A Cuomo Accuser on Watching Him Stay Put

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S1: Karen Hinton has spent most of her career as a communications strategist for politicians, the person behind the scenes helping craft messages for Democrats. Would you describe yourself as a political flack? Is that like a pejorative?

S2: No, I don’t take offense to flack. I’ve been called that many times.

S1: Karen spent a lot of time on the coasts, New York, California, there was a stint or two in D.C., but she’s from Mississippi. When I asked her to explain what flacks do day in, day out, she had this delightfully southern way of putting it.

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S2: Sometimes politicians pick a message points, and I might say, well, I don’t think that really works best for you. And then I try to come up with something that I think is more direct, more honest and more appealing to voters or to constituents.

S1: Right now, the politician Karen is hoping will be more honest with his constituents is Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York. You probably remember Cuomo is facing allegations that he fostered a toxic work environment, one that was especially hostile to women. His own attorney general is investigating him. But Cuomo is still leading the state. If you were advising Governor Cuomo right now, what would you be telling him?

S2: I would tell him to resign.

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S1: It sounds like he doesn’t really want that advice.

S2: No, absolutely not. I mean, he wants to ride it out. He wants to stick it out. And he’s he’s done that throughout his career and he’s following that path.

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S1: Again, Karen knows Andrew Cuomo. Like I said, she’s been a flack for a long time. She first worked with the governor when he ran the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development back in the 90s. Cuomo has called her part of his extended team, my second family. But that was before Karen joined a small chorus of people telling their war stories about working with Cuomo. At this point, there are 10 women, I believe, who’ve come forward and accuse the governor of acting inappropriately towards them, everything from, you know, reaching under their blouse to asking about boyfriends. This has triggered an ongoing investigation by the New York attorney general. Talk of impeachment. Do you worry that Cuomo is going to get away with this?

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S2: Bill Clinton got away with it. I mean, he was impeached, but he is now one of the most favorable has one of the highest favorable TV ratings of former President Donald Trump is another example.

S1: It’s funny because I think about how much we’ve changed since Bill Clinton, for instance. But I guess what you’re telling me is. Yeah, not quite yet.

S2: No, I don’t think we’ve changed very much.

S1: Today on the show, a Cuomo accuser who’s used to making political compromises on why she’s speaking out anyway. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. When Karen Hinton first started working for Andrew Cuomo, he was still mainly known as the son of political royalty as the guy who’d run his father, Mario’s campaign for governor in the 1980s. He’d been tapped to lead HUD under President Bill Clinton. Karen signed on as Cuomo as press secretary. And while you might think that means she was part of his inner circle, Karen says she was still kept on the periphery trying to do her job, while a small group, mostly white, mostly men, made the decisions.

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S2: Occasionally, I was allowed to come in the room and speak out and say what I thought, but not always.

S1: You described a woman who you worked with at HUD who told you she drew a curtain over her face when she came to work. She lifted it when she came home. Sounds like you had a similar feeling.

S2: Yes. And in some ways, I mean, both the time I just left angry and I came back still angry, but I pushed through it because I will say this as Housing Secretary, Andrew did a lot of important things and he pushed on policies that were important, very important to me. And he fought that battle. And I love that battle and I wanted to be part of it. So there were many things he did 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 Binit story.

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S1: Charlotte Bennett is the young woman who talked about being a sexual assault survivor and how the governor asked her about that in this way. That made her quite uncomfortable. And he also asked about her boyfriend. It was just these these uncomfortable moments.

S3: He said he was lonely. He said he wanted a girlfriend. He asked me if I had slept with older men. He said he was willing to sleep with younger women

S2: when she told that story. I was just could not believe. I mean, I could believe it. I did believe it. I do believe it. But I was shocked by that. I never thought he would do something like that,

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S1: that he would be that bold,

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S2: he would be that bold. And I, I just that’s why I decided to talk to The Washington Post about my own experience.

S1: Karen’s own experience mirrors what other women have said over the last few months. In addition to describing a workplace that objectified women and all the ways Cuomo himself was a bully. Karen has this specific story about a time she says Cuomo crossed a line with her.

S2: I was doing some work for Andrew Cuomo, media work out in California. I moved there already. This was two thousand and I had left HUD, but he hired me as a consultant and he did an event with the mayor of Los Angeles about a housing project. And he asked me to get him some California coverage. And I did it with a bigger group of people who worked at HUD. And we were all out in California and we were all staying in the same hotel in L.A. And that 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, what we’ll do tomorrow 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 meetings in his room, it was and it was sometimes it would just be made, but sometimes it would be other people. And that was normal. So I went up to his room and but the door was open, wasn’t locked. It was just open. I walked in and the lights were dim. And I thought that was strange because why would you dim the lights? But nonetheless, I went in and he was sitting on a couch. I sat across from him on another couch. And we we did we talked about the event. We talked about the next day. We talked about what I was doing in California and what was going on with him. And we knew each other well. And so we talked about my marriage and and I thought, well, at some point I just thought we were just talking too much personal stuff and I was a little uncomfortable with the damn lights and. I just decided that it was time to go. OK, we’ve got to get up early in the morning, I’m going to head out and I stand up and he comes over and he embraces me. And I thought it was a bit too intimate. So I remove myself from the embrace.

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S1: And you’ve said he was aroused as well.

S2: Yes. And so he pulled me back and I just said, OK, this is not what I ever thought would happen. And I said, OK, I have to I have to go. We’ll see each other tomorrow. And I walked out and that was the end of it. We never talked about it. It never came up. I later told my my second husband about it and I told the girlfriend.

S1: And you continued working with the governor to.

S2: Yes, because I was at that point out in California, I was doing consulting and I was working for a PR firm in San Diego. So I, I had to keep my contacts in D.C. and I had also I just didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t understand. 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 because I could be helpful to him and he could be helpful to me. 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.

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S1: So what do you mean when you say that?

S2: I just mean in the sense that one of the things I talk about is the flirting. There was a young staffer, very attractive, and he 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. And she ended a relationship with a man who had worked for Andrew. Because of what was going on between the two of them, and he, though, had left her without Andrew’s quote unquote permission and Andrew was mad at him for leaving. So this was Andrew’s way of it was a payback to him. You know, I’m going to flirt with your girlfriend just to make you angry, because you left me. You abandoned me. That was typical.

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S1: So you’re saying that in your experience of Andrew Cuomo, he would use these kind of sexualized interactions as chess moves completely?

S2: He’s the master of the art.

S1: But how would you know that? How would you know that he was flirting with this girl as a way to get back at the boyfriend?

S2: We I and others eventually figured it out because we didn’t think that he would. Have any kind of relationship with her other than the flirting, so. What was the point, it was about power and control. I had seen him do that with with other women. He would give compliments. He gave them to me, gave them to other women about what we were wearing, how we looked. If we didn’t have on the right enough makeup. He might comment about that. Oh, you’re looking rough today. He said to me one time when I walked in, I had no my everyone loves hearing that. Yeah, you look rough just like that. And but he would he would do these compliments and criticisms back and forth in order to keep you in the fold,

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S1: I should say here. I would I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Governor Cuomo has called you a known antagonist to him. He’s also thanked you and one of his books and called you like family. So there’s a couple different things going on there. Who was it, this allegation that changed your relationship with the governor or something else?

S2: Yeah, well, because I went to work for Mayor de Blasio,

S1: Bill de Blasio in New York City,

S2: right near City. And if you go back and read the headlines, I was a traitor. I was disloyal. It was like I had was you know, I had written earlier in the New York Daily News about penis politics when I said it was like it was like a 50s marriage, you know, working for him, because you can’t you can never disavow the husband. You can never do something that the husband doesn’t want you to do. You’ll be punished. You’ll be criticized.

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S1: I have this question when I hear the stories of women like you, which is how different the work environment you experienced with the governor was from other political environments, because you’ve sort of articulated before how Washington was a mess. There were all of these messed up gender dynamics. But it sounds like you’re saying that what you experienced with Andrew Cuomo was maybe another level of that. Is that how you would put it?

S2: Yes, absolutely. If you have a scale of one to 10, he was an 11, you know, and then there are other politicians who go down the scale. And if you if you want to put up with it. At some point, and if you stay at it for a long time, at some point, you either have to leave or you have to enable. And that’s where he is now with his staff in the governor’s office.

S1: When we come back, how Karen says the most toxic behavior trickled down from the governor to everyone else in his office. I want to talk a little bit, if we can, about this term penis politics that you’ve used, because I both like it a lot and kind of recoil from it. And I’ll explain a little bit because, you know, I’ve worked in toxic workplaces. A lot of people have. And I have to say, I’m not sure that toxicity is exclusively male, and I worry a little bit that by characterizing it that way, we sort of calcify this gender dynamic that I really resist where men are perpetrators and women are victims and they can get kind of locked into those roles. I wonder if you think about that at all.

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S2: Yes, I have. I also believe that it starts with the male boss, the male CEO, the male board of directors. And in order for women to survive in that world, they sometimes have to become like men in order to survive. We’ve seen that. I think a lot of women have seen that in the workplace.

S1: I mean, you’ve said explicitly, I see myself as an enabler of Governor Cuomo as behavior, and I imagine those are pretty tough words to say.

S2: Yes, they are. And I, I regret many of the things I said and did at the same time, though, I know I know why I had to do it and I could have quit politics. I could have gone and done something else. But that’s something else, the same dynamic exists, I think I think you find it in almost every industry, even today, but definitely back in the 90s,

S1: did you ever find yourself kind of acting out bullying behaviours that you’d experienced with someone like Cuomo and you’d sort of absorbed them as your own and now found that that was your style to.

S2: I don’t think it was my style. I I think that the pressure that you feel when you’re. In an environment that is toxic, you lose your temper more, you say things that you have to go and apologize for. You treat people sometimes in the same way. Both both men and women. So when I eventually headed up the public affairs office at HUD, I wasn’t always kind to my staff or understanding or forgiving. I would get tough on them because I knew I would be in trouble if they didn’t do what I was asking them to do. I would get the harassment, the criticism, the pounding. So, you know, I wasn’t a big enough woman to try to ignore those feelings. Now, I wasn’t terrible all the time, but I was sometimes and I think that is a result of that toxic work environment that trickles down. And it really creates a problem not just for the woman whose arrest, but for other women who feel the impact of that, not only from a woman boss they may have, but also the male bosses they have.

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S1: It’s interesting because one of the first accusers of Governor Cuomo, this woman, Lindsay Boylen, when she initially came out and said I was sexually harassed by the governor, one of the first things the governor’s team did was release our documentation, which they said showed that Lindsay Boylen herself had been bullying, especially to people of color in their office. And listening to you talk, I think it’s kind of interesting to reframe what they did there and think about what that evidence really means, because, of course, we all control our own behavior, but it’s also evidence of a generalized toxic work environment.

S2: Yes, I mean, I saw it happen to me, I’ve seen it happen to other women and I don’t know the specifics of Lindsay Boylan’s story at all, so I can’t speak to that. But I do know that what she went through, as she has described it, is typical of what Andrew did to other women.

S1: It sounds like you do have some regret. And I wonder when you look back, do you think about what you would have done differently?

S2: Oh, absolutely. And I make no bones about my regret because I do wish I had done things differently. At the same time, by staying in politics, I was able to do many of the policy issues that I wanted to focus on. And had I left HUD, had I said enough earlier, had I left HUD immediately or not long after things started to happen with Andrew? Then I wouldn’t have gotten in those. And those positions later.

S1: And the governor, he seems to be kind of hanging on and it’s been interesting to watch him over the last few weeks because, well, initially he expressed some contrition when there was a rash of allegations against him that seems to have stopped. And it’s it’s interesting to hear his words. Like recently he told a reporter, you know, if I made you uncomfortable, that isn’t harassment. That’s you being uncomfortable. And it was this kind of he’s also said that what’s happening to him is cancel culture. And when I listen to that language, it’s interesting because it kind of it paralyzes him in the victim position, but it also resentence him. It sort of says, OK, you may have said something, but I’m saying something now, and this is how I see it. And of course, I’m the governor. And you’re not. Mm hmm. And so I wonder when you heard that, how you thought of it, especially as someone who works in political communication and talks to people in power about the words they use all the time.

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S2: Right? Well, I mean, one, I think this is about creating doubt. And that’s very important when you’re defending yourself, when a man defends himself against sexual harassment. I mean, if we all wore body cams 24/7, right, then the allegations would be a lot easier to prove. But they only happen generally with two people in the room, the accused and the accuser. We don’t live in that world where evidence is there the only way that the harassers and the abusers can defend themselves. Is by coming up with their own versions of reality. Their own prism, because what they want to do, and I’m sure this is what the lawyers are advising him to do, is to create this doubt. But at the same time, he’s digging himself into another hole when he said that, well, when he tells a female reporter. If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that’s not harassment, that’s you feeling uncomfortable, so it’s all on you, the woman. So it’s unclear to me. Are they liars? The 10 women, are they liars? You call them liars. Are they uncomfortable women? He said they were uncomfortable and he was apologized for it. Or are they uncomfortable liars? I mean, I can’t figure out what he’s what he’s trying to do.

S1: While Cuomo has spent the last few weeks deflecting, a couple of different efforts have sprung up to try to hold him accountable. The state assembly is pushing forward on an impeachment investigation, though two of Cuomo, his accusers have refused to participate. One called it a sham and corrupt because of potential conflict of interest with the law firm hired to lead the effort. But there’s another independent investigation ongoing, led by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James.

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S2: She’s the only hope of anything happening from this. I don’t think impeachment by the state legislature will happen.

S1: But I’m curious, listening to you talk, whether you’re thinking that an attorney general’s investigation will have any impact on Andrew Cuomo or whether you’re thinking more that it’s a step forward that will then pave the way for other steps forward and then we will begin changing the culture. And the reason I say that is that if the report comes out, no matter what it shows. If it’s bad. I believe it still relies on the governor resigning or getting voted out of office, and I’m not sure he’s ever going to duck out of there.

S2: Well, I think I think her actions do both. Both could harm the governor, but also could help women across the country, not just to New York, but across the country. I absolutely believe that. And I care about both. Whether Andrew will be I don’t think he’ll resign regardless whether he will be re-elected. Will could be impacted, will be impacted, I think, by what the attorney general’s office does. There are sexual harassment laws, there are sexual abuse laws, so do you do you bring a charge? Do you do anything with it? Or do you just write a report that sort of wags the finger at him and that’s it? Then we’ll have to see how the re-election unfolds. But I think it’s very much dependent on the actions that the attorney general takes as a result of the report.

S1: Because Governor Cuomo, he he has said, I believe he wants to run for another term.

S2: Yes.

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S1: Karen Hinton, thank you so much for joining me and telling your story.

S2: Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

S1: Karen Hinton is a communications consultant. She was previously Andrew Cuomo as press secretary and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Our team reached out to Governor Cuomo for comment. We did not hear back before deadline. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Davis Land, Kamal Dilshad, Elena Schwartz, Danielle Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.