ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for a decade has championed laws to combat sexual harassment and sexual assault, calling them models for the nation because "we believe women."
His rhetoric and legacy, however, was severely damaged Tuesday by the investigative report by state Attorney General Letitia James that concluded he sexually harassed 11 women, most of whom worked in Cuomo’s executive chamber.
The report said Cuomo touched the women inappropriately and made sex-based comments to them about their appearance and their own relationships. The allegations cut against Cuomo’s public image, which has relied on strong support from women voters.
"This is ironic, and certainly will be used against him," said Gerald Benjamin, retired distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "The degree of advocacy and credit-taking is also a dimension" of the criticism he is receiving.
Cuomo denies the allegations. He continues to fight despite calls for his resignation by President Joe Biden and leading Democrats in New York state. He calls the attorney general’s investigation flawed and politically motivated. He disputes the version of events and comments as characterized by his accusers.
"I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances," Cuomo said in a taped address Tuesday. "That is just not who I am and that's not who I have ever been."
The Assembly’s Judiciary Committee has set a Friday deadline for Cuomo to submit a written rebuttal to the attorney general’s report before a vote is held on whether to impeach Cuomo.
In the past, Cuomo has quickly called for the resignations of the legislators accused of sexual harassment, calling their behavior "repugnant" and insisting New York has "zero tolerance." He also criticized former President Donald Trump for saying on tape that he kissed and groped women without their consent and called for blocking Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh over sexual misconduct claims from decades before.
The allegations against Cuomo are particularly damaging because Cuomo elevated the issue of sexual harassment as the national "#Me-Too" movement forced the nation to deal with the long-standing problem from Hollywood to Washington, political scientists said.
"Politicians can survive scandals generally if two things are true: If they're seen as relatively trivial or perhaps unproven, and their party stands with them," said Jonathan Krasno, political science professor at Binghamton University. "Neither applies to the situation that Gov. Cuomo is in which leaves him in a world of trouble … The bigger issue is that the Democratic base is made up of important constituencies that won’t tolerate this behavior."
For a decade over three terms, Cuomo has pushed his women’s agenda politically and legislatively, while noting the measures are personal to him as a father of three girls.
In 2014, Cuomo created the Women’s Equality Party as a minor party to counter what he called an anti-woman agenda of his Republican opponents. He signed legislation that included stronger laws against rape and sexual abuse on college campuses.
He also strengthened laws to require equal pay for women and has hired more women to top jobs than any past governor, banned harassment settlements with nondisclosure agreements and required all employers to adopt or exceed his model sexual harassment policy.
In 2019, Cuomo signed a bill into law that ends the legal requirement that sexual harassment be "severe or pervasive" to be proven. He said the law closed a loophole to address "sporadic" harassment of women.
"The legislation that Cuomo signed in 2019 to protect New Yorkers from sexual harassment in the workplace applies to public officials," said Meena Bose, a political scientist at Hofstra University. "And the governor is subject to the rule of law."
The attorney general’s report found only one form, in 2019, states the governor took the annual training since 2013, but even that was questioned because it was signed by a senior aide "on his behalf," the report stated.
"We find that the problem did not rest with the Executive Chamber’s written policies, which were robust and consistent with the requirements of New York State law," the report stated, "but in the Executive Chamber’s failure to follow them."
Wioletta Dziuda, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, questioned why Cuomo championed women’s causes "if he does not seem to believe them … (but) Cuomo’s prior engagement with women’s issue is no longer protecting him."
Even in a political world rife with scandal, some behavior can still shock, said Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), who sponsored many of the bills Cuomo touts as his women’s agenda.
"I don’t think anybody believes any of us in public office are paragons of virtue," she said "But I think this is just so egregious it’s just shocking … He has always been a very aggressive, bullying kind of guy so it’s not a surprise, but I think it’s a surprise that he was this stupid."