds of pressures the brave women who have come forward have expressed they felt.
I have been in high level meetings, inside and outside government, where I was the only woman, let alone the only woman of color. I have felt the unspoken condescension of powerful men, and had to put aside any doubts they may have been trying to communicate to me. I refused to be cowed, and spoke my piece, but I have no doubt my sisters in similar situations felt similarly pressured while just trying to do our jobs and express our views.
And as I run for City Council from Upper Manhattan’s 7th District, I still shake my head at the reality that I would be the first woman to represent the district in City Hall. This is 2021, after all.
It is important to me that Attorney General James was so insistent on taking the lead role on this investigation. It is the same position that then-Attorney General Cuomo took toward investigating former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in what was called the Troopergate scandal involving overseeing state police surveillance of then Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.
The allegations about sexual harassment emerged the same day that Karen Hinton, a former top aide to both the governor and Mayor de Blasio, wrote about a culture of “penis politics” in Albany in which Cuomo would operate with a sense of power and entitlement that created a constantly toxic work environment. The targets were not only women in his employ, but legislators and reporters and others who dared to resist his political and, if the allegations are true, personal desires.
He is certainly not the only male leader to exercise that power in sexist ways, sometime overtly and sometimes more subtly but real nonetheless. And it is true that politics, at levels high and low, “ain’t beanbag,” as the saying goes. Sharp elbows and power politics go hand in hand.
But if the attorney general’s investigation finds the allegations from the women are true––and it is essential we believe them until proven otherwise––the governor’s actions fall far outside the bounds of propriety and acceptability.
Gov. Cuomo is also learning one of the hard lessons of power politics and life more generally––when someone perceived as a bully is knocked down, people are slow to help pick him up.
More importantly, if the attorney general’s investigation finds the allegations to be true, Gov. Cuomo must resign.
Stacy R. Lynch is running for NYC Council in the 7th District, which runs from the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights through West Harlem and into Washington Heights.