When Yuh-Line Niou first came to Albany to work as a legislative aide in 2013, legislators grabbed her by the buttocks, suggested she and her boss were “a hot duo” who should have sex, and peeked into her office to view it for a “hot or not” list.
Niou, then a chief of staff in her 20s, never reported it. He feared he would unfairly bring down his boss. But the experiences stayed with her.
She was enraged Monday by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response to allegations that he sexually harassed two young women in state government, some comments on social media called a “false apology” blaming victims for misinterpreting his jokes. ” of good character. “
“When is it a joke to say ‘Do you have sex with older men?’” Said Niou, now 38, who became a member of the New York Assembly in 2017 and represents lower Manhattan. “I felt it was more of a gaslighting rather than an apology, and I think a lot of women read it that way.”
Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, has not been seen in public since new details of the sexual harassment complaints were released last week.
A former administration employee, Lindsey Boylan, said Cuomo kissed her on the lips, commented on her appearance, and summoned her to an unnecessary private meeting in his office after a party.
Another former employee, Charlotte Bennett, 25, said Cuomo asked her about her sex life, talked about her loneliness and asked if she would be willing to have a sexual relationship with an older man.
And on Monday night, a third woman, Anna Ruch, said in the New York Times story that Cuomo touched her back and face without consent and asked to kiss her in the middle of a wedding reception in 2019, moments after they met. .
Bennett criticized Cuomo’s statement in one of his own. On Monday, saying that the 63-year-old governor has “refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior.”
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday. He denied Boylan’s allegations in his statement and said that in Bennett’s case, he intended to act as a mentor.
“I have made fun of people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I do not want to offend and I am only trying to add some lightness and jokes to what is a very serious matter, “the three-term governor said in the statement issued Sunday.
“Now I understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in a way that I never intended. I acknowledge that some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as unwanted flirting, ”he continued. “To the extent that someone felt that way, I am very sorry.”
Northwestern University law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, who teaches law and gender issues, said Cuomo in her statement ignored the crucial power imbalance at play.
“The notion that his behavior was simply unwanted ‘flirting’ that may have caused an ‘offense’ completely ignores a job hierarchy in which he, the state governor, was at the top,” Tuerkheimer said.
“It’s about the environment. The complaints described an environment that made both women feel degraded … as objects, rather than the competent workers that they were, ”she said.
The allegations against Cuomo came almost exactly one year after the high-profile New York sexual assault trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein ended in a conviction, and more than three years after the #MeToo movement took hold.
Bennett complained to her bosses and Cuomo’s legal counsel last spring about what she considered the governor’s sexual advances and was transferred to a new position before leaving public employment in November.
By Monday, he had hired employment discrimination attorney Debra Katz, who represented Christine Blasey Ford in her sexual assault charge against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Katz called Cuomo “deaf” and questioned whether a governor who asks “intrusive and inappropriate questions about a subordinate employee nearly 40 years his junior” is fit for the job.
“If he says ‘Yes, this is how I talk to people,’ then other women were subjected to this,” she said.
Niou believes that sexual harassment in state government remains pervasive, but said it is at least being discussed more openly as more women take office. He participated in a state hearing on the issue in 2017 that led to reforms, but said the new laws are not yet comprehensive enough.
“That’s why these stories were so shocking and could be so relatable, because how many times did women have to have complete career changes, they changed their entire lives,” she said, pausing for a deep sigh, “when a man has wielded power that way? “
“It happens to a lot of women.”
Maryclaire Dale reported from Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale