It’s Not Just Andrew Cuomo

Albany is rife with affairs, harassment, and abuses of power.

Illustration of Andrew Cuomo
Lev Radin / Pacific Press / Getty; John Cardasis / Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

About the author: Ross Barkan is a writer and journalist based in New York. He is the author of The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York.

Far removed from the bustle of New York City and its surrounding suburbs, the upstate city of Albany has always been a place where the state’s political class goes to quietly indulge. Before the pandemic, booze-fueled dinners and fundraisers were a norm, as were raucous parties that drew lawmakers and staffers together. For the men with a modicum of power, time in the state capital could mean days and nights of endless advances on, flirting with, and harassment of the young women in their midst.

Much of this came into view when Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, announced yesterday that he would resign. Cuomo, once the impregnable executive, was forced out after a report overseen by a former ally, Attorney General Letitia James, shed light on a hideous reality for the many women who work in state politics. Cuomo was found to have harassed close to a dozen women, many of them former gubernatorial staffers. The governor’s alleged behavior—the lewd comments, the inappropriate touching, the outright groping—is not exceptional in Albany. Female staffers, lobbyists, operatives, and even politicians there have endured harassment for many decades, ever since a world that was all-male began to diversify. The “Bear Mountain Compact” ruled: Whatever extramarital affairs or harassment that occurs in the state capital shouldn’t be discussed elsewhere. What happens in Albany, stays in Albany.

Occasionally, though, the scandals spilled into public view. Vito Lopez, a state assemblyman who rose to become the powerful boss of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, was driven from office for harassing and intimidating his female staffers. Eric Schneiderman, who preceded James as the state attorney general, resigned three years ago after it was reported that he assaulted multiple women. In both instances, Cuomo was there to denounce the men and call for their resignations.

Other scandals were less overtly violent or predatory, but still emblematic of a certain Albany culture. Before Cuomo, Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in 2008 after news broke that he paid tens of thousands of dollars to solicit prostitutes. Upon taking office, Spitzer’s lieutenant governor, David Paterson, admitted to having an extramarital affair with a state employee.

Cuomo, though, engaged in a pattern of unyielding harassment and abuse, according to the attorney general’s report. One woman accused him of forcibly groping her; another, a state trooper, said he touched and intimidated her, and brought her specifically onto his protection detail so that he could behave in such a manner.

The issue at play, an old one in Albany, is power. Men with power—in elected positions, with money and influence—believe they can act on their impulses with little regard for how the women working under them feel. Staffers earn relatively little money and work incredibly long hours. Many are recent college graduates trying to make it far in a cutthroat world. Under such circumstances, consent becomes blurry; women fear refusing the advances of a male politician, lest they lose their job or be frozen out of future opportunities.

It’s one thing to spurn a state assemblyman or a well-heeled lobbyist. It’s another, entirely, to rebuff the governor of New York. Cuomo was not just any governor. He was the governor, a national superstar in the wake of the pandemic, a power broker who had held office for more than a decade. The Cuomo name is dynastic: His father, Mario, was a three-term governor, and his younger brother, Chris, is a famous CNN host.

Andrew Cuomo, quite literally, had the power to make or break careers. He controlled a vast apparatus of state agencies. The state legislature answered to him. Cities and towns large and small relied on the state budget for crucial funds. Running afoul of the governor meant a certain kind of death: a career stalled, a grant denied, other influential people deciding you are not worth a risk. The wealthiest donors in the state, the largest labor unions, and the most important interest groups all orbited Cuomo, hoping to remain in his good graces.

To Cuomo, the harassment was a great misunderstanding, little more than Millennial women unwilling to endure his friendly nature, his oddball humor. But he does not know what it’s like to be on the other end—to not want to be touched in such a way, to shudder at the prospect of a much larger, older man with immense influence viewing you as some kind of sexual object. James, the attorney general, found Cuomo’s office “rife with fear and intimidation,” a place where Cuomo would engage in “unwelcome and nonconsensual touching.” The banal truth is that a lower-level employee with Cuomo’s documented harassment history would’ve been fired long ago. Winning statewide elections comes with certain privileges. He was very much indulging in that retrograde Albany culture, suffused with sexism, assault, and intimidation.

Now Cuomo, in retirement, will seek to remake himself as a kind of Baby Boomer martyr, a victim of cancel culture run amok. If this were an isolated accusation with no evidence to undergird it, Cuomo would have the basis of the argument. But he’s pitting his word against that of 11 women and of professional investigators who spent months probing the claims. Cuomo can stretch reality all he wants. In the end, what really matters is that he has resigned in disgrace.