"Let's play strip poker"
I should have been shocked by the Governor’s crude comment, but I wasn’t.
We were flying home from an October 2017 event in Western New York on his taxpayer-funded jet. He was seated facing me, so close our knees almost touched. His press aide was to my right and a state trooper behind us.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” I responded sarcastically and awkwardly. I tried to play it cool. But in that moment, I realized just how acquiescent I had become.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected. His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you, that you must be doing something right. He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences.
That’s why I panicked on the morning of December 13.
While enjoying a weekend with my husband and six-year-old daughter, I spontaneously decided to share a small part of the truth I had hidden for so long in shame and never planned to disclose. The night before, a former Cuomo staffer confided to me that she, too, had been the subject of the Governor’s workplace harassment. Her story mirrored my own. Seeing his name floated as a potential candidate for U.S. Attorney General — the highest law enforcement official in the land — set me off.
In a few tweets, I told the world what a few close friends, family members and my therapist had known for years: Andrew Cuomo abused his power as Governor to sexually harass me, just as he had done with so many other women.
As messages from journalists buzzed on my phone, I laid in bed unable to move. I finally had decided to speak up, but at what cost?
Parts of a supposed confidential personnel file (which I’ve never seen) were leaked to the media in an effort to smear me. The Governor’s loyalists called around town, asking about me.
Last week, Assemblymember Ron Kim spoke out publicly about the intimidation and abuse he has faced from Governor Cuomo and his aides. As Mayor de Blasio remarked, “the bullying is nothing new.” There are many more of us, but most are too afraid to speak up.
I’m compelled to tell my story because no woman should feel forced to hide their experiences of workplace intimidation, harassment and humiliation — not by the Governor or anyone else.
I expect the Governor and his top aides will attempt to further disparage me, just as they’ve done with Assemblymember Kim. They’d lose their jobs if they didn’t protect him. That’s how his administration works. I know because I was a part of it.
I joined state government in 2015 as a Vice President at Empire State Development. I was quickly promoted to Chief of Staff at the state economic development agency. The news of my appointment prompted a warning from a friend who served as an executive with an influential civic engagement organization: “Be careful around the Governor.”
My first encounter with the Governor came at a January 6, 2016, event at Madison Square Garden to promote the new Pennsylvania Station-Farley Complex project. After his speech, he stopped to talk to me. I was new on the job and surprised by how much attention he paid me.
My boss soon informed me that the Governor had a “crush” on me. It was an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar feeling: the struggle to be taken seriously by a powerful man who tied my worth to my body and my appearance.
Stephanie Benton, Director of the Governor’s Offices, told me in an email on December 14, 2016 that the Governor suggested I look up images of Lisa Shields — his rumored former girlfriend — because “we could be sisters” and I was “the better looking sister.” The Governor began calling me “Lisa” in front of colleagues. It was degrading.
I had complained to friends that the Governor would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs. His senior staff began keeping tabs on my whereabouts. “He is a sexist pig and you should avoid being alone with him!” my mother texted me on November 4, 2016.
The Governor’s behavior made me nervous, but I didn’t truly fear him until December 2016. Senior State employees gathered at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany to celebrate the holidays and our year’s work. After his remarks, the Governor spotted me in a room filled with hundreds of people waiting to shake his hand. As he began to approach me, I excused myself from coworkers and moved upstairs to a more distant area of the party.
Minutes later, I received a call from an unlisted number. It was the Governor’s body person. He told me to come to the Capitol because the Governor wanted to see me.
I made my way through the underground connection that linked the Plaza to the Capitol. As the black wrought-iron elevator took me to the second floor, I called my husband. I told him I was afraid of what might happen. That was unlike me. I was never afraid.
I exited the elevator to see the body person waiting for me. He walked me down the Hall of Governors. “Are there cameras here?” I asked him. I remembered my mother’s text warning the month before. I worried that I would be left alone with the Governor. I didn’t know why I was there. Or how it would end.
I was escorted into the Governor’s office, past the desks of administrative assistants and into a room with a large table and historical artifacts. The door closed behind me. It was my first time in his Albany office. The Governor entered the room from another door. We were alone.
As he showed me around, I tried to maintain my distance. He paused at one point and smirked as he showed off a cigar box. He told me that President Clinton had given it to him while he served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The two-decade old reference to President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was not lost on me.
The Governor must have sensed my fear because he finally let me out of the office. I tried to rationalize this incident in my head. At least he didn’t touch me. That made me feel safer.
His inappropriate gestures became more frequent. He gave roses to female staffers on Valentine’s Day and arranged to have one delivered to me, the only one on my floor. A signed photograph of the Governor appeared in my closed-door office while I was out. These were not-so-subtle reminders of the Governor exploiting the power dynamic with the women around him.
In 2018, I was promoted to Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Special Advisor to the Governor. I initially turned the job down — not because I didn’t want the responsibility or work but because I didn’t want to be near him. I finally accepted the position at the Governor’s insistence with one requirement — I would keep my old agency office and remain on a separate floor from him and his inner circle.
The Governor’s pervasive harassment extended beyond just me. He made unflattering comments about the weight of female colleagues. He ridiculed them about their romantic relationships and significant others. He said the reasons that men get women were “money and power.”
I tried to excuse his behavior. I told myself “it’s only words.” But that changed after a one-on-one briefing with the Governor to update him on economic and infrastructure projects. We were in his New York City office on Third Avenue. As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips. I was in shock, but I kept walking.
I left past the desk of Stephanie Benton. I was scared she had seen the kiss. The idea that someone might think I held my high-ranking position because of the Governor’s “crush” on me was more demeaning than the kiss itself.
After that, my fears worsened. I came to work nauseous every day. My relationship with his senior team — mostly women — grew hostile after I started speaking up for myself. I was reprimanded and told to get in line by his top aides, but I could no longer ignore it.
On September 26, 2018, I sent a mass email informing staff members of my resignation.
Mayor de Blasio, for whom I also worked and knew for 25 years, both at HUD and as New York City mayor, practices a different brand of penis politics. His charming, easygoing personality he had when we worked together in the federal government gave way to a hectoring, inflexible approach that bordered on sanctimony when I was his press secretary at City Hall.
His signature move as mayor was to dig in on an untenable position against the advice of staff, raising the cost of an inevitable defeat. Discussions with staff were marked by condescension, leaving the female staffers feeling especially marginalized. It made for an uncomfortable work environment.
Although the mayor preached a philosophy of egalitarianism, the workplace was pretty much like any other male-dominated environment I’ve been in: Women were interrupted more often and listened to less, whether they were a commissioner or a scheduler. By the end of his first term, the mayor had lost twice as many senior officials who were women than men.
While they had different styles, both Cuomo and de Blasio had one thing in common. Like many powerful men in politics, they create a public image as champions of women’s rights and equality. Behind closed doors, they use gender domination as one means to assert their power over women.
My experience with penis politics wasn’t only in the political arena. I saw it on the basketball court in my Mississippi high school, when I got benched for running better plays than the ones my coach, a man, wanted. I’d seen it as a young journalist, when my male editor refused to run a controversial story that I had well-sourced after the Jackson, Miss., mayor called to complain. I’d seen it in working in Congress, where men tended to get the chief of staff title and women often played receptionist, taking the incoming phone calls placed by angry constituents.
Silence and penis politics often go hand in hand. In 1998 at HUD, I spoke up about a clumsy pick-up attempt Bill Clinton made on me when I was a 26-year-old campaign operative and he was governor of Arkansas. It cost me a Senate-confirmed appointment when Cuomo quietly had the White House pull my nomination. It was penis politics again in 2015, when Cuomo and his “sources” threw bombs at me (and for a while, I threw them back) and then again when de Blasio made it impossible for me to do my job by invalidating what I said to the press on his behalf.
The men who often rule the roost in politics routinely go out of their way to assert their dominance over other men. Over women, doing so is second nature.
When The Blaz was queried about this article that detailed his duplicitous manner towards and passive aggressive undermining of most of his top female staffers, he reverted to his proclivity for identity politricks by validating his recognition and support of women in his administration and their impact on the city’s policies by citing his tax-boondoggle wife:
“I have not seen the piece, I’ll only talk about the history of this administration, um, from the beginning, literally from the very beginning, the leadership of this administration has been majority, woman and continues to be. My number one advisor, confidante, partner in everything everyone knows is Chirlane. My longest serving aide and person I have depended on and worked so closely with now for over a decade or more, Emma Wolfe. And four out of six deputy mayors are women and throughout this history of this administration, it’s been a female led administration in so many ways and I have tremendous respect for the folks who have been a part of this team”
For the Blaz, the women he appointed to work with and under him in the high echelons in his cabinet are just woke window dressing, while women working for Cuomo have to develop a tolerance for misogynistic put-downs, creepy flirtations and sneaky kisses. Both of which prove that these two ghouls are truly equals not only in incompetent and unaccountable leadership but also continuing the historic and cultural establishment undermining and objectifying of women in the workplace and should be abolished from running any executive position in government or the private sector.