Abuse and Power
New York magazine|March 15 - 28, 2021
Andrew Cuomo’s governorship has been defined by cruel behavior that disguised chronic mismanagement. Why was that celebrated for so long?
By Rebecca Traister

Joel Wertheimer took a job in Andrew Cuomo’s administration in February 2017, straight from his position in Barack Obama’s White House. He came on alongside almost 30 other new hires, many of whom had also worked for the outgoing president or on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and were seeking a progressive professional path through the Trump years. Some saw New York State government as a bulwark against what they feared Trumpism would bring. Others hoped it could be a laboratory for ideas that might become a model for federal policy.

Early in their employment, a few of these staffers were invited to a party at the governor’s mansion in Albany. Partway through the bash, there was a roast of Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, then the chief of staff but soon to be promoted to secretary to the governor. The roast, said Wertheimer, entailed projecting photos of prominent state officials, “then asking Melissa if she knew their names, and her not knowing.” The newcomers whispered and huddled together while everyone else laughed. “We were saying to each other, ‘This is fucking weird,’ ” said one former staffer. “This was not ha-ha funny,” Wertheimer explained. “This was, ‘You guys are bad at your job!’ And, ‘You’re mean!’ ”

Four years later, and one year after he began his star turn as “America’s Governor,” steering his state through covid via daily, reassuringly matter-of-fact press briefings, Andrew Cuomo’s third term as governor of New York is suddenly deeply imperiled. In January, State Attorney General Letitia James released a report showing that his administration had underreported covid deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent. In February, liberal State Assembly member Ron Kim, who had criticized the governor in the wake of that report, spoke publicly about how Cuomo called him at home and threatened his career. Then the floodgates opened: His adversary Mayor Bill de Blasio called the bullying “classic Andrew Cuomo”; state legislators Alessandra Biaggi and Yuh-Line Niou began openly suggesting that the governor’s bare-knuckled approach to politics is simply abusive. And since last month, when Cuomo’s former aide and candidate for Manhattan borough president Lindsey Boylan published an article on Medium accusing him of sexually harassing and kissing her against her will, five more women have come forward with tales of harassment, objectification, and inappropriate touching. As of publication, dozens of Democratic members of the State Assembly and Senate, and 11 Democratic members of Congress, have called for his resignation.

That Andrew Cuomo is being characterized by fellow Democratic politicians as a lecherous tyrant who empowers his staff to threaten and intimidate should not, in some ways, come as a surprise. 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.

But until now, none of this left a lasting mark on the governor. If anything, it burnished his reputation: Cuomo was a bully, but he was our bully. Over the course of the past year, however, as he took his show national as Governor Covid, the political dynamics in Cuomo’s own state were shifting. Now, the venal toxicity that has buttressed his career has, at least temporarily, been exposed for what it is.

Though the multiple scandals erupting in Albany seem to toggle between sexualized harassment stories and evidence of mismanagement, what is emerging is in fact a single story: That through years of ruthless tactics, deployed both within his office and against anyone he perceived as an adversary, critic, or competitor, Cuomo has fostered a culture that supported harassment, cruelty, and deception. And while some have continued to defend Cuomo’s commitment to “creating the perception of strength” and his mastery of “brutalist political theater” (as de Blasio’s former spokesman told the New York Times last month), his tough-guy routine has in fact worked to obscure governing failures; it is precisely what has permitted Cuomo and his administration to spend a decade being, to borrow Wertheimer’s assessment, both mean and bad at their jobs. As one former Cuomo staffer told me, “The same attitude that emboldens you to target a 25-year-old also emboldens you to scrub a nursing-home report.”

Cuomo’s leadership style often confuses ruthlessness with greatness, abuse with strength. Interviews with dozens of former Cuomo employees and those who have worked with or adjacent to his administration reveal a governing institution that has been run, at times, like a cultish fraternity, and at others like a high-school clique—a state executive chamber in which the maintenance of power, performance of pecking orders, and pursuit of competitive resentments matter as much as policy. As Wertheimer said of many of those who entered the Cuomo administration alongside him, “People came in, looked around, and did the Grampa Simpson meme; we just turned back around and left.” Wertheimer quit seven months after he started. “It’s this total toxic masculine bullshit that disguises a very poorly run place.”

IN 2016, KAITLIN, who asked that her last name not be published, was working 9-to-5 for a Democratic congressman and waiting tables nights and weekends in order to make rent and pay down student loans. In the fall, she was offered a job at a lobbying firm that paid her enough to cut back on waitressing to just weekends.

Six weeks after starting her new job, Kaitlin was working at a fund-raiser that her firm was hosting for Cuomo. As the governor left, he stopped to greet staffers of the event; when he approached Kaitlin, she introduced herself and told him that she used to work for a politician. To her surprise and confusion, he replied that she would soon be back in government, this time at the state level. “Then he grabbed me in a kind of dance pose,” she said, while a photographer snapped a picture. “I was thinking, This is the weirdest interaction I’ve ever had in my life … I was like, Don’t touch me. Everybody was watching.” Kaitlin recalled feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed in front of her new colleagues—“my whole team of people I’d just met”—who gathered around her after Cuomo walked away, joking, “Oh, the governor likes you.”

That same week, Kaitlin received a voice-mail from Cuomo’s office asking her to interview for a job. She had not provided his representatives with contact information; they had found her on their own. She disclosed this to her new bosses, who understood her discomfort but explained that he was the governor and that she would have to take the meeting. When Kaitlin turned to several of her former supervisors and mentors for advice, they said the same thing, explaining that, professionally, she had no choice but to go to the interview and accept the job he offered her.

“We all knew that this was only because of what I looked like,” said Kaitlin. “Why else would you ask someone to come in two days after you had a two-minute interaction at a party?”

Once she started working for Cuomo, Kaitlin said, there wasn’t much direction about what she was supposed to do, except to “be a sponge,” learn from senior women in the office, and react to the governor’s capricious moods. Some mornings, Kaitlin would hear her BlackBerry ping with the message that Cuomo had left his Mount Kisco home earlier than scheduled; she would have to rush out of the shower to sprint—with wet hair, in heels—across town to be at the Manhattan office, at 633 Third Avenue, when he arrived. On those mornings, he would comment on why she didn’t look put together. “ ‘You decided not to get ready today?’ Or, ‘You didn’t put makeup on today?’”

In speaking with 30 women about their experiences with Cuomo, almost all who worked for him commented on the extreme pressure applied by both the governor and his top female aides to dress well and expensively; some were told explicitly by senior staff that they had to wear heels whenever he was around. Kaitlin was still paying off her student loans. “I did what I could with my clothes,” she said, “and it wasn’t good enough for them. I didn’t have designer stuff.” She remembered wearing a red plaid Gap button-down shirt she’d thought was cute, but the governor remarked that she looked “like a lumberjack.” (According to a Cuomo spokesperson, “There is not now, nor has there ever been, an expectation to wear certain clothing or high heels.”)

The governor never touched Kaitlin inappropriately or made any explicit sexual overtures, she said, but his reactions would sometimes make her feel self-conscious, such as when she asked him if he wanted her personal cell-phone number: “I thought that was a normal thing to offer your boss,” she said, but he behaved as if she’d come on to him. Like other women who have come forward, she remembered him asking questions about her dating life. Once, in Albany, he brought her in to show her a room adjacent to his office; it was cold, and he was standing very close to her in a way that made her feel so profoundly uncomfortable that she remembers shaking.

On a different day, in Manhattan, Cuomo asked her to come into his office and look up car parts on eBay. “He sat at his desk and angled his chair around.” It was a tight space, with Kaitlin standing between the seated governor and the computer he was asking her to work on. “So I was standing there, in a skirt and heels, having to bend over his computer, with him looking at me and me looking up car parts.” (In response, Cuomo’s spokesperson noted: “The governor is notoriously technologically inept— male and female staffers have for years assisted the governor with his computer.”)

Not long after she started, she said, Cuomo’s people rented out Dorrian’s for a Super Bowl party. At the end of the night, after the bar opened to the public, Cuomo was sitting in a back room talking to a young woman with a dove tattooed on her hand. At a staff meeting the next morning, Kaitlin said, Cuomo asked his aides to find the woman with the dove tattoo and to consider offering her a job. Kaitlin described the uncanny realization that this was likely how it had gone the morning after she’d met him.

After every public event, Kaitlin sorted through photographs of Cuomo posing with guests, selecting images to which he would append personal notes. She said he always paid special attention to pictures of himself with pretty women. If he didn’t like how he looked in them, he would yell at Kaitlin. “I got screamed at for a lot of bad photos,” she told me.

Kaitlin described a culture in which dishonest power plays were frequent. The phones at the office had push-tone keys that would stick, and sometimes she’d lose a call as she transferred it. She recalled that Cuomo once said, “You can’t figure out the fucking phones—I’m going to end your career.” Miserable, Kaitlin began to consider how she might get out. It was widely rumored the Cuomo administration would impede one’s efforts to find a new job and could get an offer rescinded. “I can’t tell anybody,” Kaitlin says she thought at that time. “But I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I’d cry all the time. I thought I didn’t know how to do anything anymore—not even basic life skills.”

Kaitlin did not know whether her experience with Cuomo met the legal definition of sexual harassment, though she did feel that she had been “verbally and mentally abused by him and his staff” and said that she has described the work style—to friends and a therapist—“as a form of coercive control.” When she finally interviewed for a job at the state authority where she now works, she cried.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a slow drip of reporting on Cuomo’s allegedly inappropriate behavior toward women: 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett told the Times that this summer, when she was working for him, he made invasive comments about her experience of sexual assault and suggestively asked whether she would date older men; Anna Ruch recalled him touching her back, grabbing her cheeks and asking if he could kiss her at a wedding; a recently resurfaced video shows Cuomo summoning a television reporter to his table at the 2016 New York State Fair and urging her to “eat the whole sausage,” joking as she takes a selfie of them with a sandwich, “There’s too much sausage in that picture”; most recently, an unnamed Albany staffer has lodged a complaint that the governor put his hand up her shirt after she was called to the governor’s mansion to help him with an IT problem (that complaint has now been referred to the Albany police).

The stream of stories has been both upsetting and disorienting. Some of the reports are clear-cut. Others have attempted to force stories of discrimination and misconduct under the rubric of sexual harassment via a blunt tallying of violations that are graded on a scale: a kiss on the lips or the cheeks; an inappropriate touch at work or at a wedding; a hand on a shoulder or the small of a back. More than three years after the reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s violent predation and the reckoning it provoked, we have been conditioned to draw bright lines around certain inarguably bad actions. This has led to a revolutionary shift in workplace culture, ending the careers of many powerful people who had abused women (and men) with impunity while fundamentally changing our language and understanding of professional misconduct. Still, the very extremity of the bad behavior exposed in the wake of Weinstein has, ironically, limited the conversation around workplace harassment. We are sometimes too quick to apply flat metrics to judge isolated incidents and thereby miss the opportunity to fully assess and address the harm, inequity, and discrimination that happens on a subtler, but no less pervasive, scale.

Cuomo’s treatment of some of the young women who worked for and around him demonstrated a kind of diminishment and tokenization that may take a sexualized form, and may involve objectification and flirtation, but that doesn’t always entail explicitly sexualized contact or connection. In fact, Cuomo may be a textbook example of how sexual harassment, like sexual assault, isn’t about sex at all; it’s about power. In Cuomo’s case, it was one manifestation of his obsession with performing dominance, emphasizing the gulf of authority between the governor and those around him, making himself feel big and conveying to others that they were small.

Ana Liss, 35, who told The Wall Street Journal of her experiences of feeling devalued by Cuomo, entered his administration fresh from her beloved hometown of Rochester in 2013, full of “Pollyanna thinking,” she said, about how to make her state a better place. On one of her first days on the job, she told me, Cuomo approached her and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”

He came up with nicknames for her— “Sparky,” “Blondie,” “Sweetheart,” and “Honey”—and, she said, “he was just flirtatious.” (Boylan has also claimed the governor called her by the name of a rumored ex-girlfriend he said she resembled; Kaitlin said he called her “Sponge.”) Liss remembered an executive assistant in Cuomo’s office, someone who had worked in the capital for decades, once telling her, “He thinks you’re cute; the governor likes you.”

She did find it odd, she said, that “there was nobody that was unattractive. I felt like I was in Stepford Wives but with younger women. His briefers were always beautiful, leggy young women right out of college.” The same executive assistant advised her, she said, that “when the governor is here, you need to look really good.”

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