Cuomo accusers: trust but verify

(Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

If we believe the headlines, it’s time to run the hot shower to clean off the sleaze. It appears Andrew Cuomo has fallen from America’s covid-hero Governor to just another fanny-grabbing, sexually inappropriate power-stoked politician.  Whether he’ll have to pay the price for it – along with his deceptively hiding covid nursing home deaths – in anything more than contempt is still unanswered. We await the results of the independent law firm’s investigation ordered by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam refused to resign after old photos of him in blackface were exposed. The photos were of a grad school party included in a 1984 yearbook.  The revelation and eventual apology were two years ago.  No more photos have emerged, and Northam is still Virginia governor.  In the intervening time, he has pushed for a range of changes dealing with racial inequities, including naming the state’s first Chief Diversity Officer.

Al Franken, whose humor-based inappropriate behavior coincided with the onset of the Me-Too movement, was gone in two months.  A talk show host had accused him of aggressively kissing her during a rehearsal of a Saturday Night Live show 11 years earlier. After her accusation, a photo emerged of him holding his hands above her breasts as she slept in an airport waiting for a flight, wearing body armor.  He mugged for the camera.  Half a dozen others came forward to complain about his inappropriate physicality and humor. Franken asked that the Senate Ethics Committee investigate the complaints. But, before it called him to testify, he was pressured into resigning by NY Senator and potential presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand.  Many Democrats rushed to judgment along with Gillibrand, later expressing regrets at having done so.

Cuomo this week held a press conference and delivered the expected message of faux contrition, said he’d not resign and would await the findings of the independent review. “I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm.” “My interactions may have been insensitive or too personal.” “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”  At least he didn’t do the usual “If I have offended anyone, I apologize.” 

At what point do crude and obnoxious words and behavior become actionable?  Certainly, times have changed.  Behavior that an older generation of women shrugged off, pushed back on or endured in pained silence was despicable, but 40 or more years ago it had to be tolerated because women had no power.  The response to such allegations was to disbelieve them or blame the women themselves.  We’re in a better place now.  We have to listen to these women when complaints come forward.

But that doesn’t mean that all charges are automatically true. And there are different levels of offense. Al Franken wasn’t Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer. A jerk isn’t necessarily a predator, and we shouldn’t smear on the basis of false equivalencies.  But, happily, women no longer have to put up with a hostile work environment, which may be exactly what Andrew Cuomo was creating for his employees, which they were putting up with because of the power differential.

Each case must be decided on its own merits. Fortunately, Cuomo couldn’t get away with choosing his own investigator, though he wanted to do so.  Investigations must be independent. So let them go forward with dispatch. Meanwhile. I’m glad we don’t have to listen to his daily COVID press conferences with this apparently seedy side of his personality and the nursing home death coverup coming into public view. With Donald Trump gone from the White House and a new role model at the top, many governors who, by comparison, had filled the leadership void, are now subject to more intense scrutiny. And that’s a welcome development.

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