Cuomo is the tip of the iceberg
Digging into New York's harassment and power problems
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The question is no longer whether New York lawmakers will take action against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Nearly all of the state’s Democratic legislators, along with the state’s US Senators and even President Joe Biden, have now called on Cuomo to resign in the wake of the explosive, novel-length report detailing his serial sexual predations. And if he refuses to leave, as is likely the case, there are enough state legislators on board to impeach and remove him from office.
The intrigue now turns to the charges the governor will wind up facing, the timetable for his impeachment and subsequent removal, how many Democrats will actually vote for that removal, and relatedly, what if anything will change in Albany, a city where Cuomo’s behavior was in some ways typical of men in power.
Cuomo still has nearly a week to submit evidence to an Assembly investigation that was launched this past winter to probe the governor’s various scandals, including the harassment allegations, his shady $5 million book deal, and the cover-up of his decision to expose tens of thousands of seniors in nursing homes to Covid and then grant immunity to nursing home operators. The investigation is supposed to wrap up on Friday, at which point the process will hinge on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s sense of urgency.
“The Judiciary Committee doesn't even plan on voting until the end of the month to see if they are going to bring articles of impeachment,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou tells me, “and then won’t even get to vote until Carl brings us back. When that happens is up to the Speaker.”
Niou is one of Cuomo’s fiercest and most outspoken critics, having called for the governor’s impeachment this winter as the scandals emerged into the public eye. She’s been frustrated with Albany’s slow process of disciplining Cuomo and enacting culture changes in the capitol altogether. Incidentally, Heastie is a Cuomo ally and has been accused by outside voices of slow-walking any consequences for the governor and protecting lawmakers known for improper behavior more generally.
“I personally felt like this process was a little odd, because there was already a report that was very significant on nursing home deaths that we should have moved on, it had a lot of evidence,” she says. “And this new report from the AG office, that's all evidence and lays out all different avenues. There are multiple impeachable offenses within both of these reports.”
She doesn’t pull punches when asked about how she felt reading the report, and as a victim of sexual assault herself, she offered even more forceful condemnation for the stupefying video that Cuomo released in response to the attorney general’s massive volume of allegations.
“When he spoke to Charlotte [Bennett], the way that he said her name, the way that he stared into that lens, I know what that feels like, because after my teacher sexually assaulted me, he came to me in the lunch line to ask me 'did that bother you?’” Niou remembers. “It’s a compulsion of predators to retrace and to continue their abuse. They love it and it's to make somebody remember the harm that was caused to them because they get off on it.”
A Cultural Problem
A progressive Democrat who represents downtown Manhattan, Niou began her career in Albany as an aide and legislative chief of staff, a period through she says she suffered silently amidst relentless sexual harassment and groping. Her experience was nothing out of the ordinary in a town said to be ruled by “three men in a room,” and Niou, alongside fellow lawmakers such as State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, has spent the past few years waging a public fight to cleanse the capital of its abusive elements.
They’ve been joined by the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an organization comprised of former legislative aides who either experienced or reported sexual misconduct in Albany. Erica Vladimer, one of the organization’s most outspoken members, is not convinced that every Democratic leader wants to vote to oust Cuomo, both out of fear that he might retaliate should he somehow retain power as well as a larger systemic disinterest in change.
“There was definitely a lot of resistance [to her group’s recommendations], even internally in the legislature, and a big part of that is because they would have to essentially admit to what this the institution allowed to happen,” Vladimer says. “It’s this fear of accountability, accountability that should have always existed. That's how they're able to silo the power and abuse it perpetually, and so by admitting their wrongdoing and limiting what they allowed to do, they're essentially giving up their power.”
When the Sexual Harassment Working Group was just starting, Heastie rushed to start his own group in the Assembly called the Workgroup on Sexual Harassment. He appointed its members, who went on to do little if any work on the issue. The independent Working Group won the first legislative hearings in Albany on sexual harassment in nearly 30 years, but none of their public victories, high-profile features, or private overtures were enough to earn a single meeting with the Assembly iteration. This May, Heastie’s staff met once with the Working Group, but “they were very dismissive,” Vladimer says.
Niou was not invited to join the Workgroup, nor was she able to influence its policy proposals. The legislative agenda, Vladimer tells me, was sent to Working Group members just minutes before the meeting, while the meeting, which produced little of note, was cited in a press release put out by Heastie’s office hailing the expansion of the inert group. Unlike the State Senate, which passed a number of landmark bills on harassment, the Assembly didn’t move on any of them.
A former aide filed charges in Albany against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday, alleging that the embattled state leader repeatedly harassed and groped her in the executive mansion. The allegations underscore the need not just to dethrone Cuomo, but to also plug a legal loophole that made legislation that they did pass less effective in the capitol.
SB 6577, enacted in April 2019, significantly strengthened protections against sexual harassment, including in the workplace. Those protections also created liabilities for their employer, but at the time, federal law did not consider people working for legislators at the capitol in Albany state employees for these purposes. The technicality meant that there the state could not be held liable for harassment or misconduct, which made it far more difficult for any victim to pursue a lawsuit.
Niou and State Sen. Andrew Gounardes proposed legislation to close the loophole in the fall of 2019 and the Working Group officially backed it months later, but it has not seen any real movement since. Figuring out why does not require a very dynamic imagination.
The attorney general’s report on Cuomo’s serial predation has revived the bill, at least as an important talking point until it can be passed when the next session begins. Niou has already drafted articles of impeachment that cover a broad spectrum of Cuomo’s scandals, and though she doesn’t think the Judicial Committee will use her version, she’s continuing to apply pressure to expedite any and all changes possible.
Near the top of her list is achieving fair pay for staffers, whose salaries are determined now by the seniority of the legislator for whom they work. That forces people to choose between continuing to work for their abusers or take a significant cut to their livelihoods, thereby punishing victims. It’s an abusive system in an abusive city. The first step to detoxifying the place is removing the governor from office.
“I think that this would fix one piece of the puzzle — it doesn't change everything, but it actually gives some recourse,” Niou says. “People were just trying to do their jobs and I think that was one of the biggest takeaways from this report. People were just trying to work. Why is it that when we go to work, we can't get into an elevator without getting our ass grabbed? Why is it that when we go to work, we can’t sit at a desk and not have people checking us out because we were on a hot or not list? That actually happened to me.”
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