Former Cuomo staffer: 'We’re all kind of waking up to the fact that we were in a cult'

Today Gothamist published a story full of quotes from current and former staffers for Gov. Cuomo. All of the people who spoke did so anonymously out of fear of retaliation. As they describe it, working for Cuomo was a a very high-stress environment with a lot of unwritten rules:

Sarah T., a blonde woman in her twenties, won a fellowship to work in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in 2013. She was surprised when she was quickly invited by senior staffers to sit at a desk positioned right near the governor — in his “line of sight,” as she described it.

At first, she didn’t understand why. Another woman in the office offered her some insight, telling her Cuomo “likes blondes,” particularly those in stiletto heels.

That seems to jibe with some of the allegations made against Cuomo, but even Sarah (not her real name) didn’t think Cuomo’s kisses on the cheek were meant to be harassing.

Sarah said she received kisses on the cheek, just as one of the women who spoke out against the governor described. At the time, Sarah said it felt like a fatherly gesture. Cuomo also asked her personal questions, including if she had a boyfriend, which she did not consider out of line.

Was he being friendly or was he scouting for dates? I guess it depends on who you ask. In Sarah’s case maybe it was intended to be fatherly, but that clearly wasn’t the case in his discussion with Charlotte Bennett. The governor bluntly asked her how she felt about being with older men. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me,” Bennett said.

Pick-up-artists refer to something called “compliance testing.” The idea is to make a forward move toward a woman and see if she goes along with it. And if she does then you push things a bit more.

This is a pattern we’ve seen with plenty of other abusive men, whether they would have called it that or not. They often have an escalating pattern, like a series of steps, to approach women. In Harvey Weinstein’s case, he would promise big roles in upcoming movies. Then he’d invite women to his hotel room to discuss those roles. Sometimes the women would walk in and Harvey would be coming out of the shower, as if that were just a coincidence. Maybe he’d drop a towel. All of it was a kind of compliance test. Will she come to his room at night? Will she run out when he’s in a towel? Will she run off if he asks her to remove her shirt?

Of course in Weinstein’s case, he (allegedly) would simply give up on compliance and hold women down and rape them. I’m not suggesting Cuomo did anything like that. But what he is accused of seems to involve similar steps. He touches someone on the bare back and when she removes his hand he grabs her face and asks if he can kiss her. In Sarah’s case above, he asked if she had a boyfriend and kissed her face in a fatherly way. In Lindsey Boylan’s case he allegedly escalated that by kissing her on the lips. In Charlotte Bennett’s case, his questions about her dating life weren’t fatherly they were very personal and suggestive. Maybe you can see how all of this has the potential to either be relatively benign or outright harassment depending on how far Cuomo takes it at a given moment.

What everyone Gothamist spoke to agreed upon is that Cuomo was an exacting boss who micromanaged everything. Any room he was going to speak in had to be kept between 67 and 71 degrees so that the governor didn’t sweat. He would sometimes call ahead to make sure the temperature was right. And if you worked in his office you were on call at all times:

“They flew me back from vacation once because they needed something done,” one former staffer said, adding she still jumps at the ping of a Blackberry. “You had go-bags. You literally had to be ready to go at a drop of a hat.”…

“There was a general sense that when the governor was in the building that you were to walk on eggshells,” another said. “And while you’re walking, make sure those shoes are nice and shiny.”…

Three former staffers used the words “Stockholm syndrome” to describe life in Cuomo’s office, a psychological reaction when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors. Another described it as a textbook abusive relationship.

“They push you until you want to be there. You want them to like you,” one former staffer said. Another, who said she’s been talking with former employees since the allegations broke, put it this way: “We’re all kind of waking up to the fact that we were in a cult.”

Unfortunately, most of the national media joined the cult early and then tried to convince the rest of us to join. Not all of us fell for it.

I’ve known quite a few people who worked in politics and unreasonable expectations and tough bosses aren’t exactly unique to Cuomo. I’m sure there are former Sen. Klobuchar staffers who will reading this story and think the Cuomo folks had it easy. Still, an environment like that, with a domineering boss who micromanages everything, creates a perfect situation for someone who wants to occasionally cross the line with women on the staff and then expect to get away with it.