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Not very long ago, when allegations of serial sexual harassment began to pile up against New York state governor Andrew Cuomo (compounded with emerging scandals related to his handling of the pandemic), some very intelligent people and professional political pundits suggested that the disgrace might be great enough to induce Cuomo to resign. Indeed, the governor had begun facing calls to step down by prominent members of his own party in the state. This prediction was — forgive me — profoundly naive. Even now that an official investigation into those allegations has discovered a pattern of sexual harassment and even assault, it’s hard to believe the outcome will be any different.
Cuomo’s personal brand is old-school outer-borough toxic he-man of the highest order, and he follows the same tried-and-true accountability strategy of “deny, deny, deny” that former president Trump is also fond of. Because it works. Cuomo surely knows that he can simply wait out the news cycle, that the effort of impeaching him or forcing him out of office may eventually seem more onerous than garden-variety sexual assault is worth — regardless of the trauma and harm his actions have caused to others. Already he has made a statement remaining defiant and refusing to resign. But will his gamble be correct? Will he continue to win this game of accountability chicken? To be honest, I don’t have high hopes.
New York State attorney general Letitia James announced that her office would be investigating claims of sexual harassment in the governor’s office after two former aides, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, went public with their allegations against Cuomo in February. At the time, Cuomo strenuously denied any wrongdoing, saying that his actions had simply been misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation. Months later, the completed investigation uncovered more than just a few isolated incidents, but rather a sustained pattern of gender-based and sexual harassment as well as a general atmosphere of abuse, according to the report. Some of the more disturbing allegations include at least one instance of retaliation against a staffer when she went public with her accusations, and one former staffer who claimed Cuomo once reached under her blouse and groped one of her breasts. And yet, the governor’s position remains unchanged.
“The facts are much different than what has been portrayed,” Cuomo said in a press conference following the public announcement of the investigation’s findings. “I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances. 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.” The governor also claimed that others have “fed ugly stories to the press,” argued that Bennett’s lawyers “read into comments that I made,” and stopped just short of calling Bennett a liar by saying she may have “heard things I just didn’t say.”
While you may have been expecting at least a politician’s perfunctory “I’m sorry you feel that way” style apology, there is really nothing surprising in Cuomo’s response. The governor is banking on society’s deeply entrenched impulse to mistrust women’s accusations and reward powerful white men’s bluster. It’s easy to cast doubt on a woman who alleges sexual assault by questioning either her motives or her mental capacity to reliably and dispassionately remember events in her own life. Meanwhile, a white man needs only volume to communicate strength and stubbornness to engender trust. It worked for Donald Trump. It worked for Brett Kavanaugh. It worked for Bill Clinton. And it’s worked for Cuomo himself before.
Cuomo’s accusers may have a 165-page report containing sworn statements from dozens of witnesses, a feminist political movement, and their own memories on their side. But history is on Cuomo’s.