Shock waves reverberated throughout New York and the rest of the country when state Attorney General Letitia James’ office released a report concluding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had harassed 11 women in his office. The report was much more damning than insiders expected, yet the governor’s taped response denying all the allegations was not surprising. After all, no one does defiance like Cuomo.
When the first allegations against Cuomo came up in March, I said over and over again that I had never personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment during my tenure with the governor’s office.
When the first allegations against Cuomo came up in March, I said over and over again that I had never personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment during my tenure with the governor’s office eight years ago. Since then, however, I have reflected not just about my time in the governor’s office, but also my general career in government and politics.
When Cuomo appointed me special adviser in 2014, it was news. There were several newspaper stories, mainly because I was a Republican. At the time, I had my own consulting firm and was a political contributor for MSNBC. In other words, I was considered a “high-profile hire.” It never occurred to me that maybe it was because I was “high profile” and didn’t owe my career to the governor that I may have been shielded from this behavior.
Did I see the governor demean staff and bully government officials? Absolutely. Was he a demanding and, at times, an unreasonable boss? You bet he was. Was this anything I haven’t seen before? Nope, but instead part of a pattern I had witnessed repeatedly throughout my 30 years in the business.
But that’s the point: I saw this kind of behavior all the time. Furthermore, by accepting it as part of the culture, I allowed it to continue. There were days when I tried to console a colleague after being berated by the governor, and other days I was the one who needed the support of my co-workers. At the time, it seemed like just another day at the office; it was not sexual harassment, but it certainly should have been called out as unacceptable.
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When the #MeToo movement started, and it felt like every other day brought new revelations about men in power, I spoke out about my own experiences as a young woman surrounded by men. I considered myself “lucky” that I only ever had to deal with a pat on the bottom occasionally, and that I could usually shoo away unwanted advances. To be clear, I have always known that this behavior was wrong and unacceptable, but at the time it was a common occurrence. And like dozens of other women, we just dealt with it.
Things were much worse in Albany. Back in the 1990s, there was the “Bear Mountain Pact,” meaning what happens in Albany stays in Albany. And while many male legislators and staffers have flowed through the statehouse, its culture has stayed the same. Since then, there have been dozens of laws written, more men have been found guilty of this behavior and, most of all, more women are speaking up.
“My office is a demanding place to work, and that it is not for everyone,” Cuomo said in his disgraceful “explanation.” There is no doubt that working at the highest levels of government is demanding and, at times, grueling. Most of us who get into the field know and understand that.
In fact, some of the hardest working and most dedicated workers I have ever known worked for Cuomo. This is why it was so shocking to see them berated, demeaned and marginalized by the governor. The angst on the faces of senior managers was palpable, and at times it seemed as if the governor delighted in it. That was one aspect of the toxicity. The other was fear of retribution.
During the first couple months in the office, I remember learning that a senior staff member was leaving. I asked where she was going. She responded that she would let me know once she was at the new place. I was taken aback, but when I asked why, I was told people didn't let the governor know when or where they may be going for fear that he might sabotage it. It didn’t matter if he knew you or liked you — he didn’t like it when people left him. Loyalty above everything.
Today, the same questions come up that come up after every sexual harassment scandal. How could he think he would get away with that? How can the laws be strengthened? These are good questions, but what must really be examined, if we are to make progress, is the culture of the workplace. Reflecting back, it's easy to see how the culture allowed the governor's behavior to exist and fester — and sometimes hide in plain sight. Fear does that.