In 2013, in a fit of righteousness, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly announced that he was convening a panel, known as the Moreland Commission, to conduct a sweeping investigation of political corruption. It would be “totally independent,” he said, and anything the commission wanted to look at, “they can look at—me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller.” By the time he made that last promise, in just the second month of the commission’s existence, investigators were already exasperated by Cuomo’s repeated attempts to interfere with their work whenever the commission examined groups with ties to Cuomo. Less than a year after convening the commission, and halfway through its intended life span, Cuomo quietly disbanded it with no advance notice. He defended the move by erasing the idea of the entity’s independence: “It’s my commission,” he said. “I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”
Despite Cuomo’s attempts to thwart the commission, it still found evidence of malfeasance. “The corruption began and ended at his doorstep,” one of the commission’s co-chairs recently told the New Yorker. According to the panel’s chief of investigations, “He obstructed, he lied, he bullied, he threatened.” None of this was all too shocking, even then. Cuomo’s political style—often called “aggressive,” although it could also have been described as abusive—was widely known, and had been known for years. Cuomo’s “primary tool for governing is to create fear,” Karen Hinton, a communications consultant who worked with Cuomo in the Clinton administration, told the New York Times. This winter, Cuomo was found to have deliberately undercounted the number of COVID-related deaths in New York’s nursing homes to hide the true toll of the disease on his watch. Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim reported that the governor called him in a rage and threatened to “destroy” Kim’s career if he did not participate in the cover-up.
Until the harassment allegations, few people seemed seriously troubled by Cuomo’s abuses. Many still hoped he would run for president, maybe even because of his “brash” nature. “Until now, none of this left a lasting mark on the governor,” Rebecca Traister wrote for New York magazine. “If anything, it burnished his reputation: Cuomo was a bully, but he was our bully.” When Donald Trump was bungling the COVID pandemic, Cuomo played leader of the resistance. He had enjoyed overwhelmingly positive approval ratings. The Times, which documented Cuomo’s strategic interference with the Moreland Commission, still endorsed Cuomo in his 2018 run against primary challenger Cynthia Nixon. It was only this month—after New York’s attorney general found credible the claims of sexual harassment, intimidation, and retaliation—that the editorial board of the Times called for Cuomo’s resignation. It was only the sexual allegations that had the power to end his tenure.
It’s not that the sexual harassment allegations aren’t serious—they are—or that they don’t deserve our full attention—they do. But the prior misconduct was no less serious, and it barely registered.
Cuomo is not the only man in power whose abuses were tolerated until they included sex. For some powerful men, bullying is accepted—even celebrated, at times—until that bullying turns sexual. Harvey Weinstein, for example, was fired from Miramax and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only after allegations of sexual abuse broke in October 2017. But Paul Webster, a former head of production at Miramax, told the Guardian that the “sex allegations [were] just the particularly rancid tip of the iceberg.” Other senior executives described an atmosphere of psychological abuse and sadism. One called it a cult. This behavior, they said, was an open secret that had gone unchallenged for decades.
This pattern is not limited to left-wing circles. Roy Moore was removed from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a federal court order to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments that he had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. He was later elected to the same post again, only to be suspended after refusing to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex marriages. But neither of these acts of defiance ended his career. Only sexual allegations—that he had molested teenage girls when he was a state prosecutor—were powerful enough to cause Alabama, one of the most conservative states in the country, to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate instead of Moore.
In Cuomo’s case, the public spent years ignoring not only dubious interpersonal misconduct, but also bad governing that at times bordered on cruel. Kim was not the only recipient of an after-hours threatening call from Cuomo: Such browbeatings were common, and, apparently, well-known in New York political circles. Cuomo’s rivalry with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was so fierce and so petty that during the first wave of the pandemic, after de Blasio announced plans for a strict lockdown, Cuomo publicly rebuked him and held out for five days before issuing a similar order. That delay is estimated to have cost 17,500 lives. In early 2021, when states were prioritizing those at highest risk to receive the vaccine first, Cuomo announced that those living in “congregate settings” should be on the list—and then delivered a list that included field investigators working for the State Liquor Authority but not incarcerated people. The state began offering the vaccine to people serving time only after Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt forced it to do so, calling the exclusion of incarcerated people irrational, “arbitrary and capricious,” and “an abuse of discretion.”
Why is a sex scandal the only thing that seems capable of stopping men who abuse their power? Is it simply that these stories are salacious enough to drive clicks and retain attention? That sexual misconduct is the only line that enough people agree should not be crossed? When nonsexual abuses are exposed, some people object, but others are attracted to what they see as strong leadership—Josh Vlasto, Cuomo’s former chief of staff, told the New York Times that Cuomo’s combativeness is “part of a broader perception of him that the voters like and are comfortable with.”
In late 2017, just as the #MeToo moment was taking off, Traister wrote that a limited understanding of the movement—seeing it as only a response to sex crimes—would contribute “to a comfortably regressive understanding of women as perpetually passive victims of men’s animal sexuality run amok.” An exclusive “focus on sex also lets us off the hook, permitting us to look away from broader horrors, whole complex systems of disempowerment and economic, professional vulnerability” for women. These predictions have, in many ways, come to pass. We’ve focused more on the line between bad sex and assault than we have on the experiences of women driven out of their chosen fields by everyday misogyny.
The sexual allegations against Cuomo are subtler than those against, say, Weinstein. Rather than rape or assault, the attorney general’s report finds he engaged in “unwelcome and nonconsensual touching” and made “numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women.” Rooting out this behavior, in addition to outright assault, is certainly progress.
But Cuomo’s downfall highlights another kind of toxic figure that cultural movements have failed to tear down: the powerful bully. By failing to take seriously abuse and bad governance that is not sexual in nature, we end up tolerating it. We accept, over and over, that boys will be boys and you have to break a few eggs, etc. Some have begun to ask if Cuomo’s resignation signals the end of the era of toxic male power. Until we begin to care about bullying that does not come with lurid, sexual headlines, the answer will be no.