The scandal that is engulfing the Cuomo Administration right now in New York is borne out of a long standing ‘boys club’ culture in politics, that creates harassment OKAY zones and prevents meaningful change from happening. I’ve been active in politics for the past 11 years of my life now. I started organizing in Richmond Hill Queens to serve the Sikh American population and was actively involved in community based organizing efforts.
The Cuomo administration was becoming unraveled by January of this year. Here is a brief timeline of events to better help you understand [if you’re reading this from another state] about whats engulfing New York politics. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Dec. 13: Lindsey Boylan, who worked as an economic adviser for the Cuomo administration, on Twitter accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment. Mr. Cuomo said the claims weren’t true.
Jan. 28: New York state Attorney General Letitia James released a report that showed the Covid-19 death toll attributed to nursing homes was understated by roughly 50%.
Feb. 24: Ms. Boylan said in a Medium post that the governor kissed her on the lips after a meeting in his office and suggested they “play strip poker” during an airplane trip. The governor has denied the allegations, and several aides who were on plane rides with Ms. Boylan said the conversation didn’t take place.
Feb. 27: Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide to the governor, accused him of asking about her sex life and other inappropriate behavior. Mr. Cuomo said he never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, “nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.”
Feb. 28: The attorney general said her office would investigate sexual-harassment accusations against the governor.
March 1: Anna Ruch, 33, accused the governor of touching her cheeks and trying to kiss her at a wedding reception in 2019.
March 5: New York state lawmakers moved to curtail management powers granted to Mr. Cuomo during the coronavirus pandemic.
March 6: Ana Liss said that while she served as a policy and operations aide to Mr. Cuomo between 2013 and 2015, the governor asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk. Mr. Cuomo said that he never intended to make anyone uncomfortable.
March 7: New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, said Mr. Cuomo should resign.
March 8: The governor’s office received a complaint from a fourth female aide, who accused Mr. Cuomo of touching her inappropriately late last year at the Executive Mansion in Albany. Mr. Cuomo said, “I have never done anything like this.” The governor’s office referred the complaint to the state attorney general and later to the Albany Police Department.
March 11: The New York Assembly said it will begin an impeachment investigation of Mr. Cuomo. It has been more than a century since a New York governor has been impeached.
March 12: U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand joined leading House Democrats from New York in calling for Mr. Cuomo to resign. Mr. Cuomo said he wouldn’t resign.
Some of the behavior that was noted in the New Yorker article by Rebecca Traister of Cuomo and the bystander impact of his staff in enabling the abusive behavior of Rich Azzopardi and Secretary to the Governor Melissa De Rosa, is deeply troubling and reflects the ‘trick down impact’ of toxic workplaces and the enablers that stand by and let this system THRIVE instead of addressing employee concerns. This in turn can promote, high turnover, lack of trust in goverment, mental health issues, job insecurity and so much more.
- Cuomo used the full power of state government to terrorize people who detracted from what he wanted them to do and enjoyed using his position to make feel inferior, weak and stacked the deck against them through intimidation tactics designed to prevent people from talking as Lindsay Boylan (the first woman to come out against him) mentions and how others recount their experiences working for him.
- Just like Donald Trump tried (among many things) using the resources of the federal government to prevent the transition of power between administrations through the General Services Administration, Governor Cuomo has weaponized his oversight of the JCOPE process and make it even more difficult to bring accountability to the misuse of State government resources. While these examples might be spaced out from each other the true point is showing how privileged politicians use the institutions of government -paid for by our tax money- to misuse their power and lord it over the people they intend to punish.
- “During his decade as governor, he has often strutted his thuggish paternalism while his top aides disparaged those who challenged him. Two years ago, a Cuomo spokesman called three female state lawmakers in his party “fucking idiots.” In 2013, Cuomo created the Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption, only to shut it down abruptly less than a year later amid allegations that he had obstructed its work; one of Cuomo’s closest associates, Joe Percoco, is serving a six-year term in federal prison on bribery charges.” (Rebecca Traister, The New Yorker)
Detractors mentioned if we just had ‘right people elected’ to office, we wouldn’t be dealing with so much pervasive harassment. If that was true, government would be a space welcoming to those who are less represented in powerful positions. The more important thing to keep in mind is also that when people do get to power, it remains to be seen how they treat their staff and how turnover is. As a cis-woman of color, I have found the experience of being in the political world, one to be very violent.
Not only am I degraded in my labor, intentionally erased from organizing spaces when I’m within my own community, I also experience people’s doubt when I mentioned I have been sexually harassed, people have made excuses for my abuser and often times, I have been told to ‘just deal with it and not ruin other people’s hardwork’ in getting to where they in their careers.
Maybe we do need to ‘elect better people’ but what happens when we don’t have accountability measures in place? What happens when lawmakers, create toxic work environments, prevent people from reporting it, and then we’re left to talk among ourselves if we had the same experiences? Who investigates the people making the laws? What if they’re used against us?
Who is willing to come forward if you threaten any chance of a career in politics? A few brave people might, but the ones who see toxic and negative behavior but unable to talk about are stuck in this system.
Here are some examples of sexual harassment that I have experienced in my time working in politics as a Punjabi woman.
- Men taking me out to drinks to ‘discuss more opportunities to work together’ only to turn it into a date where one person is thinking they’re on one and the other is uncomfortable and not receptive to their flirting (me).
- Unsolicited pictures, touching and violation of boundaries (don’t call, text or email after a certain time, I’m not comfortable ‘stepping to the side’ to talk to you and I don’t want to go as your ‘date’ to political events)
- Comments about my looks. Men have often said to me ‘that dress you’re wearing fits nicely in all the right places’
- Badmouthing me all over town with mutual connections when I reject their romantic advances and calling me ‘difficult to work with’ or ‘crazy’
- Asking invasive questions about my personal life/preferences.
- Attempting to use mentoring as way to compel me into meeting them at all hours of the day.
- Not sharing opportunities for advancement in the political world and dangling opportunities on a conditional basis.
Unpacking the role of Social Media in Politics
In an explosive article written by Rebecca Traister, she notes the many instances of Cuomo officials using their Twitter accounts to go after their opponents. Rich Azzopardi and Melissa Derosa have personally weaponized their Twitter presence and roles in government -which should be used to serve the people not themselves- and overall has created a toxic and hostile culture where the ‘boys club’ reigns and is propped up by white women who just as complicit in this. We’ve also lived through four years of the Trump administration where Trump was frequently firing people and spreading white supremacist disinformation. He has since been suspended.
From the article, here are a few examples with how social media was used to fight back against critics of the Cuomo Administration (and yes I almost wrote Trump Administration because this is where we are at):
- Here is an example of an exchange between State Senator Biaggi and Secretary to the Governor Melissa De Rosa:
The trickle down impact of how Albany politics is replicated in Queens County politics is also important to note. Many former Cuomo staffers have won elections riding on the Governors coattails while also being propped up by the South Asian community in the downstate region. Part of the problem is just how much the model minority standard hurts us.
- We need to unionize every single staffer in New York State government.
- We do need to make sure that everyone who is dealing with an abusive boss/work culture has a way to report their situation without a fear of blow back.
- Our workplaces don’t demonstrate the people of New York and the background we come from. That much was clear with the amount of opportunities given to the white staffers that Governor Cuomo no doubt surrounds himself with and gives the most opportunity to.
- People become staffers in government with the hopes of changing things and while that doesn’t happen the people of New York need to be continued to be the emphasis. A lack of focus on who we’re serving when we get these powerful positions can quickly devolve into Machevillian politics. The ends do not justify the means and we need to deconstruct the cynical political games that empower so much abuse to happen.
- Men need to learn more about how they continue to enable and empower white supremacy, patriarchy and toxic masculinity. If the emphasis on the political world remains on the ‘domination’ of politics and the ‘subjugation’ of the people’s will (very gendered terms that men operate by to stay ‘viable’ in political office)
- Our local political clubs shouldn’t be enabling an out-dated and inhumane form of political power sharing and the Queens and Brooklyn county political clubs certainly misuse their power and enable a culture that is toxic to operate in. Without reform, accountability measures, and a clear process. Many community leaders in both counties have documented how the political clubs exclude people from participation, don’t make meetings accessible to the public, drag on for hours on end, prevent progressives from having a true stake in their democratic clubs and the outcomes they can have for the people who believe in the party as their political home, or as a vehicle through which to operate within the confines of the two-party system we have in this country.