Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently alleged actions – sexual comments and kissing without consent, unwanted touching and bullying phone calls – are changing public perceptions of the third-term governor, but they are unsurprising for many people who work at the state Capitol. Most legislative aides have either experienced, witnessed or heard rumors of actions like these by some elected official or other. “We spent years rooting out the Vito Lopezes,” one longtime legislative staffer said, referring to a former member of the Assembly who notoriously harassed women while in office. “The stories with Cuomo absolutely ring true to me.”
Capitol staffers and lobbyists may not say so openly, but Albany remains a place where inappropriate comments, workplace bullying and sexual harassment are common, despite progress in recent years in addressing the issue. Recent reporting about Cuomo’s alleged misconduct is now bringing this out into the open.
“Sometimes it takes this kind of reckoning for people to realize what's been happening all along,” Erica Vladimer, a former Capitol staffer and co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, told City & State said in a recent interview. “It's because the man who was in charge of the system that protects him is the one that we are finally shining a spotlight on.”
Aleks Wolan recalls that the reality of working in state politics was made clear to her as soon as she took a job as an Assembly staffer in late 2018. “Day one of working for the Legislature, our chief of staff, who is a woman, gave me the sexual harassment talk: ‘This is something that happens here, it could happen to you,’” Wolan told City & State. Wolan said that she never personally experienced sexual harassment, and in no way did the warning imply anything about her boss, Assembly Member Dan Quart, or anyone in his office. But others have not been so lucky.
“Sometimes it takes this kind of reckoning for people to realize what's been happening all along.” – Erica Vladimer, former Capitol staffer and co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group
Landmark legislative hearings on sexual harassment in 2019 highlighted egregious examples of lawmakers abusing their power, but the comments and blurring of boundaries can also be much more subtle. It could be a hand brushing a knee or a little extra attention from a powerful person. Sometimes, it’s stuff that is just downright weird, according to the longtime legislative staffer, who wished to remain anonymous to speak freely. “I've gotten weird texts from a legislator, asking me if I'm going to be at an event or, you know, buying me a dog that I said I didn't want,” the staffer said. “It's that stuff where you can't put your finger on it and say: ‘This is wrong,’ but you just wonder: What’s going on there? Are you overinterpreting? Are you kind of looking for sexual harassment everywhere? Is this just someone who doesn't know how to talk to people?”
Elected officials are famously demanding of their staffs and are in a business that usually rewards acting intimate – hence the famous cliches about glad-handing, back-slapping and baby-kissing politicians. Working in politics, often on nights and weekends, also means lots of time hanging out with colleagues. Many politicians’ offices are known for a cult of personality, with admiring staffers who are heavily dependent on their former boss’s recommendations in building their careers. All of that adds up to a situation ripe for elected officials to cross boundaries with staffers who are reluctant to speak up about it.
“Day One of working for the Legislature, our chief of staff, who is a woman, gave me the sexual harassment talk.” – Aleks Wolan, Assembly staffer
Cuomo has defended his own conduct by effectively saying he had no idea that his efforts at “fun” and “jokes” would be construed as sexual harassment, despite saying he took the state-mandated sexual harassment training that outlines how his alleged behavior appears to have gone over the line. He has denied any unwanted touching, but he has sidestepped questions about whether he made certain alleged comments, such as asking former executive chamber staffer Charlotte Bennett whether she was monogamous and ever considered dating older men. “I didn't know I was making her uncomfortable at the time,” he told reporters on March 3, of Bennett's allegations. “I feel badly that I did."
Cuomo also argued that there was nothing wrong with the way he treated Anna Ruch when he grabbed her face and asked her whether he could kiss her at the 2019 wedding of his longtime aide Gareth Rhodes, who recently left his role on the state COVID-19 task force. “You can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people, men, women,” he added. “It is my usual and customary way of greeting." As for allegations that he kissed Lindsey Boylan, a former chief of staff at Empire State Development who is now running for Manhattan borough president, on the lips? Didn’t happen, according to Cuomo. “I never touched anyone inappropriately,” said Cuomo, who deflected a question about what he would do if the allegations were not against him but one of his staff.
“How can New Yorkers trust you (governor) to lead our state if you ‘don’t know’ when you’ve been inappropriate with your own staff?” Boylan tweeted following his remarks.
“It's that stuff where you can't put your finger on it and say: ‘This is wrong,’ but you just wonder: What’s going on there?” – a Capitol staffer
Women’s rights activists expressed concern that Albany’s notorious frat house culture won’t be fixed if the governor doesn’t lead by example. “It is very, very dispiriting and debilitating to have the person at the top be a bully or a harasser or someone who is setting a tone,” said Lynn Hecht Schafran, legal director at Legal Momentum, who has written extensively about sexual harassment in the workplace. “That is giving permission to everybody else to behave very badly.”
Cuomo, 63, has claimed that he was only joking when he reportedly asked Bennett, 25, whether she would ever consider sleeping with an older man.
He is not the only person in his administration who appears willing to mix his love life with his professional duties, although no one else has been accused of anything nonconsensual. “Have I dated people that I've come across, you know, at work? Sure,” State Budget Director Robert Mujica, who faces no allegations of sexual harassment, told City & State months ago.
The governor has also embodied a political persona built on male archetypes of being a gruff leader who eagerly dons a hard hat, projects strength and control, rarely admits to having been wrong and hits back at rivals when attacked. This has also raised questions about how his leadership style translates into action by his staffers. Spokesperson Rich Azzopardi called state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou “fucking idiots” in 2019 after they criticized a fundraiser the governor held in budget season. Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa told Biaggi one year later after the legislator floated the idea of challenging Cuomo for the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor, “Are you drunk? Get a grip.”
“I've gotten weird texts from a legislator, asking me if I'm going to be at an event or, you know, buying me a dog that I said I didn't want.” – a Capitol staffer
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment about how the governor’s actions set an example for others.
Albany is filled with ambitious and powerful people who are demanding of their subordinates. The governor is not the only man in the Capitol who is rumored to be easily angered, or prone to making sexually-charged comments. Many of the others have yet to face public scrutiny about their own actions, though staffers whisper to each other and the media about them.
At least some staffers feel fortunate that they do not have to deal with “toxic masculinity” in the workplace – at least not directly. “I work for a woman,” one legislative staffer told City & State. “I have never experienced during my time in the Legislature being asked by a supervisor about my sex life. (It) would be seen as completely inappropriate.”
Correction: A caption in this article has been updated to reflect Aleks Wolan's correct title, and Lynn Hecht Schafran's title has been updated to reflect a recent change to the name of her organization.