Women Reporters Faced Cuomo’s Creepy Behavior, Too
Members of the Albany press corps say the governor left them acutely aware of their gender in discomfiting interactions.
Valerie Bauman was 25 and fresh on the Albany politics beat when she first noticed Andrew Cuomo staring at her. It was at a press conference for a new government transparency initiative, and she was seated across from Cuomo, who was then the state attorney general. Her face flushed, she looked around to see if anyone had noticed the future governor training his gaze on her. They had. “I started blushing and looking around at the people surrounding me, whose own facial expressions indicated, ‘Yes, ma’am, he’s looking at you,’” Bauman said in an email to The Daily Beast.
After the 2007 press conference, Bauman rushed over to a side door to try and get in a question with the AG. She didn’t have to try hard. Cuomo emerged and “beelined” toward her, as one former colleague who witnessed the interaction described it, gripping her hand and introducing himself. Bauman remained professional and was able to ask a few questions, but later overheard another reporter remarking that the governor seemed “very into her.”
Shortly afterward, she received a call at her desk at the Associated Press bureau. It was one of Cuomo’s aides, and he wanted to know: Would she ever be interested in a job with the attorney general?
A deluge of stories in recent weeks have revealed how Cuomo allegedly treated the women who worked for him—from requiring them to dress a certain way to grabbing their breasts and asking if they slept with older men. Seven women have accused the powerful Democrat of unwanted touching or comments; at least one report has been referred to Albany police. (Cuomo has denied all allegations of inappropriate touching and said he did not intend to make anyone feel uncomfortable.)
As the allegations against Cuomo mounted, the women reporters who covered him began to speak up, too. Lindsey Nielsen, a former anchor at the ABC affiliate News 10, tweeted earlier this month that she had left her job in part due to “threatening” and “incessant bullying” from the governor’s office. New York Daily News Editorial Board member Laura Nahmias called sexual harassment in Albany “as pervasive as air.” Former Politico New York reporter Jessica Bakeman added that the issue was “worse in Albany than anywhere else I’ve worked.”
Some of the women who covered Cuomo have told The Daily Beast they had uncomfortable experiences with the governor specifically. Their accounts are harder to characterize than some of the previous reports: They were not his employees, and none accused him of inappropriate touching or propositioning them. But his behavior did make them feel distinctly uncomfortable —and feel singled out for their gender—in an environment where women already struggled to earn respect.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Cuomo spokesperson Richard Azzopardi said, “We respect all members of the press, period.”
Cuomo has taken heat for a number of highly visible interactions with female reporters over the years: the time he scolded reporter Karen DeWitt for asking about sexual harassment in state government, saying she was doing a “disservice to women,” or when he told a gaggle of journalists who got too close that he would “bring you all up on charges under the MeToo movement.” In one particularly nauseating video, he instructed a female reporter holding a sausage sandwich he wanted to watch her “eat the whole sausage,” then invited her over to his table to do just that.
But other instances described to The Daily Beast took place outside the reach of television cameras and tape recorders.
One former Albany correspondent recounted an incident that took place backstage at the Legislative Correspondents Association Show, a satirical revue the press corps puts on for the community every year. The reporter, who asked not to be named because she still covers Cuomo, was portraying a seasoned female lawmaker in a sketch. She says Cuomo came to visit the reporters backstage and approached her to ask who she was playing. Her assigned character was older and larger than she is, and when she told the governor who she was portraying, she said, he gave her a “full-body scan” and laughed out loud.
She doesn’t remember the exact words he used, but the meaning was obvious: that her body looked nothing like the female lawmaker’s she was intended to portray.
“I felt really uncomfortable,” she said. “It seemed like that wouldn’t necessarily be something he’d say about a male lawmaker.”
She said the incident also reflected the larger feeling of being a woman in Albany—that “you couldn't be just a lawmaker or a reporter.”
“It was always clear that you were also a female, or a woman, and that that carried with it a different set of expectations,” she said.
“You could be as brilliant as all get-out, but if your appearance wasn't up to snuff or you didn't meet someone else’s standard for being, like, a Barbie doll or something, then that could cut down your credibility in this way that wasn't true for men,” she added.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Bakeman, the former Politico New York correspondent who has since moved to Florida, in an essay for New York magazine last week. In the essay, she describes multiple instances of harassment over several years on the Capitol beat: the time Cuomo grabbed her for a picture and joked that they were “going steady;” the time he wrapped his arm around her and pinned her against his body for several minutes while telling a story. The overarching effect, she wrote, was that Cuomo “never let me forget I was a woman.”
“He wanted me to know that I was powerless, that I was small and weak, that I did not deserve what relative power I had: a platform to hold him accountable for his words and actions,” she wrote. “He wanted me to know that he could take my dignity away at any moment with an inappropriate comment or a hand on my waist.”
To some, the governor’s behavior is purely as a symptom of the misogynistic culture in Albany. Though New York was the first state east of the Mississippi to elect women lawmakers, its legislative body still hovers around 30 percent female, and the makeup of the LCA is not much better. The number of misconduct allegations against Albany powerbrokers—forced kisses, affairs with 19-year-old interns—was enough to spur multiple victims to launch a sexual harassment working group in 2018. (The group has since called on Cuomo to resign.)
Longtime Albany reporters said Cuomo was both a product and perpetuator of this culture, a hyper-masculine environment in which men could compete—participating in woodsy field trips and engaging in “locker-room talk”—and women could be either attractive or ignored.
“It’s almost like women like me are the earlobe of the press corps,” one older Albany correspondent said. “Just unnecessary; something that he has to deal with but doesn't necessarily think about a lot.”
But women outside Albany also felt the effects of the governor’s conduct. Rebecca Fishbein, a freelance writer based in New York City, wrote one of the first blog posts about what would later be deemed “Cuomosexuals”—people who had unexpectedly fell for the governor as he led the state through the first terrifying days of the global pandemic.
The piece, titled “Help, I Think I'm In Love With Andrew Cuomo???” was tongue-in-cheek. Though she playfully copped to feeling “butterflies” during his press conferences and developing a “crush” on the governor—“Sandra Lee, please let me have him,” she joked—Fishbein also speculated that she was a victim of Stockholm syndrome and listed many of the governor’s perceived policy failures. So when top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa messaged her to ask for her phone number, she assumed it was to chastise her.
Instead, when she answered a call from a blocked number the next day, the voice on the other end of the line said, “Hi. My name is Andrew Cuomo.”
Fishbein doesn’t remember everything the governor said to her on the call, though she remembers his tone as casual and friendly. He said he had read her article, opined about how hard it must be to be alone at this time, and somehow worked in a reference to 9/11. (Cuomo told The New York Times last year he found Fishbein's description of her isolation “sad” and had called to check in.)
But Fishbein could not relax. All she could think about was how she was a 30-year-old, underemployed freelancer who had just written a joking piece about simultaneously hating and having a crush on the 63-year-old governor, and now he was on the phone with her.
“I couldn’t figure out why he was calling me,” she said. “I didn’t know if he was going to yell at me, I didn’t know if he was going to ask me out. It was a very uncomfortable moment.”
Fishbein has been on the receiving end of other, more angry calls from the governor’s office, as have many who covered politics in New York. The administration is infamous for lashing out at reporters—male or female—whose stories they dislike, and several male reporters told The Daily Beast about expletive-ridden calls they received from aides following negative coverage. (The phrase “verbal violence” was used more than once.)
To some, then, the governor’s conduct toward women was less about sex than manipulation—a chance to assert dominance over the very group of people called to hold him to account.
“I never felt like he wanted to have sex with me. I never ever got that sense,” the woman who performed at the LCA show said. “But you always felt like he was asserting his dominance. It was about power and control. And that came through in every single interaction."
For Bauman, the former AP correspondent, the manipulation went beyond that initial meeting with the future governor. She rebuffed his staffer’s job offer, she said, but months after, Cuomo would call her to answer simple questions that an aide could have handled. He would rarely give her a straight answer, but often asked her personal questions about herself. She could tell the governor was flirting with her, she said, but did her best to do her job without flirting back. Eventually the calls stopped altogether.
In a statement, Azzopardi said it “wasn’t uncommon” from Cuomo to engage directly with reporters on stories at the start of his term as attorney general.
This week, New York published an account of another young woman who was offered a job in Cuomo’s office after a single, brief interaction. That woman reportedly accepted the job, and was later asked to extend job offers to other women who struck the governor’s fancy. She told the outlet she felt she had been “verbally and mentally abused” by Cuomo and his staff.
Bauman, in her statement to The Daily Beast, said she hoped this moment would be “a chance for actual cultural change.”
“Albany is a boys club where I learned to suck it up when men made comments about my body, hovered too close or even showed up in my office when I stopped responding to calls and texts because they had crossed a line,” she said.
“Women shouldn’t have to live and work like that. It’s exhausting,” she added. “It’s time for a real reckoning in Albany and beyond.”