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Senator Alessandra Biaggi of New York calls Cuomo's apology "inadequate"

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New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi joins CBSN's "Red & Blue" to discuss the sexual harassment allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Biaggi, a Democrat, was one of the first officials to call for his resignation. Cuomo held a press conference apologizing for his behavior but says he will not resign.

Video Transcript

- Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York addressed allegations of inappropriate behavior in the workplace and sexual harassment Wednesday. Calls are mounting for his resignation after three women, including two former staffers, came forward with accusations. During a press conference earlier, Mr. Cuomo apologized and said he was, quote, "embarrassed for any pain he's caused" but that he has no plans to step down from his post.

ANDREW CUOMO: I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional. And I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it. And frankly, I am embarrassed by it

- Democratic State Senator Alessandra Biaggi of New York joins me now. She is the chair of the State Senate's Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. Senator Biaggi, thanks very much for being with us.

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Thank you very much for having me.

- So you have not only called for the governor's resignation, but also called him a, quote, "monster." What did you make of his apology this afternoon?

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Listen, I thought his apology this afternoon was a show. And it was inadequate because it didn't address all of the women who have come forward. And I thought that that was very intentional and very unfortunate. And I thought it was also immature and a little bit petulant because for him to say that he didn't understand that the things that he said or the way that he behaved could cause harm or make somebody feel uncomfortable is unacceptable for someone in a position that is the highest elected position in the state of New York, especially someone who holds himself out to be a very strong leader, a very competent leader, a very charismatic leader. So for him to say those things did not feel sincere at all.

ANDREW CUOMO: Well, the governor is now under investigation, as you know. And you've said that he is entitled to due process. What does that look like to you?

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So just to be very clear-- and I think it's important to make this case to, of course, the listeners right now-- I'm calling for the governor to resign because of what we know. And I'm happy to get to that in a moment. And of course, having an independent investigation can both happen at the same time. Calling for resignation does not mean that he leaves office and goes to jail. Of course not. It means that we're asking someone who we believe, I believe, is not fit to serve in the office that he holds.

Why? Because based on the totality of the information that we know, there is a clear pattern of abusive behavior from our governor that has lasted for decades. We're seeing a lot of it now because people are speaking out finally. But what we've seen now-- not only in the threatening to destroy the life of assembly member Ron Kim several weeks ago, but now in the speaking up and coming out of Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett and Anna Ruch-- really do reflect this pattern of behavior.

And so not only that, but I have also been equally disturbed by the governor's response. His initial response on Saturday and Sunday after Charlotte came forward was to choose the independent investigator that was going to oversee the case. I've never in all of my years on this Earth seen an example of someone trying to select the person that gets to oversee the behavior that is being investigated. And what that signals to me is just an additional abuse of power. He's trying to use his position to even control the process.

So there's a lot more here that I hope we get to have the time to speak about. We're still waiting, of course, for the results of the investigation from his cover-up of the COVID-19 patients and nursing home deaths. And all of these things are connected. And so from all of that, I am still committed to what I said, which is that I believe he should resign. But it doesn't mean it precludes us from him going through an independent investigation.

- So let's dig into this a bit more. Before you were elected to the State Senate in 2018, you once worked in the governor's office. What was your experience like, and how does that inform your decision to push for his resignation?

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: So I worked in his office-- that's correct-- from April 2017 to December of 2017. I worked in his counsel's office as an attorney. And the culture in that office is a culture of fear. And why I can say that is because it is pervasive. It comes from the top.

It spreads not only in the executive chamber where he works, but also across his agencies as well. And that culture of fear comes across like this. It's berating of people. It's making people feel small or belittling them. It's condescension. It's threats. It's harassment. It's yelling at staff, reporters, elected officials, and many other people.

And that culture of fear-- which, again, has gone on for decades-- has kept a lot of people silent because of fear of retaliation. Now what we're seeing is more people not only speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment or being threatened, but we're also hearing from people about their exchanges with him, whether they're small or big. They're, again, all part of this pattern. And so that is what I saw when I worked there.

It's unfortunate because someone like myself who enters into government really believing that public service is one of those transformational opportunities to change people's lives and to have meaningful impact in the world-- it was disappointing, and it almost kept me from continuing my passion of public service. But that experience there actually was one of the motivating reasons why I even ran for this seat in the first place-- because I got to see behind the curtain.

- Well, based on what you just spelled out there, do you know of any others who may come forward?

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Well, I mean, just from what we've seen so far, usually when there is one person, there are usually others. And what I will say to that is that if there are, there is a whole coalition of elected officials, survivors-- I am also a survivor of sexual abuse, and this is why this issue is so central to what I care about. But there is a whole coalition of people who are here not only to listen, but to support whoever it is that decides to come forward with their story. So of course, they're not my stories to tell, but I, of course, encourage it if they feel safe. And we are here to listen and to help in any way that we can.

- We only have a couple of minutes left here. But Governor Cuomo's administration, as you know, is also under federal investigation for its handling of data related to COVID deaths in nursing homes. The governor was handed significant powers to cut through red tape in dealing with the pandemic. What do you think should happen with respect to those emergency powers?

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Well, I've been very vocal about this for quite a while. And just to be really clear, about a year ago-- in fact, a year ago yesterday-- we gave the governor expanded emergency powers. Essentially, we allowed him to have something called the power of issuing directives, which is basically the power of creating law without the need to include the legislature. And so those expanded powers have been used to do all kinds of things, notably to push forward and have directives like sending COVID-positive patients back to nursing homes.

And we knew that that was the most vulnerable population when it comes to this entire pandemic. And so I've been very outspoken about not only repealing that power, but really making sure that the legislature has a say in the process, whether it is oversight of the directives or at least a little bit of notice before we learn about the directives. Because we do, as legislators, represent very large constituencies that do call us and are expecting us to have the ability to provide them with the guidance that they need to feel safe.

- Democratic State Senator Alessandra Biaggi of New York, thanks very much for your time.

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Thank you for having me.