On Wednesday morning, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a fundraising plea to the email list of the New York State Democratic Committee. The subject line: “NY Stands with #MeToo.”
In the message, Cuomo praises “women across the country” for “courageously speak out about facing sexual assault and harassment” while Donald Trump and the GOP are throwing their support behind the likes of alleged child molester Roy Moore and alleged domestic abuser Rob Porter.
“If that makes you angry, that’s good,” Cuomo writes, before his ask for donations. “But don’t just get angry, get involved and get even.”
Cuomo is an unlikely choice to headline the New York Democrats’ response to #MeToo. The governor, who today accused possible primary challenger Cynthia Nixon of being a plant from either New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or Vladimir Putin, has drawn criticism for hiring Sam Hoyt as a senior aide in 2011—three years after Hoyt copped to having an extramarital affair with his 19-year-old intern. Emails between the two showed Hoyt, then a state legislator, telling the young woman that he wished “that i could see you do that little cheerleader move…that i could be your human lollipop…that you could tell me i am yummy (i love that)…that i could tell you that no woman has ever done for me physically what you do for me…that i could shower in your shower with all that girly stuff.”
Hoyt’s affair, and his emails, were widely publicized in 2008, three years before Cuomo appointed Hoyt as a top official at the Empire State Development Corporation. So the governor couldn’t have been too surprised when Hoyt was later accused by another woman of a yearlong spell of sexual harassment. State employee Lisa Marie Cater said Hoyt got her a job at the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2015, then used the favor to excuse repeated unwanted kisses, forcible genital touching, and nonstop phone calls, emails, and sexts. Per the lawsuit she filed, she called the governor’s office on two separate occasions to complain about Hoyt’s alleged harassment, emailed Cuomo through his website, and sent a message to his Facebook page.
According to Cater, Hoyt said the governor’s office told him to “make this go away,” so he paid her $50,000 to keep quiet. Indeed, Cuomo’s office admits that three different state agencies looked at Cater’s complaint against Hoyt, but took no action. Cater claims she spoke to Noreen Van Doren, a lawyer with Cuomo’s office, who asked, “What is that you want, money?” About a year after that conversation, in the midst of a state investigation into his behavior, Hoyt resigned his position. Hoyt has denied the allegations, saying they are the result of a consensual relationship that went sour.
Cuomo’s undeserved trust in Hoyt put him in a position of power, from which Hoyt was able to allegedly sexually manipulate and assault a fellow government employee. That’s bad enough—but Cuomo’s response to the whole debacle was even worse. In December, at the height of conversations about sexual misconduct in the media, journalist Karen DeWitt asked Cuomo if he would do anything, in light of Hoyt, to root out sexual harassment in the state government. Cuomo, in a manner reminiscent of President Trump, tried to deflect the question by asking DeWitt what she was going to do to stop harassment in her own industry. “It’s about you. And journalism. And it’s about you and journalism. And it’s about state government. And it’s about carpentry. And it’s about trade forces,” Cuomo said. “We’ll have policies in state government, obviously, that affects state government, but I think you miss the point. When you say it’s state government, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you’re a woman. It’s not government, it’s society.”
“I understand. But can you just name one thing?” DeWitt asked, returning to her initial question. “No,” Cuomo said.
Huh! It’s kind of rich to see the name of the man who couldn’t think of a single thing he’d do to combat harassment in the “From” field of today’s fundraising email, which announced “a new campaign to capture the momentum of the #MeToo movement and turn it into action.” Ostensibly, that “action” is legislative change. But from the outside, it looks like it just means money. Cuomo and the New York Democrats noticed unprecedented numbers of women speaking up about sexual abusers in their workplaces and everyday lives, and they saw a marketing opportunity.
Unlike other unseemly co-optations of pop culture phenomena (see: “Pokémon Go-to-the-Polls”), the #MeToo movement has real political implications for legislation that addresses campus sexual assault, sexual harassment settlements in Congress, and forced arbitration, among other issues. In that sense, it’s right for politicians to take cues from constituents who are making demands for reform. Cuomo, like Democrats in Congress, has proposed a ban on using taxpayer dollars to settle sexual harassment claims within the government and a requirement that all such settlements be publicly disclosed. But the email he sent this morning included no mention of #MeToo-related legislative or executive actions he or the party hope to pursue. All he offered was a blanket statement in support of a hashtag, effectively turning an urgent, deeply felt reckoning with abuse into a tagline. The email’s closing line was even cornier and further divorced from the spirit of the movement: “If you continue to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment, this November your #TimesUp!” To Cuomo’s constituents, many of whom surely recall the governor’s mishandling of the Hoyt debacle, that line probably read a bit different than intended.