This story has been updated.
In two weeks, New York will get its first woman governor.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will assume the post after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s resignation takes effect, which he announced Tuesday. The announcement followed a months-long investigation conducted by the office of Attorney General Letitia James concluding that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 state employees in violation of state and federal law, and retaliated against at least one employee for coming forward.
In doing so, Hochul will become the nation’s ninth female governor. Her ascension will also prompt other milestones for women in New York politics: Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), who currently serves as the state’s first female Senate majority leader, will become the first Black woman in state history to assume the position of acting lieutenant governor — which will also make New York the first state in U.S. history to be led by women in the roles of both governor and lieutenant governor. (Stewart-Cousins will be acting lieutenant governor until Hochul appoints her own successor.)
But in the wake of the allegations against Cuomo — coupled with what some describe as pervasive sexual harassment in Albany — the presence of women in high-ranking political positions won’t be enough on its own to solve systemic inequities in New York politics, experts say.
“There is sometimes that risk of very high expectations for women that we don’t put on men when they come into similar positions,” said Saskia Brechenmacher, a fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank.
In the video address in which he announced his resignation, Cuomo denied any wrongdoing, seeking to cast the allegations against him as the products of shifting social norms and claiming he was resigning to avoid a likely months-long impeachment process in the state Assembly.
“In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” he said.
“Given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is to step aside and let government get back to governing,” he added.
Cuomo’s attorney, Rita Glavin, characterized the attorney general’s report as inaccurate and omitting key evidence and witnesses.
In a statement, Hochul called Cuomo’s resignation “the right thing to do and in the best interest of New Yorkers.” And in a press briefing Wednesday, Hochul said that no one named in the report as doing anything unethical will remain in her administration.
“At the end of my term ... no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment,” Hochul said.
The presence of Hochul and Stewart-Cousins in the state’s two highest political offices will be significant, signaling “that political leadership is open to women, which is important in encouraging young women in getting engaged in politics,” according to Brechenmacher.
But Brechenmacher and other political experts say it’s crucial to distinguish descriptive representation, or the presence of women in government, from substantive representation, or the effects of women’s presence in government: Change will depend on whether Hochul in particular — along with other state lawmakers — enact meaningful policy and organizational changes to shift workplace culture in the state capital.
“Cuomo leaving isn’t going to solve the problem [of sexual harassment] in Albany,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University who also co-hosts “FAQ NYC,” a podcast about New York news and politics. “If you look at the past 15 years and look at leaders who had to resign for financial or sexual misconduct, or who are currently in prison … you can tell we have a much larger issue than in other states.”
Among those are former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (D), who resigned in 2008 following a federal investigation that revealed he paid for sex, and James’s predecessor, Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in May 2018 following physical harassment accusations from four women, published in an investigation by the New Yorker.
Recognizing the historic significance of Hochul’s appointment requires understanding how patriarchy manifests in politics — and that one woman can’t undo ingrained inequities simply by assuming office, Brechenmacher added.
As Brechenmacher put it: Hochul “cannot single-handedly change the way politics in New York state operates or functions.”
Hochul has already contended with the challenges of descriptive representation in her career. When Cuomo chose her as his running mate in the 2014 gubernatorial election — the same year he founded the Women’s Equality Party and squared off against Zephyr Teachout, a female candidate who wound up receiving a third of the Democratic primary vote — it prompted speculation that she was chosen because of her gender, “not necessarily someone who contributed in significant policy ways,” according to Greer.
The role of lieutenant governor in New York is “relatively weak,” Greer said. “It’s such that they cut ribbons and bounce around the state.”
As lieutenant governor, Hochul has, indeed, crisscrossed the state. One initiative she was tasked with championing was the “Enough is Enough” campaign against sexual violence on college campuses, launched in 2015. In that role, Hochul visited state universities to discuss the importance of legislation the governor signed in July 2015 requiring colleges to adopt a set of guidelines to combat sexual assault, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent and a statewide amnesty policy to protect students reporting sexual assault from being punished for drug or alcohol use.
The legislation created some of the strongest protections for college students among the more than 20 states that have codified campus sexual assault policies, according to Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization.
But Hochul’s tenure as lieutenant governor has left many New Yorkers largely unfamiliar with her policy priorities, according to Greer: “We don’t really know what her skill set is thus far walking into the governor’s office.”
Hochul’s credentials include local positions on the Hamburg town board and as the Erie County clerk, through which she fought a proposal to issue driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and worked with law enforcement to come up with a plan to arrest undocumented immigrants who applied for licenses, according to the City. She also represented a relatively conservative Western New York district in Congress — a seat she filled in a special election following the 2011 resignation of Republican state Rep. Chris Lee, after he allegedly sent a flirtatious email and shirtless photo of himself to a woman on Craigslist.
Hochul will fill her newest position until at least 2023, when Cuomo’s current term is up, at which point she could decide to throw her hat in the ring to try to be elected herself. In the meantime, New Yorkers are likely to be more concerned with Hochul’s ability to govern than with her status as the first female governor, Greer said.
“The gender piece is important right now, but I don’t know if it’ll necessarily be as salient in the next few months when people need results,” she added. “We’re still competing for covid funding, we’re still competing for federal funding to help us with unemployment.”
Given the circumstances under which Cuomo will resign, New Yorkers — and the nation — will also be looking at whether Hochul prioritizes transforming the working culture of Albany, where women aides and lawmakers describe sexual harassment as commonplace.
That expectation is typical for women in politics, according to Brechenmacher, the Carenegie fellow who has researched women’s representation in politics: “We want them to speak out on issues relevant to women and gender equality,” she said.
But just having another woman, even in a position of power, “isn’t necessarily going to change those dynamics,” Brechenmacher said. “It often takes comprehensive efforts to try to get at those problems.”
The prominence of Hochul’s position does mean she’ll have the power to take certain decisive actions, Brechenmacher said, such as overhauling the culture of the governor’s office, which the attorney general’s report characterized as rife with “secrecy, loyalty, and fear of retaliation.”
“In those kinds of organizations, we see that sexual harassment flourishes more easily than in organizations where relationships are more formalized and perhaps less hierarchical and opaque,” she said.
Key to that overhaul will be bringing in people to her office that set “a different tone” and who could shift power through alliances with state legislators, Brechenmacher added.
Among those trying to reform Albany are the members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a collective launched by seven former state legislative employees who experienced, witnessed or reported sexual harassment by former New York legislators and their staff. The group, which formed in 2018, was behind the 2019 passage of a state law that removed the requirement that sexual harassment must be “severe or pervasive” for employers to be liable, among other measures.
For two of those working group members who spoke to The Lily, Hochul’s identity as a woman is irrelevant because women can also perpetuate and enable sexual harassment, they said. The attorney general’s report showed that some of Cuomo’s top female aides — including Melissa DeRosa, who has since resigned — failed to take meaningful action when other women came forward with claims of sexual harassment and were complicit in attempting to discredit his accusers.
“I don’t think the fact that Hochul is a woman [matters] at all,” said Rita Pasarell, a 39-year-old lawyer based in New York City, who received a settlement from the Assembly and her then-boss, the late Assemblyman Vito Lopez, after accusing him of sexual harassment.
After Elizabeth Crothers accused J. Michael Boxley, a high-ranking Assembly lawyer, of rape in 2001, women in the state legislature “did not rise to the occasion” of supporting her, said Crothers, 45, who now lives in D.C.
For Pasarell and Crothers, more important than Hochul’s gender is whether she publicly supports the Sexual Harassment Working Group’s 2021 legislative agenda, which includes a package of six bills that would close loopholes making it harder for state employees to be protected from harassment, protect them from retaliation, and extend the statute of limitations for harassment lawsuits from three to six years. Cuomo has never publicly supported the group’s legislative agenda in its entirety, Pasarell said.
But how Hochul talks about sexual harassment publicly also matters, Pasarell said, pointing to the attorney general’s findings that many of Cuomo’s top staffers were complicit in enabling the harassment: “The tone from the top is really important,” she said. “She needs to make public statements making clear she expects people who witness this behavior … to do something.”
For Crothers, Hochul’s historic platform presents an opportunity to take meaningful action in Albany for women and anyone who experiences sexual harassment — a reality she hopes the next governor recognizes.
“I think she should seize the moment and not underestimate her own ability and power to have an impact,” Crothers said.