Facing allegations of sexual misconduct from multiple women, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) attempted to defend himself Thursday, saying that making someone “feel uncomfortable” is not harassment.
During a news conference, City & State NY reporter Rebecca Lewis asked the governor about the statement he made after Charlotte Bennett, a former Cuomo aide, accused her ex-boss of making inappropriate sexual advances toward her.
“I never meant to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” Cuomo said in response. “I never said anything that I believe is inappropriate. You can leave this press conference today and say, ‘Oh, the governor harassed me.’ I would say I never said anything that I believed was inappropriate. I never meant to make you feel that way. You may hear it that way, you may interpret it that way. And I respect that, and I apologize to you if I said something that you think is offensive.”
But Lewis pressed him on the legal definition of sexual harassment, saying, “The harasser’s intention doesn’t matter. You can apologize if you make someone feel uncomfortable. I’m just wondering — do you acknowledge that, according to the law, it doesn’t matter?”
“Harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable,” Cuomo insisted. “That is not harassment. If I just made you feel uncomfortable, that is not harassment. That’s you feeling uncomfortable.”
Cuomo’s response raised eyebrows in the room and drew condemnation from anti-sexual harassment activists and Bennett, one of his accusers.
“When @NYGovCuomo propositioned me for sex, he broke the law,” Bennett said. “It is very simple: the issue is about his actions, it is not about my feelings. He broke the law (you know, the one he signed). Apologies don’t fix that, and neither do denials.”
In 2019, Cuomo signed a sweeping law that strengthened protections against sexual harassment and lowered the bar for a victim to prove harassment took place. The law defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior based on a person’s gender.”
The Sexual Harassment Working Group, an activist organization comprised of former New York legislative staffers that fights harassment in the state Capitol, issued a statement blasting Cuomo’s “self-delusion.”
“Today Andrew Cuomo’s self-delusion reached impressive new heights & our response is very simple: Just because you believe you can’t make anyone ‘feel’ harassed by your actions, doesn’t make it legally true. If the Governor tried that before a judge he’d get laughed out of court,” the group said. “We accept his original confirmation of Charlotte Bennett’s account of him breaking the New York Human Rights Law he signed, by creating a hostile work environment and grooming her for sex.”
“We eagerly await the Attorney General’s investigation and look forward to the Governor being held accountable for his actions: Not anyone’s feelings,” the group added. “We are not going away and Cuomo will not silence victims.”
Cuomo faces accusations of sexual harassment from nearly a dozen women following the first accusation from Lindsey Boylan, a former aide. State Attorney General Letitia James (D) opened an investigation into the allegations earlier this year. At the same time, Cuomo is also under investigation for allegedly covering up nursing home deaths, tying vaccine access to political support, and misusing state resources to write and promote his pandemic book.
The New York State Assembly has also opened an impeachment inquiry into Cuomo, though Republicans have criticized what they say is a “stalled” investigation that has only provided two updates since it began more than two months ago.