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Cuomo scandal tests limits of #MeToo movement as he resists resignation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at New York's Yankee Stadium, Monday, July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at New York's Yankee Stadium, Monday, July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is rejecting demands from within his party to resign after an investigation affirmed sexual harassment allegations against him, as his defiance tests the limits of the public’s willingness to overlook misconduct and the lasting impact of the #MeToo movement on politics.

“My job is not about me, my job is about you,” Cuomo said in a video statement to New Yorkers Tuesday. “What matters to me at the end of the day is getting the most done I can for you. And that is what I do every day. And I will not be distracted from that job.”

Cuomo faced a barrage of calls for his resignation from Democrats in Albany, across the country, and even at the White House. President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the state’s entire congressional delegation publicly urged the governor to step aside.

“No elected official is above the law,” Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in a joint statement. “The people of New York deserve better leadership in the governor’s office. We continue to believe that the governor should resign.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday that a five-month investigation substantiated claims that Cuomo sexually harassed or assaulted 11 women, several of whom worked for him. Investigators also found Cuomo created a hostile work environment "rife with fear and intimidation," and they believe he violated state and federal laws.

The allegations ranged from inappropriate comments to unwanted groping, and officials said Cuomo retaliated against one employee who made claims against him. As legislators from both parties lined up to denounce the governor, his accusers welcomed the findings of the probe.

“Ultimately, I think they are incredibly grateful, I think there were tears shed, I think there was a sense of relief that they were believed and respected, that this should never have happened to them,” Mariann Wang, an attorney who represents two of the alleged victims, told WRGB.

Cuomo delivered a lengthy video response to the report, as well as releasing an 85-page rebuttal. He flatly denied allegations that he groped one employee and he maintained other accusations “unfairly characterize and weaponize everyday interactions.”

“I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” he said. “I am 63 years old. I have lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am and that's not who I have ever been.”

Although Cuomo has made clear he has no intention of willfully stepping down, it might not be entirely up to him. The Democrat-led state legislature is conducting an impeachment investigation that is expected to wrap up this fall and could result in his removal.

“Cuomo faces several hurdles that make it unlikely that he will survive in the long-term,” said Leonie Huddy, an expert at Stony Brook University in New York who studies gender and politics.

The state Assembly could bring impeachment charges against Cuomo with a majority vote at any time, and the case would then move to an Impeachment Court comprised of the state Senate—minus the majority leader—and the seven judges of the New York Court of Appeals. If two-thirds of that body votes to convict, the governor would be removed and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul would serve the rest of the term.

"The conduct by the governor outlined in this report would indicate someone who is not fit for office,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said, promising the Judiciary Committee would conduct “an in-depth examination” of the findings.

President Biden stopped short of advocating impeachment Tuesday, saying he had not read the attorney general’s report and the legislature would need to make that decision. He also declined to comment on the potential prosecution of Cuomo, reiterating that he had said in March the governor should step down if the allegations against him were verified.

“Let’s take one thing at a time here,” Biden said. “I think he should resign.”

Cuomo has already weathered months of criticism and public scrutiny over the harassment allegations, as well as controversial actions his administration took during the COVID-19 pandemic. He seemingly has few allies left in the Democratic establishment, but he has declared he intends to run for reelection in 2022.

“I get the impression there really is momentum that is going to make it very difficult for him,” said Mona Lena Krook, chair of the Women and Politics program at Rutgers University.

New York voters also appear to be turning on the governor after many initially shrugged off the allegations against him earlier this year. A Marist Poll conducted overnight found 59% of New Yorkers—including a majority of registered Democrats—believe Cuomo should resign, and a similar percentage support impeaching him if he does not.

“Even if he survives this scandal, his reelection prospects are rock bottom with even his Democratic base deserting him,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll, noting only 18% of Democrats feel Cuomo deserves another term.

According to Huddy, there are several possible reasons why Cuomo made it through the first wave of controversy in the spring, but those factors might not save him now. While some top Democrats called for his resignation in March, others like President Biden hedged their public comments as they waited for results of the investigation.

Cuomo has also leaned heavily on a reputation for being physically affectionate with both men and women, downplaying the severity of the accusations against him. His response to James’ report Tuesday featured many photos of himself and other politicians hugging and touching people, although the details uncovered in the probe could make that defense untenable.

Other politicians and public figures were swiftly ostracized in the early days of the #MeToo movement once allegations were leveled against them. Huddy said that rush to support women has cooled somewhat in the last few years, and the public might now need more evidence before turning against an official they once supported.

“It is difficult to know for sure why his case differs from that of others,” she said. “But members of the public try to size up an individual accused of sexually inappropriate behavior, making each case somewhat idiosyncratic especially when it involves a well-known and well-liked public figure.”

There is also a complicated partisan dimension to all this. In her research, Krook has found people are generally more willing to hold politicians accountable if they are from the opposite party, but Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe women who say they have been sexually harassed.

The notion that a scandal-plagued politician could hold onto power after nearly a dozen women credibly accused him of sexual misconduct might have seemed unlikely when people like Sen. Al Franken were being forced to step down for similar transgressions. However, there are plenty of examples Cuomo could potentially emulate to ride out the storm.

Former President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 despite claims from numerous women that he sexually harassed or assaulted him. He rebuffed demands from prominent Republicans that he remove himself from the GOP ticket after a recording of him bragging about assaulting women emerged, and the party united behind him when the election neared.

Cuomo was among many Democrats pressing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign in 2019 after blackface photos were discovered in his medical school yearbook, but he refused. Efforts to force him out faded after two Democrats in the line of succession became embroiled in controversies as well, and his reputation has since rebounded.

A woman came forward accusing Biden of sexual assault last spring during the Democratic presidential primaries, spurring some calls from the left for him to withdraw from the race. Her claims were never substantiated, though, and Biden went on to secure the nomination.

The latest Cuomo controversy comes weeks after one of the major victories of the #MeToo era—the conviction of comedian Bill Cosby for indecent assault—was reversed by an appellate court. If Cuomo manages to avoid consequences for his actions, it might not bode well for a movement that advocates had hoped would represent a permanent shift in society.

“At the beginning of the #MeToo Movement, I had ample fight in me to push for meaningful change — all day, every day,” author Lily Burana wrote in an NBC News op-ed when the Cuomo allegations first emerged. “Now I’m tapped out. I want to keep protesting against sexual harassment and the more egregious victimization of women in our society, especially at the hands of powerful men like Cuomo. But I am so tired.”

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However, experts say the fact that Cuomo is under scrutiny for the kind of casual inappropriate behavior that women had to tolerate in the workplace for decades suggests something has fundamentally changed since 2017. Krook believes there would be far fewer calls for the governor to resign over these accusations in a pre-#MeToo era.

“I think we see a big shift in how people think about the acceptability of this kind of behavior in public life,” she said.

With Democratic state legislators and Democratic voters increasingly supportive of impeachment, Huddy is skeptical Cuomo will remain in the governor’s mansion through the end of his term. If the most powerful figure in New York politics is removed after a thorough investigation and due process, it might signal an evolution of the #MeToo movement into a more sustainable paradigm.

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“I am doubtful that Cuomo can hold onto power,” she said. “If he does not, it actually bolsters the #MeToo movement and suggests it has moved into a more mature stage in which allegations are carefully investigated and action taken once the details of a case have been carefully scrutinized.”

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