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The Andrew Cuomo case as a microcosm of American politics

Too many women in politics have a boss like Cuomo.
Illustration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC; Getty Images

UPDATE (08/10/2021 1:00 p.m. E.T.): Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that in light of the accusations against him, he would be resigning from office, effective in two weeks.In New York Attorney General Letitia James’ 165-page report detailing allegations of a pattern and practice of sexual harassment by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the executive summary alone reads like a political obituary. It’s no wonder that New York state legislators are reportedly pushing for impeachment.

We know the sands have happily shifted under the feet of politicians like Cuomo.

Cuomo continues to deny the allegations. In a prepared statement streamed online following the report’s release, with a defiance reminiscent of the pre-#MeToo era, he impliedly blamed at least one of the women who made allegations against him. He said he was merely trying to help this woman, who has said she is a survivor of sexual assault. “I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best way she could,” he said.

If I closed my eyes and just listened, I could practically hear him saying women who have survived assault are damaged goods and should not be trusted — but of course, that part went unsaid.

Cuomo blamed society, his culture (he’s just too Italian, forgive him for loving too much!) and his age. He is too old, or too friendly, or just too eager to assist, he implicitly told us.

We know the sands have happily shifted under the feet of politicians like Cuomo who might have previously gotten away with this alleged behavior. Years ago, the options for women who were aware of Cuomo’s reputation of unwanted groping, touching and kissing would have been limited to being forced to either deal with it or work elsewhere.

This of course puts women in the position of potentially subjecting themselves to a hostile work environment or forgoing career opportunities. Hopefully that era is nearing an end and James’ report, and the resulting fallout, will prove the times are in fact changing.

The allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation detailed in James’ report have implications far beyond Cuomo. Sexual harassment has a pernicious effect on not just the direct survivors and victims, but on society as a whole.

Let’s think of the sheer numbers that contributed to one of the conclusions in James’ report, that Cuomo created “a hostile work environment for women.” That finding was based on interviews with 179 people and the testimony of at least 11 women who came forward. Almost a half-year went into compiling the report. This alleged culture of sexual harassment didn’t flourish overnight; it was cultivated over time. And it is highly unlikely that Cuomo’s office is the only politician’s office that operates this way.

Let’s think about the women (yes, mostly women) in government offices throughout the country who face isolated or repeated incidents of sexual harassment.

Let’s think about the women (yes, mostly women) in government offices throughout the country who face isolated or repeated incidents of sexual harassment. Let’s think about the women who work for men (yes, mostly men) who are more than a bit too friendly and free with their hands and their words.

Now let’s think of the many ways in which we describe politics. It is “rough and tumble” or “demanding” or “hard-charging.” Have these phrases been used to cover inappropriate, and even illegal, behavior? Surely. Is this a not-so-subtle way of telling people that if they can’t deal with what some might inaccurately describe as “a little teasing” or “behavior that is all in good fun,” then maybe they should get out and leave politics to those who are “truly tough?” You bet.

All of this can play a role in contributing to the lack of gender representation we see on every level of government. Of our 50 governors, eight are women. Are poorly behaved politicians, apparently like Cuomo, the only reason there are not more women in positions of political power? No, of course not. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking Cuomo’s alleged behavior is an isolated incident or that such behavior doesn’t have a ripple effect or ultimately hinder more equal gender representation in society at large.

Let’s also be clear on the fact that accusations of sexual harassment are not the same as proof of sexual harassment. In some cases, people can be wrongfully accused and those accusations can leave a stain on their personal and professional lives that will never be washed off. Behavior can be misunderstood. Wires can get crossed.

The alleged behavior described in James’ report does not read like a case of a miscommunication.

The alleged behavior described in James’ report does not read like a case of a miscommunication. And the behavior Cuomo claims he engaged in cannot be squared with the findings of the report. That would require the possibility of parallel universes — one in which we simultaneously believe independent investigators and at least 11 women and 179 people total who were interviewed for the report and at the same time believe a besieged politician staring down political ruin.

There are three likely paths for Cuomo. First, he can, and already is, facing enormous political pressure to resign. This pressure could transform into impeachment proceedings. Second, the women who detailed the alleged misconduct could bring civil cases against Cuomo; the behavior described in the report provides plenty of evidence to move forward with civil suits. And finally, prosecutors could bring criminal charges, if they believe Cuomo’s behavior rises to the level of a criminal violation.

But what is next for the rest of us? Well beyond Cuomo, we need to address the causes of our woeful lack of gender representation. James’ report will not solve this problem, but it could help put one more nail in the coffin of government offices that perpetuate gender inequality.