Sorry, Andrew Cuomo. “I am an over-60 Italian American male” is not a defense for sexual harassment.
The governor of New York didn’t use those precise words after 11 women accused him of harassment. But if you’re Italian American, it’s hard not to think that’s what he meant when he said, “I now understand generational or cultural perspectives that, frankly, I hadn’t fully appreciated.”
When Donald Trump famously boasted “when you’re a star” you can grab anything you want from a woman, he was crudely honest about his meaning. But Cuomo wants people to believe that when he’s groping young women, he’s just trying to connect on a human level. He banters, jokes, and tries to put people at ease. Sometimes he slips, and says, “sweetheart” or “darling” or “honey.” The photos he showed of himself during what one of his alleged victims called a “propaganda video” also played into a stereotype of ethnic behavior. They showed him kissing and hugging an array of men and women. Hey, he’s Italian, what do you expect? No offense should be taken because none is intended.
The cultural and generational excuse doesn’t cut it, no matter what your ethnicity. People understand the difference between a friendly hug and the predatory behavior that’s graphically described in an independent report released by the New York state attorney general. The photomontage that displays political hugs from other politicians, including his late father and former New York governor Mario Cuomo, also shows Andrew Cuomo’s readiness to sacrifice anyone and everyone to his cause. Putting Joe Biden in the photo mix did the president no favors; it’s a reminder that he, too, has been accused of inappropriate touching.
The most chilling part of Cuomo’s response to the report was his willingness to name one of his accusers and say he had reached out to her because he knew she was a victim of sexual assault, and he was trying to relate to her in a personal way because one of his relatives was sexually assaulted in high school. In an interview with CBS News, the accuser, Charlotte Bennett, said there was no misinterpretation on her part. “He sexually harassed me. I am not confused. It is not confusing. I am living in reality, and it’s sad to see that he’s not.”
Whether or not he sees it, political reality for Cuomo is bleak. The New York congressional delegation is calling for his resignation. So is Biden. The Democratic majority in the New York Assembly is preparing to impeach him, with Speaker Carl E. Heastie saying, it is “abundantly clear . . . that he can no longer remain in office.” Cuomo may be arrogant enough to force impeachment. But if he really believes what he said — that he isn’t in politics for himself, but for what he can do for the people of New York — he should step down and put an end to this ugly political theater.
Meanwhile, no one is buying his spin about cultural and generational confusion. As The Washington Post wrote in an editorial calling on him to resign, “Most insulting have been his attempts to portray his behavior as just simple, old-fashioned displays of affection, an effort that continued Tuesday with a contrived slideshow of him hugging and kissing people in public.”
Everyone knows times have changed, including Italian American men.
“I grew up hugging and kissing most everybody; perhaps so did Governor Cuomo. That does not mean such expressions of affection are still acceptable,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, a onetime Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate who comments often on politics. Besides, Cuomo was taking it beyond expressions of affection, and was “playing by different rules,” said DiCara. They are the rules set up by powerful men who believe they have a right to do what Cuomo allegedly did: run a finger down the spine of a female trooper’s neck; press his fingers across another woman’s chest; and partake in other inappropriate groping and unwanted touching of women with whom he worked. One incident has been referred to Albany police.
None of his conduct is meant “to convey warmth,” as Cuomo tried to frame it. It conveys power and intimidation — and in the workplace, it’s sexual harassment.