What Cuomo’s Resignation Means for #MeToo and the Democratic Party
On August 10, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned. The live-streamed announcement came after the NY Attorney General Letitia James released a report that found Cuomo harassed nearly a dozen women, in violation of state and federal law. Following the report, the condemnation was swift: New York state legislators hastened impeachment proceedings, he was harangued in the press, and President Joe Biden eventually called for his resignation.
It was an almost cinematic fall from grace by a man who, just months earlier, adorned the spotlight on similar livestreams providing straightforward updates on New York’s battle against COVID-19. These appearances would earn him the adoration of much of the mainstream media outlets, facilitate the publication of a best selling book on leadership, and generate presidential buzz even as Biden had secured the Democratic nomination. To put the icing on the cake, Cuomo also won an Emmy award for his performances.
The 165-page report, conducted over five months with independent counsel, concluded that Cuomo had created a toxic environment and harassed the eleven women who came forward with their stories of the Governor engaging in sexual misconduct ranging from inappropriate comments to groping and kissing.
Although Cuomo continued to deny the allegations against him in his resignation statement, insisting that he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” he gave up on remaining in office after resisting months-long mounting pressure from across the Democratic party to step down.
“I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let the government get back to government,” Cuomo said in his resignation statement.
Cuomo’s resignation will officially take effect in two weeks. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will be sworn in to replace him on August 24, making her New York’s first female governor.
Cuomo’s resignation comes on the heels of more than two-thirds of congressional Democrats from the New York legislature calling for him to step down, as well as high-ranking members of the national party like President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Local Republican leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin and NYS Sen. Phil Boyle, also welcomed the news and welcomed Cuomo’s resignation.
Top Democratic leaders in the state, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand called for Cuomo to step down in the spring, after allegations of misconduct surfaced.
Schumer and Gillibrand reaffirmed their stance on Cuomo’s misconduct last week stating, “We continue to believe the Governor should resign.”
President Biden joined the chorus of Democrats calling for Cuomo’s resignation last week after the report was released, simply stating, “I think he should resign.” He still commended the former governor for his work during Cuomo’s three terms in office, commenting that he did a “hell of a job.”
The investigation’s findings made the women who came forward feel vindicated. Among them, Charlotte Bennett, a former executive assistant to Cuomo. In an interview with CBS on August 4th--the day after the report was released--Bennet said, “Today was so validating and really emotional.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Bennett described Cuomo’s response to her allegations as “victim blaming” and proof “that he’s not operating in reality.”
Lindsey Boylan, an ex-aide and the first woman to speak out against Cuomo who suffered retaliatory efforts by his office, took to Twitter yesterday, “I am thankful for the Attorney General, the investigators and all those who have pursued the truth despite intimidation and threats of retaliation,” Boylan tweeted. “Most importantly, I am in awe of the strength of the other women who risked everything to come forward.”
This resignation has broader implications for the #MeToo movement as well. Democrats have prided themselves on being the party that stands behind #MeToo, advocates for women, and ultimately believes survivors. When dozens of women came forward with stories of assault and harassment perpetrated by former President Donald Trump, the Democratic party was quick to rally behind them and call for predators like Trump to lose power. They also fiercely opposed the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2019 after three women accused him of sexual assault.
But when these accusations come from within the party, Democrats have taken inconsistent stances on how to address the allegations. Since the 2018 resignation of former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), in which prominent Democrats pressured him to step down, there have been numerous cases where these rules do not apply.
Biden himself has been accused of harassing seven women and assaulting one. None of the allegations were taken as seriously by the Democratic Party as any of many allegations lodged against President Trump. No formal investigations were launched into the accusations against Biden, and the Democratic party worked to both downplay the allegations and smear the reputations of his accusers--most notorious among them Tara Reade--in the months leading up to the 2020 Presidential election.
Joe Biden himself said, “For a woman to come forward in the glaring light of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.” Yet when eight women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct, Biden vehemently denied all allegations, and there was no rallying call for him to resign.
Whether or not one believes Tara Reade, one of his accusers whose account in the NYT gained coverage before the election, it is undeniable that her story was not covered with the same fairness, ferocity, or frequency as allegations made against Trump in the same era. Democratic party leaders equivocated when asked about accusations against Biden, and all fell short of their once made promise to ‘believe women.’
The greater question is where the Democratic party draws the line in regards to #MeToo, and what it will take for survivors of sexual violence to be believed. Cuomo seems to have crossed that line after being investigated, but Biden, and many other men in the Democratic party, have been able to get off the hook for decades.
It is impossible to predict how the party apparatus will react to future accusations of sexual misconduct levied against prominent Democrats. Perhaps the widespread condemnation of Cuomo signals a new precedent within the party, where abhorrent behavior will roundly be condemned; more likely, though, it represents the exception -- not the rule -- of a situation becoming politically untenable and forcing the party’s hand.
But the Cuomo saga can still be a roadmap for those within the party who, unlike much of the party’s leadership, have no tolerance for sexual misconduct whether the scandal is politically renewable or not. Cuomo’s fall illustrates a crucial missing ingredient in the cases of other accused Democrats: institutional power. If the same report had been issued by New York Times reporters, and not the Attorney General, it's doubtful that resignation would be on the table. Media scrutiny and legal authority can reveal the truth equally as much. The lesson for the Democrats without tolerance for misbehavior is simple: If party leadership is only willing to view abhorrent behavior in terms of political viability, institutional power must be co-opted to run that viability into the ground.