“Let’s play strip poker.”
I should have been shocked by the Governor’s crude comment, but I wasn’t.
We were flying home from an October 2017 event in Western New York on his taxpayer-funded jet. He was seated facing me, so close our knees almost touched. His press aide was to my right and a state trooper behind us.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” I responded sarcastically and awkwardly. I tried to play it cool. But in that moment, I realized just how acquiescent I had become.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected. His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you, that you must be doing something right. He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences.
That’s why I panicked on the morning of December 13.
While enjoying a weekend with my husband and six-year-old daughter, I spontaneously decided to share a small part of the truth I had hidden for so long in shame and never planned to disclose. The night before, a former Cuomo staffer confided to me that she, too, had been the subject of the Governor’s workplace harassment. Her story mirrored my own. Seeing his name floated as a potential candidate for U.S. Attorney General — the highest law enforcement official in the land — set me off.
In a few tweets, I told the world what a few close friends, family members and my therapist had known for years: Andrew Cuomo abused his power as Governor to sexually harass me, just as he had done with so many other women.
As messages from journalists buzzed on my phone, I laid in bed unable to move. I finally had decided to speak up, but at what cost?
Parts of a supposed confidential personnel file (which I’ve never seen) were leaked to the media in an effort to smear me. The Governor’s loyalists called around town, asking about me.
Last week, Assemblymember Ron Kim spoke out publicly about the intimidation and abuse he has faced from Governor Cuomo and his aides. As Mayor de Blasio remarked, “the bullying is nothing new.” There are many more of us, but most are too afraid to speak up.
I’m compelled to tell my story because no woman should feel forced to hide their experiences of workplace intimidation, harassment and humiliation — not by the Governor or anyone else.
I expect the Governor and his top aides will attempt to further disparage me, just as they’ve done with Assemblymember Kim. They’d lose their jobs if they didn’t protect him. That’s how his administration works. I know because I was a part of it.
I joined state government in 2015 as a Vice President at Empire State Development. I was quickly promoted to Chief of Staff at the state economic development agency. The news of my appointment prompted a warning from a friend who served as an executive with an influential civic engagement organization: “Be careful around the Governor.”
My first encounter with the Governor came at a January 6, 2016, event at Madison Square Garden to promote the new Pennsylvania Station-Farley Complex project. After his speech, he stopped to talk to me. I was new on the job and surprised by how much attention he paid me.
My boss soon informed me that the Governor had a “crush” on me. It was an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar feeling: the struggle to be taken seriously by a powerful man who tied my worth to my body and my appearance.
Stephanie Benton, Director of the Governor’s Offices, told me in an email on December 14, 2016 that the Governor suggested I look up images of Lisa Shields — his rumored former girlfriend — because “we could be sisters” and I was “the better looking sister.” The Governor began calling me “Lisa” in front of colleagues. It was degrading.
I had complained to friends that the Governor would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs. His senior staff began keeping tabs on my whereabouts. “He is a sexist pig and you should avoid being alone with him!” my mother texted me on November 4, 2016.
The Governor’s behavior made me nervous, but I didn’t truly fear him until December 2016. Senior State employees gathered at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany to celebrate the holidays and our year’s work. After his remarks, the Governor spotted me in a room filled with hundreds of people waiting to shake his hand. As he began to approach me, I excused myself from coworkers and moved upstairs to a more distant area of the party.
Minutes later, I received a call from an unlisted number. It was the Governor’s body person. He told me to come to the Capitol because the Governor wanted to see me.
I made my way through the underground connection that linked the Plaza to the Capitol. As the black wrought-iron elevator took me to the second floor, I called my husband. I told him I was afraid of what might happen. That was unlike me. I was never afraid.
I exited the elevator to see the body person waiting for me. He walked me down the Hall of Governors. “Are there cameras here?” I asked him. I remembered my mother’s text warning the month before. I worried that I would be left alone with the Governor. I didn’t know why I was there. Or how it would end.
I was escorted into the Governor’s office, past the desks of administrative assistants and into a room with a large table and historical artifacts. The door closed behind me. It was my first time in his Albany office. The Governor entered the room from another door. We were alone.
As he showed me around, I tried to maintain my distance. He paused at one point and smirked as he showed off a cigar box. He told me that President Clinton had given it to him while he served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The two-decade old reference to President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was not lost on me.
The Governor must have sensed my fear because he finally let me out of the office. I tried to rationalize this incident in my head. At least he didn’t touch me. That made me feel safer.
His inappropriate gestures became more frequent. He gave roses to female staffers on Valentine’s Day and arranged to have one delivered to me, the only one on my floor. A signed photograph of the Governor appeared in my closed-door office while I was out. These were not-so-subtle reminders of the Governor exploiting the power dynamic with the women around him.
In 2018, I was promoted to Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Special Advisor to the Governor. I initially turned the job down — not because I didn’t want the responsibility or work but because I didn’t want to be near him. I finally accepted the position at the Governor’s insistence with one requirement — I would keep my old agency office and remain on a separate floor from him and his inner circle.
The Governor’s pervasive harassment extended beyond just me. He made unflattering comments about the weight of female colleagues. He ridiculed them about their romantic relationships and significant others. He said the reasons that men get women were “money and power.”
I tried to excuse his behavior. I told myself “it’s only words.” But that changed after a one-on-one briefing with the Governor to update him on economic and infrastructure projects. We were in his New York City office on Third Avenue. As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips. I was in shock, but I kept walking.
I left past the desk of Stephanie Benton. I was scared she had seen the kiss. The idea that someone might think I held my high-ranking position because of the Governor’s “crush” on me was more demeaning than the kiss itself.
After that, my fears worsened. I came to work nauseous every day. My relationship with his senior team — mostly women — grew hostile after I started speaking up for myself. I was reprimanded and told to get in line by his top aides, but I could no longer ignore it.
On September 26, 2018, I sent a mass email informing staff members of my resignation.
There is a part of me that will never forgive myself for being a victim for so long, for trying to ignore behavior that I knew was wrong. The Governor exploited my weaknesses, my desire to do good work and to be respected. I was made to believe this was the world I needed to survive in.
It was all so normalized — particularly by Melissa DeRosa and other top women around him — that only now do I realize how insidious his abuse was.
After my tweets about the Governor in December, two women reached out to me with their own experiences. One described how she lived in constant fear, scared of what would happen to her if she rejected the Governor’s advances. The other said she was instructed by the Governor to warn staff members who upset him that their jobs could be at risk. Both told me they are too afraid to speak out.
I know some will brush off my experience as trivial. We are accustomed to powerful men behaving badly when no one is watching. But what does it say about us when everyone is watching and no one says a thing?
Telling my truth isn’t about seeking revenge. I was proud to work in the Cuomo Administration. For so long I had looked up to the Governor. But his abusive behavior needs to stop.
I am speaking up because I have the privilege to do so when many others do not. No one should have to be defined or destroyed by this kind of sexual harassment. Nor should they be revictimized if they decide to speak their own truth.
I hope that sharing my story will clear the path for other women to do the same.