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The scandals in the New York governor’s office have exploded. One sexual harassment allegation has become multiple allegations. The cover-up of nursing home deaths from Covid-19 is now prompting a broader inquiry into Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic. And all of these allegations have ripped back the curtain on a nightmare of a workplace. Last week, New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister produced a deeply reported story that linked Andrew Cuomo’s treatment of women to systemic workplace bullying and favoritism that implicate the governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa.
Traister is an excellent reporter and one of our best and most interesting contemporary feminist writers. The detailed account she has produced reads like an office party from the 1960s—but with women as active enablers willing to bully other women. Allegedly, that Cuomo hired women based on their looks: current and former employees report encounters with him at social events that were followed by invitations to apply for a job based on nothing but the fact that he was physically attracted to them.
And they are still afraid of Cuomo, in part because he is legendary for his scorched-earth retaliation tactics and because his influence extended well beyond his own staff and the New York Democratic party. Earlier this week, as one New York Democrat after another deserted him, Larry Schwartz, a top aide in charge of vaccine distribution for the state, spent a day calling county officials to urge them to support Cuomo publicly. You don’t need to guess what quid was being offered and what was the expected quo.
This is important because Andrew Cuomo is not just a mean person, but someone with vast and various resources that allow him to bend others to his will. At least one woman (who used the pseudonym Kaitlyn) seems to have been more or less pimped out by the consulting company she worked for at the time. After having been grabbed and fondled by the governor in front of numerous people (she had never met him before) at a fundraiser,
Kaitlin received a voice-mail from Cuomo’s office asking her to interview for a job. She had not provided his representatives with contact information; they had found her on their own. She disclosed this to her new bosses, who understood her discomfort but explained that he was the governor and that she would have to take the meeting. 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.
Let’s be blunt: wanting a career in politics in New York State was at least partly conditional on submitting to humiliating treatment and doing whatever Cuomo wanted, whether it was related to your actual job or not. For women, it appears that this, in part, meant being dictated to about how they should dress and style themselves, a non-negotiable demand that women wear high heels, and being publicly mocked if they didn’t follow instructions.
This is textbook sexual harassment, and it is against the law.
But perhaps the most illuminating aspect of this unfolding scandal is that the gender script has become unpredictable since feminist attorneys named sexual harassment in the 1970s: powerful women feel free to enable it. Specifically, Traister reports men coming to the aid of women as, or after, Cuomo had groped them while other women enabled the abuse.
Let’s be clear: there have always been women available to enable male privilege, but in 2021, many are very powerful in their own right. A principal actor in Albany is Melissa DeRosa, who is said to have played the hitman role that Andrew Cuomo played for his father, Mario. She is alleged to have enabled and encouraged a culture of workplace bullying that seems to have inexorably led to the underreporting of Covid-19 nursing home deaths and, in the wake of that revelation, the drip-drip-drip of sexual harassment allegations that has sparked an impeachment investigation described by one source as “very broad.”
Perhaps the most stunning evidence of DeRosa’s role is a series of text messages she sent to State Senator Alessandra Biaggi. DeRosa told Biaggi that she was “full of shit and a pretty terrible person” for questioning Cuomo’s reluctance to shut the state down last spring as Covid-19 descended. In the same series of messages, DeRosa told Biaggi that she had “a big mouth” and repeated that Biaggi was “a bad person and full of shit.” In response to Biaggi’s shockingly calm appeal to the facts, DeRosa responded: “No, the fact is you are a revisionist liar. And it’s disgusting. And sadly I’m not surprised. It’s who you are.”
And DeRosa isn’t the only woman on Cuomo’s team who is implicated. Beth Garvey, acting counsel to Cuomo, has defended releasing one accuser’s work history to the media, saying that it had been done “for the purpose of correcting inaccurate or misleading statements.” In fact, it is hard not to see this release of personnel records—something that the Cuomo administration is notoriously stingy with the media about—as a blatant attempt to portray the sexual harassment allegations as retaliation for past work discipline. And as an act of retaliation.
But who is surprised that women do these things to other women? One of feminism’s most unexpected consequences is weaponizing female credibility to defend men who hurt women and children. It has become a specialty. A recent HBO docuseries alleges that in the 1980s, Woody Allen’s publicist Leslee Dart orchestrated Mia Farrow’s smear after Farrow credibly accused Allen of sexually molesting their daughter Dylan. In the process, she also became one of several women who appears to have smeared and gaslighted Dylan.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton lied to three of the most powerful women in politics—his own wife and Cabinet members Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala—about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and sent them out to repeat those lies. Today, any high-profile man accused of sexual harassment or assault would be a fool not to hire a woman, not just to defend him, but to use her authority as a woman to undermine the very premise of the accusations—as Donna Rotunno did for Harvey Weinstein and Jennifer Bonjean for Bill Cosby.
It’s an old story, but it is one that feminists talk about too little. Over ten years ago, my colleague Helaine Olen noted about Jacki Zehner, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, who had spoken out about a discrimination suit brought against the firm by three women,
it seems as though there is always a woman with some power ready to come forward to defend their bosses. These women will not only say, “Didn’t happen to me. Couldn’t be,” but often they will add that if by some chance it did happen, bringing attention to the matter will only set all women back because the powers that be will be more reluctant to hire them for fear of the consequences if something goes wrong.
It’s almost as if female enablers like Zehner cannot handle the possible knowledge that their promotions, their successes, their achievements, and their mostly respectful treatment are not the whole story.
That said, it seems that post-#MeToo feminist journalists are far better able to see the bigger picture than they ever have been. As Olen noted this week, using these sexual harassment cases as a pretext to take Cuomo down without an investigation into all of the charges against him risks falling into a carefully laid trap: Cuomo would rather defend himself from sexual harassment than from his alleged missteps and lies during the Covid-19 crisis and his constant kneecapping of Mayor Bill DiBlasio. Traister makes a similarly important point in her story: that sexual harassment and bullying allegations are part and parcel of a chaotic political workplace where governing often went undone, vendettas ran rampant, and employees (male and female) were often so anxious they sometimes fell ill or quit. Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo in 2014, argues in The Nation that the people of New York can—and should—have both Cuomo’s resignation and an investigation into his alleged behavior, official misdeeds, and the cover-ups of which he is accused.
But Cuomo isn’t done yet: what we see now is precisely why he has remained so powerful. You have got to think that the chief thought in New York Attorney General Letitia James’s mind as she moves forward with this case is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dictum: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
Or, as these words were reformulated for the 21st century by the legendary Omar: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
That’s what Cuomo and his female enablers are counting on.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This was originally published on her Substack.