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The ties that bind Andrew Cuomo and Madison Cawthorn (and Ronny Jackson)

Both Democrats and Republicans use victims as pawns to attack their political rivals. Both Democrats and Republicans must be held similarly accountable.
Image: Madison Cawthorn and Andrew Cuomo
Madison Cawthorn and Andrew Cuomo.Reuters; AFP- Getty

After nine days of intentional silence, the typically camera-happy Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressed the multiple sexual harassment and sexual misconduct allegations against him. “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” Cuomo said at a March 3 press conference meant to discuss the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and frankly, I’m embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say. But that’s the truth.”

If you’re one of the nearly half of all employed American women who say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, this is all depressingly familiar.

Cuomo does not feel awful enough, however, to resign after Charlotte Bennett accused him of asking inappropriate sexual questions during a private meeting, after Anna Ruch said he touched her bare back and asked whether he could kiss her, and after Lindsey Boylan accused him of asking her to play strip poker and kissing her on the lips without her consent.

“I don’t think today is a day for politics,” Cuomo said during the Wednesday press conference. “I wasn’t elected by politicians, I was elected by the people for the state of New York. I’m not going to resign.”

If you’re one of the nearly half of all employed American women who say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, or the nearly one in five women and one in 38 men who have experienced an attempted or completed rape, this is all depressingly familiar. Harassment and abuse remains a bipartisan problem (though our past president’s success suggests one party tolerates this misconduct more than the other).

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President Donald Trump may be gone, but the specter of sexual misconduct haunts Washington D.C. Just in the past week, multiple women accused Rep. Madison Cawthorn — the 25-year old GOP wunderkind — of harassment while he was a college student.

The youngest Republican in Congress has, in just his short political career, come under fire for lying about the accident that left him reliant on a wheelchair, posting a picture on Instagram of him visiting the summer house of Adolf Hitler and a racially tinged attack on Sen. Cory Booker. Now, over 160 students at the Christian college Cawthorn once attended have signed an open letter accusing the congressman of sexual harassment and “gross misconduct towards women,” including kissing and touching them without their consent.

Cawthorn, like Cuomo, appears to have no plans to resign. Cawthorn, like Cuomo, also denied the allegations. His spokesman Jonathan Hart claimed Cawthorn “has no recollection of the anonymous allegation and denies being forceful in the other two circumstances” reported by BuzzFeed.

At the same time, Rep. Ronny Jackson, who served as a top White House physician under the Obama and Trump administrations, has also been accused in an inspector general report of sexual harassment this week, including making “sexual and denigrating comments” to a woman subordinate. A report that included interviews with 78 witnesses and a review of White House documents concluded that Jackson “failed to treat his subordinates with dignity and respect.”

That the GOP uplifted, celebrated and kowtowed to a former president accused of sexual assault, harassment or rape by over a dozen women, and who formally endorsed a man accused of pedophilia, does not mean sexual harassment, assault and other gender-based acts of violence and degradation are partisan. Cuomo is proof of that. As was former president Bill Clinton, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple women. As was former Sen. Al Franken, who did eventually resign after facing multiple sexual harassment allegations against him.

In 2017, the Office of Compliance, the congressional office that handles harassment complaints, reported it had paid victims of sexual assault and harassment more than $17 million since the 1990s. We don’t know much about how that money was paid out, but it’s a very safe bet that both Democrats and Republicans were involved.

And both parties, to varying degrees, use victims as pawns to attack their political rivals. Trump hid behind Clinton’s accusers before a presidential debate with then-Democratic candidate for president Hillary Clinton. Seven senators who called for Franken to resign later said they regretted it, and Franken has said he “absolutely regretted” resigning weeks after the allegations were made. What is right and what is politically advantageous are not the same thing, so words like “zero tolerance” end up meaning “let’s wait and see,” and a person’s “condemnation” can easily turn into an endorsement a few months later.

What is right and what is politically advantageous are not the same thing, so words like “zero tolerance” end up meaning “let’s wait and see.”

In May 2020, I wrote that the Trump vs. Biden presidential race was going to be a nightmare for sexual assault survivors such as myself. And I was right. We were forced to watch as Trump supporters who ignored the multiple allegations levied against him pretended to care about the women who accused Biden of sexual assault and unwanted touching. And then, to mitigate the unquestionable harm caused by the Trump administration in just four short years, many of us voted for a man we truly believed sexually assaulted at least one woman and made many more uncomfortable with unwanted touching and kissing.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Political ambitions do not subsume the safety and dignity of their fellow humans. Policy goals and accomplishments cannot be used to justify enabling abusers. Republican hypocrisy on this issue — remind me which party is the protector of “traditional values” again? — does not give Democrats a pass.

Cuomo must resign. Cawthorn must resign. Johnson must resign. And if any or all continue to refuse, their political leaders must remove them. And if those leaders refuse, voters must do it for them.

Those within the Democratic and Republican party must scrutinize their own with the same verve and denunciation as they do their legislative rivals. Cuomo is right that this isn’t about politics — it’s about making sure politicians like him are held accountable for their actions, no matter what their ideology.