We swallowed our doubts and tried to help Cuomo weather the storm.
Politicians had survived worse allegations of sexual misconduct — most notably, Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. On the other hand, there was Senator Al Franken, who stepped down from office in 2017 after several women came forward and accused him of unwanted touching and kissing — accusations that Franken disputed. But Democrats — including some of Franken’s colleagues who had called for his resignation — had regrets about how it all went down, questioning whether he’d received adequate due process. The complicated politics of the #MeToo debate reached a fever pitch with the media circus around Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearings, which Democrats like Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri blamed in part for their losses in the 2018 midterms. The hearings spurred a backlash with voters who believed that #MeToo was being unfairly weaponized for political ends.
In our internal conversations, we talked about the lessons from the Franken and Kavanaugh controversies. However, the case study we looked to the most had nothing to do with sexual harassment or misconduct: It was the curious case of Governor Ralph Northam in Virginia. In February 2019, a right-wing blog published a photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, which they alleged showed Northam hamming it up in blackface next to a classmate wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam’s handling of the incident didn’t inspire a ton of confidence. First, he apologized. Then he denied he was in the photo at all, even as he admitted that he’d once worn blackface in a Michael Jackson dance contest. He refused to leave office.
But then a bizarre thing happened: Poll after poll showed that Black voters — the constituents political prognosticators were certain would be the most offended by the photo — believed, by a large margin, that he should stay in office. And he did. A year later, his job approval rating soared to 60 percent among all voters.
The decision was made. Cuomo would “Northam it.” He called for due process and authorized the New York attorney general’s office to conduct an independent investigation into the sexual harassment allegations. He held a press conference to make his case directly to the people of New York — one that was carried live by local TV networks across the state and every national cable news network.
We prepped for the press conference at the Albany governor’s mansion. A group of 10 of us hunkered down in the poolhouse behind the main house — feet away from the shallow hot tubs where Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as governor, had exercised his polio-stricken legs.
Everyone was on edge and exhausted. There was one main exception: the governor. He showed up to the prep session as cocky, casual and self-assured as ever. He made small talk and cracked jokes. Outside of the seemingly never-ending stream of Nicorette that he popped into his mouth, jaw tensed, you’d never have known that he was under any sort of stress.
I led the prep, looking him in the eyes as I peppered him with questions about his conduct. “Have you ever acted inappropriately toward women in the workplace?” No. “Have you ever had inappropriate relationships with women on your staff?” No. “Do you think other women will come forward?” No. Other advisers jumped in with questions and received the same forceful feedback. There’s no way he would just lie to all of our faces, we concluded. What kind of person would do that?
A week later we got word of new allegations — the most serious and shocking yet. The Times Union was working on a story about how a current employee of the governor’s office had hired a lawyer and was claiming that the governor had groped her at the Executive Mansion.
What. The. Fuck. That’s the only way to explain the reaction among the advisers, especially the women. It started to feel like we were being manipulated — used because of our gender to cover and lie for Cuomo.
“This is disgusting, right?” I asked his former communications director, who was also advising him from afar. “Did you see any of this?”
“No, it’s so disgusting,” she told me. “I don’t even know what this is.”
Another adviser was even more direct in a call with me: “He is dead. Dead. We just need to figure out how to land this plane.”
It was tempting to cut the cord right then and there, but instead we waited until we heard directly from Cuomo himself. Again, everything followed a similar rhythm. Within a couple of hours, Cuomo was on the phone with us vehemently denying the allegations. There was one key difference. I heard something I’d never heard in the governor’s voice before — fear. Genuine fear. “This is not true. It never happened,” he told us.
In real time, we could hear the most powerful person in the state of New York beginning to process that he was in real trouble. He wanted to come out guns a-blazing against the accusations. “Bad Andrew” — as staff privately called him when he got into his darkest moods — was making a comeback.
He wanted to accuse his accuser of having financial motivations. He wanted to expose her for hiring a notorious Albany-area ambulance chaser. He wanted to go after her character head-on: “If I don’t fight back, why don’t I just resign?” It took the force of everyone on the call to talk him off the ledge and convince him how disastrous it would be to go that route. We pleaded with him to show some humility and contrition.
The person who finally got him to back off was an unlikely participant on our calls: his brother, the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. Chris was oftentimes the last bulwark against his brother’s worst instincts.
While Chris could sometimes be a dick to staff and informal advisers, reminding us: “I work in the media, you don’t” or “I know this business, you don’t,” he was far from the goon he was portrayed to be in the media coverage that ultimately led to his firing. He could be more direct with Andrew than any of us could be. He leveled with him on calls, telling him in no uncertain terms that his behavior was inappropriate, that he needed to be more apologetic and that he could never, ever come across like he was attacking his accusers. If we didn’t wrap up a call with a resolution, Chris would usually end it with: “Andrew, pick up your phone. I’m calling you after we hang up.” And he’d get his brother to agree to the direction laid out by the cooler heads around him.
I didn’t fully understand the dynamic between them. When I asked about it, one of Andrew’s longtime advisers told me how he felt the governor had lost his way a bit after his father, Mario, had passed away. According to the adviser, Andrew had become less aware of how he treated other people, and Chris had supplanted Mario as a ballast for him in that regard.
Whatever Chris said that day worked. Andrew ultimately backed down and delivered a significantly more muted rebuttal to the allegations, essentially denying them and asking New Yorkers to allow the outside investigation to conclude. It was one of the last calls we’d have as a group — no more allegations came out publicly, the AG investigation had started to move quickly and, truthfully, most of us felt pretty burned by the whole situation. The accusations had gotten increasingly more troubling: None of us were OK with enabling anyone who could have done such things.
People have asked me why I stuck around and continued to advise him, even after I started to have doubts about his conduct and the things he was telling us. It’s not like I was totally blind to the fact that political figures could lie or let me down. I’d seen the worst of politics up close. But I’d also seen the best of it. There was never a day that I showed up to work for Pete or was on a call with him when I doubted his truthfulness or sincerity. Pete had redeemed my faith in the political process and reaffirmed why I’d chosen this line of work in the first place. I wanted to believe Cuomo, I had to. To me, the other option was unfathomable: that so much of what I’d done in politics, everything I’d done for Cuomo, was in vain. That I was just another sucker, another cog in a nihilistic machine.
There was also the fog of war that came with being in the middle of a crisis of that magnitude. Every day, it felt like there was incoming that needed an immediate response — allegations of misconduct, calls for him to resign, editorials scorching him. The thought process was, “How can we get him through this?” not “Should we help him get through this?” I should’ve ruminated on the second question more.
Fool me twice, shame on me.
I didn’t hear from the governor for a number of months. He ran with the Northam playbook in the meantime. Every week that spring and summer, you could find him holding a press conference with Black clergy, community leaders and elected officials. Among the New York political constituencies, they were the most willing to appear publicly with him.