Karen Hinton has spent most of her career as a communications strategist for politicians. She’s known New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo forever, having worked as his press secretary back when he was running President Bill Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cuomo has even called her part of “my second family.” The governor is now facing allegations that he’s long fostered a toxic work environment, one that was especially hostile to women. He’s spent the last few weeks deflecting calls to resign, but a couple efforts have sprung up to try to hold him accountable: The state assembly is pushing forward on an impeachment investigation, and Cuomo’s own attorney general is looking into the allegations. Hinton has her own story of a past encounter with Cuomo that deeply affected her—one she never told until recently, as other women came forward with theirs. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Hinton about her past associations with Cuomo, the accusations (including her own), and the way the governor wields power. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: At this point, there are more than 10 women, I believe, who’ve come forward and accused the governor of acting inappropriately toward them, doing everything from reaching under their blouse to asking about boyfriends. But Cuomo’s still in office. Do you worry he’s going to get away with this?
Karen Hinton: Yes, I worry about it. Bill Clinton got away with it. I mean, he was impeached, but he now has one of the highest favorability ratings of sitting presidents. Former President Donald Trump also sidestepped the allegations against him.
If you were advising Cuomo right now, what would you be telling him?
I would tell him to resign.
It sounds like he doesn’t really want that advice.
Absolutely not. He wants to ride it out, stick it out. He’s done that throughout his career, and he’s following that path again.
You described a woman you worked with at HUD who told you she drew a curtain over her face when she came to work, and lifted it when she came home. It sounds like you had a similar feeling.
Yes. Most of the time I left angry and came back still angry. But I pushed through it. There were many things he did then and has done as governor that I value and I think are extremely vital, but that doesn’t mean I excuse the other behavior. And that’s why I have said what I’ve said and written what I’ve written, especially after I heard Charlotte Bennett’s story [about alleged incidents of sexual harassment by Cuomo]. When she told that story, I was just—I mean, I could believe it, but I was shocked. I never thought he would be that bold. That’s why I decided to talk to the Washington Post about my own experience.
I was doing some media work for Cuomo in 2000. I had left HUD, but he hired me as a consultant. He was out in California and did an event with the mayor of Los Angeles about a housing project. He asked me to get him some coverage. So that’s what I did, with a bigger group of people who worked at HUD. We were all staying in the same hotel in L.A. The evening after the event, he called me and said, Why don’t you come up to my room and let’s talk about the press coverage and just catch up, because I had been away from Washington for almost a year by that point. When I traveled with him before, we did do meetings in his room. Sometimes it would just be me, but sometimes it would be with other people. That was normal.
I went up to his room but the door was open, wasn’t locked. I walked in and the lights were dim. I thought that was strange because why would you dim the lights? He was sitting on a couch, I sat across from him on another couch, and we talked about the event. We knew each other well, but we talked about my marriage and at some point I thought we were talking too much personal stuff, and I was a little uncomfortable with the damn lights. I decided it was time to go. I stand up and he comes over and embraces me. I thought it was a bit too intimate, so I removed myself from the embrace—
And you’ve said he was aroused as well.
Yes. He pulled me back and I just said, OK, this is not what I ever thought would happen I walked out and that was the end of it. We never talked about it. It never came up. I later told my second husband about it and I told a friend.
I was working for a PR firm in San Diego, so I had to keep my contacts in D.C., and I kept working with him. And I just didn’t know what that incident was about: Was this a sexual advance, or did he just want to say “no, no, we can’t do this,” and push me back himself? That way he had more control over me and what I would do going forward. Did he want to use it as a way to control me? Yes, he’d done that before. He’d done that with other women. That was common.
What do you mean when you say that?
There was the flirting. There was a young staffer, very attractive, and Cuomo went through a period of time flirting with her. I saw it, others saw it, she began to feel like he cares for me, he’s in love with me. Because of this, she ended a relationship with a man who had worked for Cuomo. This man, though, had left that job without Andrew’s “permission,” and Andrew was mad at him for leaving. So this was Andrew’s way of payback: I’m going to flirt with your girlfriend just to make you angry because you left me. You abandoned me. That was typical.
How would you know that he was flirting with this girl as a way to get back at the boyfriend?
We eventually figured it out because we didn’t think he would have any kind of relationship with her other than the flirting—it was about power and control. I had seen him do that with other women. He would give compliments, to me, to other women, about what we were wearing, how we looked, if we didn’t have on the right makeup or enough of it. He might say, Oh, you’re looking rough today. He would do these compliments and criticisms back and forth in order to keep you in the fold.
It sounds like you’re saying that what you experienced with Cuomo was on another level of the messed-up gender dynamics in Washington. Is that how you would put it?
Absolutely. If you have a scale of 1 to 10, he was an 11. At some point, if you stay at it for a long time, you either have to leave or you have to enable him. And that’s where he is now with his staff in the governor’s office.
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.