National News

Cuomo Takes Ungainly Dip Into Sexual Harassment Debate

Posted December 13, 2017 8:53 p.m. EST

ALBANY, N.Y. — Amid the ongoing national reckoning over sexual harassment, New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, has been front and center in the debate, denouncing the unsavory actions of powerful men in all walks of life, from President Donald Trump to fellow Democratic senators like Al Franken.

And so it was on Wednesday that New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, was asked about his response to sexual harassment in state government.

The exchange did not go smoothly.

Cuomo, a Democrat seeking a third term next year, was asked about allegations against Sam Hoyt, a former senior aide, and what he could have done differently to address such behavior. The governor tried to turn the question, posited by a public radio reporter, Karen DeWitt, into a broader discussion of sexual harassment in journalism and other fields.

“When you say it’s state government, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you’re a woman,” the governor said, during an impromptu news conference here. “It’s not government, it’s society,” he added. “It’s not just one person in one area.”

But the assertion that DeWitt was doing a disservice, rather than doing her job, was met with a shock in some quarters, and a scramble by the governor’s own aides to clarify his remarks. Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, responded to one comment on Twitter by reiterating that the governor was saying that it “is a disservice to limit the problem to state government.”

“Must be dealt with across the board,” said DeRosa, who was appointed in April, by Cuomo, as the first woman to serve as secretary, the top unelected position in the state. “It exists everywhere in society and must be addressed holistically.” She later added, “Limiting the problem to one man, political party or profession misses the whole point of the #MeToo moment.”

DeRosa said that the governor later called DeWitt to clarify his comments. But Republicans pounced on the remarks, with the National Republican Congressional Committee calling them “stunning” and “unbelievable” in an email blast.

The governor’s comments had already served to overshadow the event that brought him to Albany — the awards-style giveaway of hundreds of millions of dollars in regional economic stimulus — and the simultaneous unveiling of the first proposal of his 2018 agenda: a measure to remove guns from anyone convicted of any type of domestic abuse, something the governor’s office said would close a loophole in state law.

It also came as the governor continued to rail against the federal tax overhaul, something he said would cause big tax increases in the state, citing the elimination of a deduction for state and local taxes and a cap on the property tax deduction.

“Everybody’s taxes in the state of New York just went up 20 percent,” the governor said. “Property taxes effectively go up 20 percent.” He said Republicans in Washington were “using New York as a piggy bank to pay for the tax cuts in other states. And that is reprehensible.”

Cuomo also said that the Republican tax plan was “as abusive to the taxpayers in New York as their position was to the women in Alabama,” an apparent reference to Trump backing Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who was defeated in his quest for a Senate seat on Tuesday amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted teenage girls.

Like Gillibrand, Cuomo is considered a possible presidential contender in 2020, and has gained prominence by criticizing Washington, if not always Trump by name. But on Tuesday, the governor stopped short of endorsing Gillibrand’s call for the president to resign, saying instead that he agreed “with the thrust of the senator’s comments,” and that “women have been victims of discrimination and abuse.”

“It’s a provocative conversation,” Cuomo said of Gillibrand’s remarks, adding the Trump administration “has been insensitive to women. It has been, and I agree with her.”

With near-daily allegations about prominent sexual harassers, the issue of harassment promised to percolate through the 2018 legislative session in Albany that starts next month, with Cuomo hinting that new proposals to address misconduct would be a part of his State of the State address on Jan. 3.

Asked what changes in policy might be forthcoming — “Can you just name one thing?” DeWitt asked — the governor said he wouldn’t say.

“No,” the governor responded, sharply. “It’s called the State of the State. Come and cover it and see the agenda.”