Faced with two allegations of sexual harassment by former employees, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo did what many politicians embroiled by scandal try to do: He bought himself some time.
Over the weekend, in response to a second allegation about his behavior toward female staff – this one from a woman named Charlotte Bennett that was first reported by The New York Times – Cuomo suggested that New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, and the state’s chief judge select an independent lawyer to review the accusations against him.
The “independent review” gambit is a time-tested strategy aimed at taking some of the heat (and light) away from explosive allegations against a high-profile politician. The hope is that the review takes a while and, in that time, a) nothing else incriminating comes out and b) the public sort of moves on, forgetting about the whole thing or, at the very least, feeling less strongly than they do in this moment about it.
It’s the same sort of approach that drives Congress to create commissions on thorny and controversial issues. It’s a virtual certainty that by the time the commission issues its lengthy report (that no one reads in full) the heat has gone out of the issue – whatever the issue is – for the general public. We are a people of limited attention span. Politicians know this and prey on it.
In Cuomo’s case, however, there are lots of reasons to believe his attempts to hit pause on allegations about his behavior toward female employees won’t work.
1) Cuomo’s attempt to have some say over who might conduct the “independent” review of the allegations failed miserably over the weekend as James rejected the governor’s proposal that she and the state’s top judge pick an attorney to lead the investigation. Instead, James said the AG’s office will request an official referral that would allow the outside law firm chosen to lead it with subpoena power. James is already investigating Cuomo’s handling of deaths from Covid-19 among nursing home residents – and is mentioned as a possible 2022 primary rival. So, she will do everything possible to make sure the review of these allegations is actually independent.
2) The #MeToo era has changed the way allegations like these are treated. Already, virtually every major player in Democratic politics has come out to say that the women making the claims against Cuomo need to be heard and taken seriously.
“(President Biden) believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect and with dignity,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on CNN on Sunday. “It was hard to read that story as a woman.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the accusations “extremely serious and painful to read.” Running out the clock isn’t a viable alternative anymore. (Cuomo has denied an allegation by another former staffer, Lindsey Boylan, that “he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips.”) Cuomo apologized for “some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” he said Sunday.
3) Cuomo has lots and lots of enemies. Anytime you spend three terms as governor of New York, you are going to rack up a long list of political people who don’t like you and would love to see you brought low. During Cuomo’s run of celebratory press for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in his state last spring and fall, none of those people felt as though they could take him on. He was just too politically powerful.
But now, Cuomo is quite clearly wounded. And all the people who had been waiting for their chance to take their shot are coming out of the woodwork. The most obvious example: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, with whom Cuomo has repeatedly clashed. Of Cuomo’s apology, de Blasio offered this: “That’s not an apology. … Sexual harassment is not funny. It’s serious. It has to be taken seriously. And he was clearly just letting himself off the hook for something that, for the women involved, sounded pretty terrifying.”
Given all of that, it’s hard to imagine that Cuomo’s attempts to go four corners offense on these allegations will work. He’s too high profile. The allegations are too serious. He has so little control over the process. And he has lots and lots of people who want to see him fall.