A growing number of activists and lawmakers have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to step down following multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him. Notably absent are the powerful women’s groups that supported his election.
All three of the women’s groups who endorsed Cuomo over progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon in 2018 called for an independent investigation of the allegations—an arrangement to which the governor has already agreed. Two of the groups, Planned Parenthood and the National Institute for Reproductive Health, declined to discuss the matter by phone, instead sending statements via email.
The Daily Beast reached the president of the third organization, the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, on her cell phone. Asked about her organization’s decision to endorse Cuomo in 2018, the president, Sonia Ossorio, called it a “ridiculous question.”
““I wish the courage shown by Charlotte Bennet and Lindsey Boylan was shared by more of those with power and influence in Albany, particularly those who claim to advocate for women.””
— Cynthia Nixon
But Nixon, the actress-turned-activist, sees it as a valid issue. In an email to The Daily Beast, she said pointedly: “I wish the courage shown by Charlotte Bennet and Lindsey Boylan was shared by more of those with power and influence in Albany, particularly those who claim to advocate for women.”
Boylan, a former top aide to Cuomo who is now running for elected office, was the first woman to go public with allegations against the governor; she claims Cuomo forcibly kissed her and asked her to play strip poker. Bennett, a former executive assistant, came forward within days to say Cuomo asked her if she had ever slept with an older man and whether she was in a monogamous relationship—questions she saw as clear sexual overtures. A third woman, Anna Ruch, who did not work for Cuomo, said this week that he touched her bare back and asked to kiss her after meeting her at a wedding two years ago.
Women’s rights activists have previously taken issue with Cuomo’s professional conduct as governor: A pro-choice group protested outside his office for much of 2017 over his failure to move a key piece of reproductive rights legislation through the Democratic-controlled Senate. The bill eventually passed in 2019, after being held up for years by a group of Democrats who formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans—a group that Cuomo was reportedly “deeply involved” in creating.
Nixon pilloried the governor during the 2018 campaign for stalling on this legislation, and for other missteps around women’s issues: the time he told a female reporter asking him about sexual misconduct in state government that she was doing a “disservice to women,” for example, or the time he told another woman reporter he wanted to watch her “eat the whole sausage.” (The woman was holding a sausage sandwich.)
Despite this, Planned Parenthood Empire State Votes—a PAC representing the interests of one of the largest abortion providers in the state—threw their weight behind Cuomo in both 2018 and 2014, when Cuomo’s primary opponent was another progressive woman, Zephyr Teachout.
The second-most prominent abortion rights group in the state, NARAL New York, also supported Cuomo in 2014. The group later restructured as the National Institute for Reproductive Health, whose PAC threw its support behind Cuomo in 2018, calling him “a national champion for women’s health, rights, and equality.”
Other prominent women’s groups such as EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women running for office, stayed out of the primaries altogether. In fact, the only prominent women’s group to go against Cuomo was NOW-NY, which endorsed Teachout in 2014. The president at the time, Zenaida Mendez, was voted out of her post shortly thereafter. The group endorsed Cuomo in the following election.
“It was really amazing and powerful for NOW to support me in that first race, and Cuomo made it clear that that was unacceptable and [Mendez] would lose her job for doing that,” Teachout told The Daily Beast. She added: “I think there’s a combination in New York of fear and, I don’t know, kind of a learned helplessness in the face of Cuomo.”
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A campaign spokesperson previously described claims that Cuomo had a hand in Mendez’s ouster as a conspiracy theory.
In a statement to The Daily Beast on Monday, hours before the third Cuomo accuser’s story was published, Planned Parenthood Empire State Votes said it stood with victims of sexual harassment, but refused to answer questions about whether it stood by its decision to endorse Cuomo in 2018 or had plans to do so in the future.
“We believe Attorney General Tish James is the right person to oversee a truly independent investigation of the allegations against Governor Cuomo,” a spokesperson said. “This is a necessary step on a path to restore trust and ensure accountability.”
NIRH President Andrea Miller also called for an independent investigation, adding via a spokesperson that “no amount of public support for policies that advance reproductive freedom can ever excuse sexual harassment.”
Asked if the organization would consider endorsing Cuomo in the future, Miller’s spokesperson passed along this comment: “We haven’t had those conversations yet, but we do take a mix of factors into account when issuing an endorsement, including ethical conduct while in office.”
NOW-NY released a statement following Boylan’s allegations, calling on the state legislature to initiate a “full examination” of the complaint and how it was handled. The group re-released the same statement in the wake of the second allegation.
Other women’s groups have also attracted criticism for their handling of the situation. Time’s Up, the organization created to support victims of sexual harassment amid the MeToo movement, called on Cuomo’s administration to conduct a “full and independent investigation” of Boylan’s claims shortly after they were published. Several critics pointed out that the administration could not conduct an independent investigation of itself.
Erica Vladimer, co-founder of the Albany-based Sexual Harassment Working Group, said there needed to be more transparency about how allegations of sexual harassment will affect these group’s endorsements. Part of shutting down systemic abuses of power, she said, is “making sure that there is public accountability.”
“Otherwise it looks like your traditional politics, and that’s what got us here in the first place.”