ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of sexual harassment in the #MeToo era is coming under fire from both his Republican and Democratic opponents — including Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” actor who is challenging him in the Democratic primary — as the incumbent campaigns for a third term and eyes a potential presidential bid.
Cuomo advocated for and signed new sexual harassment legislation, boasting last month that it’s “the strongest government sexual harassment policy in the United States” and saying that amid silence in Washington, “again New York is leading the way.” But his opponents, both of whom face an uphill battle against the governor, say he hasn't done enough to change Albany's patriarchal culture and hasn't been aggressive enough in cutting ties with known harassers.
Nixon, who remained more than 20 points behind Cuomo in a recent poll, released a video last week juxtaposing women marching for empowerment with Cuomo's statements about hiring former New York Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who was admonished for an affair with a 19-year-old female intern. Hoyt resigned his post last year amid another sexual harassment probe.
Both Nixon and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican standard-bearer, seized on a federal complaint filed May 29 against Jay Kiyonaga, who has held several posts in various state agencies before he was fired May 30 from the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities for a sexual relationship with a female subordinate and for harassing female coworkers.
The drumbeat of high-profile men in entertainment, media and politics facing consequences for allegations of sexual misconduct has prompted new scrutiny of the dynamics in many state capitals, from Sacramento to Tallahassee to Albany. And it’s not fading from the national scene either: President Bill Clinton said Monday that the #MeToo movement is “way overdue” but that criticism of his own behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal owes partly to Democratic frustration that President Donald Trump has yet to face meaningful consequences amid numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Against that backdrop, Nixon said in a statement that there is "a clear pattern of the Governor ignoring reports of sexual harassment against his top staff and allies."
"In an election year when women are rising up against these predators and their allies, the governor is trying to protect himself by running these blatantly false ads," Nixon said. "New York can do much better than reelecting a hypocritical governor who ignores the victims and, instead, chooses to shield those who have been accused."
Cuomo highlighted the new law at the May 24 state Democratic convention on Long Island, in between talk of helping Puerto Rico and opposing the new federal tax law: "Now we're going to bring reform to the private sector as well, because sexual harassment of women is real, it is undeniable,” he said. “New York is going to be the state to do it. It ends here and it ends now."
Molinaro has said for several weeks that Cuomo needs to do more to respond to reports of sexual harassment in the warren of agencies under the governor's control. The Albany Times Union has documented stories involving Kiyonaga and others at the Division of Criminal Justice Services whose complaints were not heeded. In one instance, women who cooperated with an inspector general's probe of inappropriate sexual comments by the division's forensics director, Brian Gestring, were demoted and fired. Gestring was later fired.
According to Molinaro, it's not enough to simply say enough is enough.
"[Cuomo] thinks that by checking the box on passing legislation, it absolves what is either deliberate indifference within his own administration or the lack of understanding of how serious a problem this has been within his own government," he told POLITICO last week.
A POLITICO review tallied at least 1,000 complaints of sexual harassment in state government entities since 2012, resulting in at least $6.4 million of settlement payouts. The women who were harassed by Kiyonaga and Gestring have pending legal claims.
Typically, executive branch agencies have their own designated officers to handle complaints according to a set protocol, but they are tracked by the Governor's Office of Employee Relations. There have been no harassment complaints filed by the governor's staff in the Executive Chamber.
Cuomo 2018 spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer defended the governor's record.
"The governor has fought for and delivered critical legislation to protect the rights of women everywhere — from nation-leading reforms to combat sexual harassment in the workplace to ending the horrific, exploitive practice of sextortion to the landmark enough is enough law and taking firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers," she said. "The governor will continue to take aggressive action to advance the rights and safety of women and girls, and ensure New York leads the way in creating opportunity for all."
The new law that Cuomo touted prohibits nondisclosure agreements unless they are the preference of victims, extends protections to independent contractors, consultants and other non-employees in a given workplace, making an employer liable for sexual harassment charges against them, and bans mandatory arbitration for harassment victims.
It also requires the state's Division of Human Rights to draft and publish a model policy on sexual harassment and prevention training. All public and private employers would be required to adopt the model policy, at a minimum. State contractors would have to certify that they comply with those requirements.
That policy is still being crafted, but Cuomo's campaign touted it last week in an advertisement as the "strongest ... in the nation." Molinaro said he had little to quibble about the substance of what was adopted, but said the process was incredibly flawed.
There were no hearings and no formal session for public input. Instead, the bill language was crafted as part of closed-door negotiations over the state's $168.3 billion budget during March, which were led by four men — Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx).
State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), the first woman to lead a legislative caucus, did not participate in those talks although she and her aides were occasionally briefed on their progress. Klein was a full participant, even though he is under investigation by the Joint Commission for Public Ethics after an accusation by a former aide, Erica Vladimer, that Klein forcibly kissed her. Klein denies the accusation.
Vladimer joined a "working group" of women who have been sexually harassed while working for the state Legislature and who are raising their voices about what they see as systemic problems in and around the Capitol. They are calling on lawmakers to slow down their deliberations because, they say, they want long-term, comprehensive reforms, not measures which they see as rushed and incomplete. Leah Hebert, another member of the group who was harassed by former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, is appearing on a Monday evening panel in Albany.
She said her advocacy is apolitical, but that she's urging those in power to go further than they already have.
"The pressure to stay silent is so enormous, and the sexual harassment that happens in Albany is so institutionalized that it is going to take an enormous effort and enormous change," Hebert told POLITICO. "It's extremely important that the government hear from stakeholders on how and why sexual harassment happens so we can actually have preventative measures."
Nixon has also blasted Cuomo for "mansplaining" sexual harassment to a seasoned female reporter, Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio, when she asked him in December about Hoyt and what else he was doing.
"When you say it's state government, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you're a woman. It's not government. It's society," Cuomo replied.
Cuomo aides note that the most recent allegations against Hoyt were referred to three state offices for investigation, and a probe is now underway by JCOPE.
In December, the governor said it was not a mistake to hire Hoyt — at a higher salary — because he had "paid his price" after a 2003 "mistake" in the Assembly, where Hoyt told a 19-year-old intern he would be her "human lollipop."
And then there are things that Cuomo said or done that make some women wince, or worse. He accepted Hillary Clinton's endorsement of his campaign by giving her a bouquet of lavender and white roses. He challenged a female TV reporter in Syracuse to eat an entire sausage sandwich while sitting next to him. On Thursday, he joked during a speech on a boat near Long Island of having his college-aged daughter's boyfriend fingerprinted.
Nixon's campaign video includes Cuomo's entire exchange about Hoyt, and ends by saying: "Let's elect New York's first woman governor."
"This is obviously a major issue that voters are paying attention to this year — just as people across the country are paying attention — and it's something we'll continue to talk about during the campaign," Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said. "He has real baggage here."