As It Happens

N.Y. senator is glad Andrew Cuomo resigned, but says he must still be held accountable

Andrew Cuomo may have stepped down as governor of New York, but that doesn't mean he can avoid accountability, says a state senator.

Cuomo has been accused by the attorney general's office of sexually harassing 11 women

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stepped down amid allegations of sexual harassment. (Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press)

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Andrew Cuomo may have stepped down as governor of New York, but that doesn't mean he can avoid accountability, says a state senator.

Cuomo announced his resignation on Tuesday, saying he didn't want the state government consumed by months of investigations into allegations he sexually harassed 11 women.

Still, the governor stopped short of admitting wrongdoing, insisting the most serious allegations against him "have no credible, factual basis."

The resignation was welcome news for Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat who has been calling for the governor to step down for months. 

But he says Cuomo won't get off the hook that easily. He still has to face a criminal investigation, and if Gounardes has anything to say about it, an impeachment trial.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. 

Gov. Cuomo says the best way he can help is by stepping down from office…. Do you see this as a helpful move?

I absolutely do. It's a sad day for New York that things had to come to this, but this is absolutely the right decision for the governor to be making, and this is the right decision for the people of New York.

We have to move on with the business of the people. And the only way we can do that is with the governor no longer in office.

Just days ago, Gov. Cuomo and his lawyers were fighting back against the attorney general's report and the allegations that he sexually harassed women. Do you think that he had a change of heart and now believes these women?

Hearing even his attorney this morning, hearing her dismiss many of the corroborated cases and stories of these women, shows that there is still not a recognition that what happened here was inappropriate, what happened here was wrong. And I don't think that has changed in any way.

I wish circumstances were different. I wish this could be a large teaching moment. I wish the governor would have learned from the error of his ways. But that was not what we heard today from his attorney, for sure.

He's still facing problems, though, in terms of an investigation in your state. This doesn't end that.

Correct. Right now there are still criminal investigations pending. And we have not yet heard definitively from the [New York State] Assembly's impeachment committee whether or not they will be continuing their impeachment investigation.

I believe that they should be. I believe that they need to continue this work to fully hold him accountable for his actions. And I'm hopeful that they will.

One of your colleagues, someone who you worked with a lot on on this kind of file, assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, says that as a sexual assault survivor herself, she found the governor's speech today, quote, "horrific" and that he was, in her opinion, still trying to gaslight the "women he hurt." What do you make of her reaction?

We have to validate the experiences of survivors. And, you know, it's very easy for someone who has never been on the receiving end of that treatment to just brush those types of concerns aside. 

The harder thing to do, and the right thing to do, is to actually centre the voices of survivors, centre the voices of people who have experienced this, understand the trauma that they go through, and follow their lead.

I think the assembly woman is correct in saying that the attempts by the governor's attorney and by the governor himself to dismiss or bat away some of these accusations, to minimize them, are really traumatizing. 

Eleven women, and the stories range from sexual remarks to allegations of inappropriate touching. As you've gone through these allegations, what strikes you most about the stories you've heard from the women who have accused the governor of sexual misconduct?

What strikes me the most is that this is nothing new. We've all seen this playbook and we've seen this movie before. Whether it's with a governor or a film producer or the former president or anyone, this is a way for people to use and abuse their power over others.

This is not about sex. This is not about lust or desire. This is about power. This is about someone knowing that they can put someone else in an uncomfortable position by touching them, rubbing them, saying things to them, knowing that that person is powerless and voiceless to do anything about it. 

And what we saw here was 11 courageous women coming forward, speaking truth to power and, you know, being able to bring down one of the most powerful people in this country because they stuck to their story, they shared their truths. And thankfully, I think many of us in broader society have recognized the importance of validating and listening [to] and believing those women.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference on Aug. 3. Her investigation details allegations that Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women in and out of state government and worked to retaliate against one of his accusers. (Ted Shaffrey/The Associated Press)

Gov. Cuomo, I mean, he said it again today, seems to suggest that this, for him, is a generational misunderstanding, the time we live in and, and political motivations behind this.

I think that that is just part of the pattern of not understanding exactly, or not accepting the magnitude of what's been alleged here. And frankly, it serves to, you know, delegitimize the very real experiences that these women have, when you say that it's just politics.

You've worked on a measure that you say could help better protect staffers from sexual misconduct by politicians, judges, [and] other senior figures in the state of New York. What specifically was in that bill and what difference do you think it could make?

Two years ago, New York took a giant step forward in … passing a law — that the governor himself signed and now stands accused of violating the very day after he signed it, mind you — that would make it easier for victims of workplace and sexual harassment to prove their case in the court of law.

The old standard required conduct that was severe or pervasive, which was an incredibly high burden of proof. We lowered the standard to reflect the reality that there are many different forms and types of behaviour that constitute sexual harassment or unwanted workplace harassment.

When we made that change, which was an important change, at the last minute, a carve-out was included to exempt the personal staff of elected officials such as legislative staff, executive department staff and judicial staff. And we know, just from experience and from history, that oftentimes in positions of power — like in government, like in legislative chambers, like in the executive chambers, like in judicial chambers — power corrupts, and that people with power will use that power to harm others, and that this left many vulnerable workers exposed without any protections of the law.

So for the last two years, I have been working with Assemblywoman Niou, who we referenced earlier, to close the personal staff loophole, to say that any single employee, regardless of whom they work for or where they work or what the nature of their job is, should have the same workplace protections and should be subject to the same provisions of the human rights law.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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