Cuomo Advanced a Feminist Agenda. Was That Just Politics?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo often boasts about the work he has done to change the world. On Tuesday, he expressed astonishment that the world had, in his telling, changed without him.

In announcing his resignation, Mr. Cuomo recounted how he had learned — in reading a 165-page report accusing him of sexually harassing nearly a dozen women, and with the help of his three grown daughters — that perhaps he wasn’t the enlightened feminist ally he had meant to be.

“In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” he said. “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have.”

In Mr. Cuomo’s accounting, he was a victim, too: an old-school politician who, like a time traveler stumbling into a different reality, had abruptly discovered a society upended by the MeToo movement. (That such basic expectations have long been taught in kindergarten — Hands to yourself! — seemed somehow forgotten.)

The governor’s not-so-contrite apology set off a wave of criticism from advocates and political rivals who have long grumbled about a gap between his public accomplishments on behalf of women and his willingness to use the rhetoric of feminism to bolster his public image or seize political advantage. The report’s revelations had left them trying to make sense of an even greater disconnect — between the record of a progressive governor who had championed gender equity and women’s reproductive rights and personal behavior that violated the standards he himself had signed into law.

But there was no such ambivalence about Mr. Cuomo’s attempt on Tuesday to explain away his conduct by pleading ignorance of societal standards and expectations of accountability.

“He absolutely knew that this kind of behavior has never been OK or acceptable,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, who said that an Assembly hearing she was leading on rent relief erupted in applause upon hearing news of Mr. Cuomo’s resignation. “The culture has shifted in Albany somewhat, but his behavior was never appropriate. Not 10 years ago. Not five years ago or last week.”

But, Ms. Rosenthal added: “I guess what else is he going to say?”

Mr. Cuomo has rarely been at a loss for words in touting his feminist credentials. For years, he cast himself as a crusader for women’s rights, often adopting the rhetoric of the MeToo movement.

“There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment in any workplace,” he wrote on Twitter in 2018, “and we can and will end the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled harassment for far too long.”

He also frequently suggested that being the father of three daughters had given him special empathy for and insight into the needs of more than half the population — as if sexist men only have sons.

“God told me I was a feminist when he gave me three daughters,” he said at a rally for abortion rights in 2018. “My father was a feminist. God told him he was a feminist when he had 14 grandchildren, 13 girls out of 14 grandchildren.”

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo once again referenced his daughters — his “three jewels,” he called them — but in a very different way, saying that he was pained by the look in their eyes and that he wanted them to know he would never “treat any woman differently than I would want them treated.”

“Your dad made mistakes, and he apologized, and he learned from it,” he added.

Yet in minimizing his behavior as old-fashioned but innocent, Mr. Cuomo also leaned on a familiar political playbook for male politicians accused of sexual harassment: Cite generational changes, a “tactile” style of retail politicking, a desire to connect with voters that overcomes any regard for their personal space.

In April 2019, President Biden relied on a similar explanation after facing charges that his campaign-trail touching made some women uncomfortable — accusations that never took on the gravity of those leveled and substantiated against Mr. Cuomo.

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Ms. Rosenthal suggested Mr. Cuomo’s problem was less a reflection of his failure to keep up with societal changes than of his personal sense of entitlement. “It’s sort of like even on his way out, he’s denying his female employees’ experience,” she said.

In his speech, Mr. Cuomo asked voters to remember his landmark progressive accomplishments, including marriage equality, an assault-weapons ban and free college tuition for eligible students.

Notably unmentioned was his record on women’s rights.

In 2012, Mr. Cuomo released a 10-point “Women’s Equality Agenda” that eventually led to a package of laws aiding the fights against workplace and salary discrimination and domestic violence. His efforts escalated after Donald J. Trump was elected president and female voters emerged at the forefront of the opposition to the new administration. On the day that women marched against Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Mr. Cuomo announced that his administration would require health insurers to cover medically necessary abortions and most forms of contraception at no cost — essentially safeguarding protections that Republicans were trying to repeal.

In 2019, he signed the Reproductive Health Act, which enshrined the right to abortion in New York State in case Roe v. Wade were overturned, expanded access to abortions, and allowed abortion after 24 weeks to protect the mother’s health or if the fetus was not viable. He also signed legislation extending the statute of limitations for rape in New York State.

And in August 2019, he signed sweeping anti-sexual-harassment legislation that supporters said would make New York’s laws among the nation’s strongest.

At times, though, Mr. Cuomo exploited the feminist sensibility that was taking root in the national Democratic Party during his tenure.

The Path to Governor Cuomo’s Resignation

Plans to resign. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Tuesday that he would resign from office amid a sexual harassment scandal. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will be sworn in to replace him.

Multiple claims of sexual harassment. Eleven women, including current and former members of his administration, have accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. An independent inquiry, overseen by the New York State attorney general, corroborated their accounts. The report also found that he and aides retaliated against at least one woman who made her complaints public.

Nursing home Covid-19 controversy. The Cuomo administration is also under fire for undercounting the number of nursing-home deaths caused by Covid-19 in the first half of 2020, a scandal that deepened after a Times investigation found that aides rewrote a health department report to hide the real number.

Efforts to obscure the death toll. Interviews and unearthed documents revealed in April that aides repeatedly overruled state health officials in releasing the true nursing home death toll for months. Several senior health officials have resigned in response to the governor’s overall handling of the pandemic, including the vaccine rollout.

Will Cuomo still be impeached? The State Assembly opened an impeachment investigation in March. But after Mr. Cuomo announced his resignation, it was unclear whether the Assembly would move forward with its impeachment process. If Mr. Cuomo were impeached and convicted, he could be barred from holding state office again.

Looking to the future. Mr. Cuomo said on Tuesday that his resignation would take effect in 14 days, and that Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, would be sworn in to replace him. She will be the first woman in New York history to occupy the state’s top office.

Before his 2014 re-election, Mr. Cuomo set up a Women’s Equality Party — which put his name on its party line — as a tactical move to fend off a female challenger, Zephyr Teachout, and undercut his rivals in the left-wing Working Families Party.

Some advocates also minimized the degree of difficulty of Mr. Cuomo’s accomplishments and said he could have pushed harder, sooner, and done more.

Cynthia Nixon, who challenged Mr. Cuomo for the Democratic nomination in 2018, said: “Our campaign kept saying that he pays all this lip service to women’s rights, but his allyship was always about a quarter of an inch deep. It was always to give himself political cover and appear like a caring ally, which was far from the truth, obviously.”

As the MeToo movement swept America, Mr. Cuomo emerged as a clarion voice on the side of victims. He surrounded himself with celebrity feminists and allied himself with the leaders of Time’s Up, the organization founded by Hollywood women to fight sexual abuse and promote gender equality. He railed against Republicans for pushing through the nomination of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, calling on Mr. Kavanaugh to take a polygraph test. And he trumpeted New York’s sexual harassment legislation in 2019, saying it would “honor the women who have had the courage to come forward and tell their story.”

All the while, however, according to the state attorney general’s independent report, Mr. Cuomo was behaving privately in ways that he condemned publicly.

“What changed is the law caught up to everyone’s common understanding of sexual harassment,” said Rita Pasarell, co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a group of former Albany legislative aides who pushed for the legislation. “What hasn’t changed is powerful people thinking they’re above the law. And I think that’s exactly the crux of what’s going on with Cuomo.”

Of course, it was Mr. Cuomo’s selection of a female lieutenant governor that will lead to Kathy Hochul’s being sworn in to succeed him, becoming New York’s first female governor, after 56 men, and only the 45th woman to serve as governor of any state.

Ms. Hochul, who was largely ignored by Mr. Cuomo, will take the reins of state government in the midst of a resurgent pandemic and in the wake of a leader who tightly controlled state government for over a decade.

That’s not atypical, in politics or in business. After men resign in scandal, female leaders are often asked to clean up the messes left behind.

The phenomenon is so familiar it has a name: the glass cliff. A derivation of the glass ceiling, it refers to women being elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly, creating a greater risk of failure.

Some women’s rights advocates and New York officials say that simply replacing Mr. Cuomo with a woman will not be enough. They want lawmakers in Albany to move forward with impeachment proceedings and a conviction, barring Mr. Cuomo from running again for statewide office.

Shaunna Thomas, a founder of UltraViolet, a gender equity advocacy group, said that in watching Mr. Cuomo’s speech, she felt that he was continuing to try to “weaponize feminism in his own defense.”

“This needs to be the start of accountability,” she said of his resignation, “not the end.”

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