When former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, made the decision to resign in January 2018, the spotlight turned to his party, which turned out to be bitterly divided over his fate. In the wake of mounting allegations of sexual harassment, many prominent Democrats had called for him to step down, and they were led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, who has championed women’s rights causes in the Senate. In her letter demanding his resignation, she linked his actions to the “painful” but necessary “reckoning” occurring at the time, calling it a “watershed moment bigger than any one industry, any one party, or any one person.”
Gillibrand has had to answer for it ever since — in the debates during her candidacy for president and in the media. Now, as the governor of her state and from her own party faces similar allegations to those that felled Franken – unwanted touching, and, in Cuomo’s case, inappropriate comments to subordinates – Gillibrand has been reluctant to let history repeat itself.
In 2019, a story published in The New Yorker, where Franken said that he “regretted” his decision to step down before an investigation could get underway, revealed that one of his accusers, conservative talk radio host Leeann Tweeden, was friendly with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Notorious conservative operative Roger Stone told Jane Mayer that a Fox News executive tipped him off to the forthcoming allegations. In her report, Mayer stopped just short of calling Tweeden’s accusation a politically coordinated attack.
Although many observers think it harmed her presidential campaign, Gillibrand stands by her decision. “There is no prize for someone who tries to hold accountable a powerful man who is good at his day job,” Gillibrand said at Mic’s 2020 Town Hall Series in July, 2019, in New York, responding to Franken’s comments. “But we should have the courage to do it anyway.”
Since late February, six women have come forward with allegations of sexual impropriety against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, just shy of the seven allegations against Franken before Gillibrand’s statement four years ago. As of yet, Gillibrand has declined to ask the governor to resign, even as a growing list of New York politicians – one disproportionately made up of women – has called on Cuomo to do so.
Gillibrand’s official response has been to encourage an investigation of the allegations, which is underway. “These allegations are serious and deeply concerning,” she said in a statement responding to reports about former 25-year-old staffer Charlotte Bennett, who in the New York Times gave a detailed account of a series of personal comments and questions made by the governor that she believed to be intended to “groom” her for sex. “As requested by Attorney General James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power.” Gillibrand’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
That Gillibrand – and not, say, her colleague Chuck Schumer, who is the state’s senior senator and the Senate majority leader – is the one expected to lead on holding male politicians accountable for alleged sexual misconduct, is perhaps a reflection of the gender politics that have emerged in the Democratic Party in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Some women in elected office say they understand these issues in a different way than men and many are advocates for accusers. But some, including Gillibrand, contend that it’s an unfair burden. “I really resent the fact that.. the news media calls on every woman elected to (judge) every single time,” she told Yahoo! Finance recently.
It’s a point so valid that it’s almost possible to lose sight of the fact that, in many ways, the complicated political reality Gillibrand finds herself in is one partially of her own making.
For the past several years, Gillibrand has been intentional in developing a reputation as a champion of women in the political sphere. It’s fair to say her presidential campaign was itself a product of a resurgence in a particular type of feminism. “Gillibrand herself helped build the cult feminist vehicle she hoped to steer,” Alexis Grenell, a New York-based political consultant, recently wrote in The Nation, charting Gillibrand’s path to becoming a feminist warrior of the Trump era.
While her swift response to Franken may have cost her support among some in her party, it had initially seemed like a savvy move, elevating her as a leading feminist candidate in the presidential race, despite starting her career as a relatively conservative Democrat from upstate. As The New York Times observed in February 2019, “Gillibrand and her advisers see an opportunity to ride a wave of women’s political energy right into the White House. While multiple women are serious contenders for president for the first time in American history, Ms. Gillibrand is the only one who is making running as a woman, for women, the central theme of her candidacy.”
And so it is inevitable that eyes turn towards her when her home state is enmeshed in a scandal so reminiscent of Franken’s. “This is an area that she has carved out for herself as a leader,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “This is why people are looking to her at this moment and wondering where she is on this.”
Of course, Gillibrand isn’t alone in using the attorney general’s investigation to avoid calling for immediate action. On Sunday, Schumer refused to say whether Cuomo should resign, instead expressing faith in James, telling reporters at a briefing, “I believe that she will turn over every stone and I believe she will make sure there is no outside interference.” Longtime Cuomo ally Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who is chair of the House Democratic caucus, has also said he “await(s) the results” of the investigation. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken progressive who is not known for being shy about criticizing other politicians, hasn’t weighed in since initially calling for an independent investigation.
Rep. Kathleen Rice became the first Democratic member of Congress to ask Cuomo to step down, tweeting after a third accuser came forward, “The time has come. The Governor must resign.” Her tweet was met with a chorus of detractors online, arguing “Innocent until proven guilty!” “#dems are now eating their own without investigation or trial!” and that “We lost a great Senator in MN because of the ‘resign’ cry.”
However, the more women that come forward, the harder it will be for prominent New York Democrats to hold out for the results of the investigation. It’s worth noting that an investigation can proceed into the governor’s conduct, without him holding onto his job. As with Franken, it is up to the governor to decide to resign, regardless of who calls for it. The demand itself is merely an acknowledgement, on behalf of officials, that he can no longer be relied on to lead effectively. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ statement is notable in this respect, in that it was not an assertion of Cuomo’s guilt, but rather the impossibility of good governance under the crush of bad press. “For the good of the state, Governor Cuomo must resign,” Stewart-Cousins said. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s comments reflected that sentiment. “We have many challenges to address," he said, “and I think it is time for the Governor to seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York.”
In light of past Democratic comments about not just Franken, but alleged sexual misconduct more broadly – whether by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or the serial sexual abuser who appointed him – being perceived as soft on Cuomo, particularly for Gillibrand, could create a risk of being seen as inconsistent or hypocritical. It’s also potentially a silent admission that within the party, the prevailing opinion is that they moved too quickly on Franken – a particularly damning admission for Gillibrand, even if only by implication.
Thus Gillibrand is damned if she does, or if she doesn’t, inevitably disappointing either feminist activists or mainstream, partisan Democratic voters.
Still, it’s hard to say whether these are lessons learned from Franken’s ouster, or plain old New York politics. “I think that one of the things you’re seeing with Andrew Cuomo that is different (than Franken), is that he is known to be powerful and a ‘take no prisoners’ kind of guy – unlikely to forgive and forget. So, I think there is, in general, in the state of New York, among Democrats, kind of a cautiousness,” Walsh explained. “He is such a force, and you can see it playing out now: People are fearful of him. And if he doesn’t go, what can he do to folks?”
There are politicians who have survived even worse accusations: after the infamous recording of then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump bragging about his habit of sexually assaulting women was released in the fall of 2016, many Republicans abandoned him, only to come crawling back after he won the presidency. Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, has been accused of rape by two women but has not resigned and he is now running for governor. So, for New York Democrats, the safe, middleground is to say, “Let’s have the investigation.”
However, the calculus for Gillibrand is slightly more complicated because of the ground she staked out for herself by not waiting for an investigation of the accusations against Franken. It makes sense that she resents the burden. Why should the spotlight be on the women of the state, when a man is accused of sexual harassment instead of solely on the accused and his alleged enablers?
As Gillibrand once noted, after learning this through experience, there is no prize for being an outlying voice in holding a man accountable.
Correction: Franken resigned in 2018.