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UPDATE: Shortly after this column was published, a second aide, Charlotte Bennett, publicly accused Cuomo of harassing her.
New York’s Emmy award-winning governor, Andrew Cuomo, really likes to prop himself up as the “first in the nation” to act, or as the one who’s enacted America’s “strongest” or “best” laws. There was his “first in the nation” free college plan, which was immediately called out as bullshit and has been even more exposed over time. Then, eager to be out front and center as a “feminist governor,” Cuomo hung out his mission accomplished banner after enacting what he called the “strongest anti-sexual harassment [laws] in the nation.”
But they were not even close to the strongest. I should know; I joined six other former state legislative staffers, all of whom are survivors of sexual harassment, abuse, or retaliation, in publicly asking the governor to slow down and bring survivors to the table to meaningfully inform legislation that had glaring loopholes and weaknesses. But instead, he chose to ignore us.
There’s one more thing he certainly is not the first in, and that’s abusing his power and inflicting harm on his staff. Just ask Lindsey Boylan, the former staffer who came out this week with her account of harassment, including a nonconsensual kiss by her boss’s boss, who also happens to be the most powerful man in the state. After my own experience being forcibly kissed by one of the governor’s political allies, I can’t say I was surprised by her allegations, which the governor’s office has categorically denied. Based on her specific and granular claims, though, it appears that Cuomo is no trailblazer or record-setter but just another man using the same infuriating and tired DARVO playbook employed by so many abusers of power.
Coined by Dr. Jennifer Freyd, DARVO is a tactic wielded by wrongdoers, especially sexual offenders, when being held accountable for their behavior. The offender denies the behavior, attacks the individual accusing them, and reverses the roles of victim and offender, usually via gaslighting and with the help of gatekeepers who seek to assassinate the victim’s character as publicly as possible. Institutional DARVO occurs when those steps are carried out by an institution, such as the New York State government, or with institutional complicity.
This handbook is used by all of the professional gaslighters: Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, and former President Donald Trump, all of whom had the support and complicity of their own institutions.
I know all of this from first-hand experience because former New York State Sen. Jeff Klein, then one of the most powerful men in Albany and a close ally of Cuomo’s, worked straight out of the DARVO handbook. In January 2018, I came out about the then-leader of a breakaway group of Democrats forcibly shoving his tongue in my mouth when I had still been working for him about three years earlier. Like many victims of sexual harassment, I was already primed to believe it was my fault, and chose to end my very-short career in New York State government—the only field I truly wanted to work in at the time—instead of reporting him. After all, who would believe a lowly staffer over one of the most powerful men in the state? (And yes, that was the gist of what I was told by a number of people I confided in around my workplace—remember that institutional complicity? There it is.)
Before my story was even published, though, Klein kicked his DARVO training into gear: He held a phone conference with reporters to “get ahead of the story,” vehemently denying the truth. The attacks started almost just as quickly: I was obviously wasted that night, acting weird! Finally, as all DARVO practitioners do, Klein tried to reverse roles, painting himself to be the victim, and me the offender; suddenly I was the disgruntled employee who needed some sort of publicity for my own personal benefit. To this day, three years after I told my story, Klein has yet to be held accountable.
In retrospect, Klein’s behavior was not all that surprising. On one of my first days working for him, it was basically suggested that if I’m going to do my job well, I needed to fear Klein. If I was meeting with someone in his capitol-building conference room, and the then-senator walked in, I had to immediately leave—this, apparently, was standard protocol. I’d hear our policy director on the phone with Klein, doing her best to defend herself against the tirade he was clearly unleashing on her from the other end of the line. Why wouldn’t a man like that feel like he could get away with sexually harassing a low-level staffer like me?
Klein wasn’t the first New York State legislator to use the DARVO handbook. My fellow co-founders of the New York State’s Sexual Harassment Working Group were preyed on by Vito Lopez, a now-deceased former assemblyman who wielded an extraordinary amount of power in New York State government and politics. Much as Boylan described Cuomo, Lopez would constantly make sexually harassing comments to his staff and touch them without their consent. Lopez even demanded some staffers give him massages. If they tried calling out his behavior, he’d vehemently deny it and use his abusive tactics to make his victims feel bad for him—as if he were the victim, merely looking for support and assistance from his staff in his time of need.
Cuomo—by far the most powerful elected official in New York—is also a DARVO acolyte. When Boylan first made her allegations public back in December, Cuomo denied the accusations, invoking his “I believe women,” trope as a reason why New Yorkers should believe him. The attacks followed shortly thereafter, with confidential personnel files leaked to, and reported by, the press. Suddenly, the narrative shifted, and it was Boylan who was the offender looking to attack Cuomo and gain notoriety for her current campaign for Manhattan borough president.
I wish I could say I was surprised. But there is nothing surprising about a power abuser using tried-and-true tactics to strip their victim of humanity, even more so than they already have with direct harm. And these abusers have the power of the state government behind them. Lopez was protected by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who quietly wrestled Working Group co-founders Rita Pasarell and Leah Hebert into a punitive settlement for the harm they suffered, while allowing Lopez to hire additional young, female staffers—who he then went on to also harass. Former Senator and Majority Leader John Flanagan defended Klein, as did the members of his Independent Democratic Conference. Just as I was met with a parade of “women in the community who support and believe Klein,” so too is Boylan.
As a result of their DARVO expertise, these power abusers, and their gatekeepers, continue to escape any level of accountability. Klein, who lost his 2018 election to Senator Alessandra Biaggi, is now a lead lobbyist at Mercury Public Affairs, walking through the very same (literal and metaphorical) doors he once held the keys to, rubbing elbows with his former colleagues. His gatekeepers? One of them is a partner at a political consulting firm; another works for the governor as a deputy secretary.
Silver, one of Lopez’s gatekeepers, is currently sitting in prison, but not as a result of the harm he allowed Lopez to inflict on his staff. Another, Jim Yates–who helped pressure Rita and Leah to agree to their settlement agreement as Silver’s counsel—now sits on the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics. I wish I was kidding.
No, Cuomo is not a man of firsts. His crude comments, forcible kissing, and use of human shields are all clearly laid out in the DARVO handbook. But if he really wants to be the first in the nation to do something, I know where he can start: own his actions. Publicly. Apologize to Lindsey and to every other staffer, elected official, and journalist he abused or unleashed his gatekeepers on. Commit to supporting the creation of a truly independent investigatory body, one that he has no control over and is staffed with trauma-informed investigators and decision-makers, empowered to hold power abusers, like himself, accountable.
I won’t hold my breath. While Cuomo loves to be perceived as first, strongest, and best in everything he does, when it comes to true accountability and leadership, he’s just another face in the crowd of power abusers.