Cuomo womens equality express bus tour 2014
CNN  — 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long touted himself as a women’s rights champion and, with the birth of the #MeToo movement, frequently spoke about his role in reshaping state laws and regulations to meet the moment of reckoning.

But as allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior pile up against the third-term Democratic governor, so, too, is another accusation: hypocrisy.

For nearly as long as Cuomo has been in office, a small but vocal group of critics has argued that the governor’s actions – on issues like abortion rights legislation and harassment in the workplace – have not measured up to his high-minded rhetoric. In many cases, they said, Cuomo not only failed to follow through on his promises, but actively undermined women’s rights leaders, allied lawmakers and even his own stated agenda when he saw their potential success as a threat to his grip on power. His creation of the “Women’s Equality Party” in 2014 further enraged rivals and activists, including a number interviewed for this story, who described it – then and now – as less of a political party than a glorified personal branding exercise.

Long frustrated by what they describe as a disconnect between public perception and reality, prominent activists and liberal political adversaries saw a governor who adorned himself in the cloak of feminism, seeking to appropriate its causes for his personal advancement, often at the expense of the causes he claimed to believe in. Cuomo has signed into law a number of high-profile pieces of legislation backed by women’s groups, including bills that extended the statute of limitation on rape charges, which drew national acclaim, and paid family leave. But his critics, including some who saw him operate up close, either in his office – like Democratic State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who previously worked for Cuomo – or as part of the activist community with whom he frequently clashed, say he has too often dragged his feet on measures that he did not believe would politically benefit him.

Cuomo spokeswoman Jennifer Givner defended the governor’s record.

“Governor Cuomo’s career in public service, whether as the federal housing secretary, New York’s Attorney General or for the past ten years as New York’s Governor, has included a strong dedication to policies advancing women’s rights and protections to help our state become a model of equality and opportunity for the entire nation to follow,” Givner said in an email. “During this administration there has been incredible progress on the development of comprehensive proposals to improve reproductive economic and social justice for all New York women and that work is continuing.”

The ‘Women’s Equality Party’ is born

The saga of the Women’s Equality Party is a particular sore point. Cuomo co-founded the organization – ostensibly as a new vehicle for electing progressive, pro-choice lawmakers – ahead of the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, in which he faced off against a female challenger, the liberal anti-corruption leader and law professor Zephyr Teachout.

But after a headline-grabbing rollout, the party did little more than appear on New Yorkers’ ballots every couple years – the state’s fusion voting system allows candidates to appear on multiple parties’ slates – until it failed to reach a minimum 50,000 votes in 2018 and all but disappeared.

“The purpose, of course, was to basically use the ballot as a billboard,” said Teachout, who was endorsed before the 2014 primary by the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women. “Andrew Cuomo equals women’s equality, instead of using the ballot to represent real existing parties.”

To many in New York political circles, the party was regarded as something of a dark joke.

Former New York capitol beat reporter Jessica Bakeman, in a first-person account published in New York Magazine on Friday, accused Cuomo of sexually harassing her on multiple occasions. After the first of the alleged incidents, in December 2014, she recalled a male colleague who, as she discussed what had happened afterward, said, “Women’s equality much?”

The governor, at a Friday press conference after Bakeman’s story was published, again issued a broad denial of the multiple allegations against him and urged the public to “wait for the facts.”

“It was the year Cuomo had created the Women’s Equality Party and sent his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, to stump for him in a bus with a pink stripe down the side,” Bakeman wrote. “That campaign was the perfect illustration of Cuomo’s views on women: that we are political pawns, objects, a means to an end.”

Outside of Albany, activists like Heidi Sieck had come to a similar conclusion. The co-founder and CEO of #VoteProChoice, Sieck moved to New York City in 2013 from San Francisco after a spell organizing the women’s vote in Ohio on then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

“My life’s work is to help women get elected to office, to bring more women into leadership,” Sieck told CNN, “because I fundamentally believe that if you have more balanced representative leadership, particularly in government, you’ll get better outcomes for everybody.”

So when she saw an ad, soon after coming to New York, for something called the Women’s Equality Party, she was instantly taken by its promise – and began to ask others in her community, “How do I get involved?”

But fellow activists “told me, No, that’s actually not a real thing,” Sieck recalled. “That the Women’s Equality Party was a structured feminist facade to direct votes away from the Working Families Party and a ploy by Andrew Cuomo to make it look like he’s a great feminist and trying to harm the (Working Families Party).”

Cuomo’s office pointed to his accomplishments on women’s issues, but did not respond to questions about any substantive role the Women’s Equality Party might have had in pushing that agenda forward

The similarities between the initials of the Working Families Party (WFP), a progressive grassroots party formed with activist and labor backing in 1998 that has often clashed with the governor, and the Women’s Equality Party was not lost on New York politicos.

Sieck’s own research into the new party, she said, confirmed their warnings. Soon, as a member of the board of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, she got deeper into the weeds of the fight to pass the Reproductive Health Act and Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act.

Sieck quickly came to believe that the legislation’s most powerful obstacle was not the then-Republican-controlled state Senate, but the governor himself. By the time she arrived in New York, the GOP’s ability to block bills like the RHA and CCCA was largely dependent on a power-sharing deal in the Senate, in which a breakaway band of Democratic lawmakers, called the Independent Democratic Conference, caucused with Republicans, effectively guaranteeing their control of the chamber.

The agreement was widely believed to be blessed by Cuomo, whose ability to decide what did – and did not – end up on his desk was bolstered by a divided legislature that largely shut out more liberal Democrats.

Cuomo has denied supporting the IDC and, as opposition to it mounted 2018, helped broker its dissolution.

Conflicting priorities

The abortions rights bills finally became law in early 2019, after the IDC had been disbanded and most of its former members defeated in 2018 primaries. Democrats won an outright state Senate majority that year and, in 2020, veto-proof supermajorities in both of New York’s legislative chambers.

One of the lawmakers who led the successful charge for the passage of a number of progressive priorities, including the RHA and CCCA, was Biaggi, then in her first term as a state senator after defeating former IDC leader Jeff Klein in a 2018 primary. Known now as one of Cuomo’s most vocal critics, Biaggi, a lawyer and veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, actually spent much of 2017 working in his office. One of her assignments: working on the RHA.

But the experience, she told CNN, was deeply disillusioning and one of the reasons she ended up leaving and launching her own campaign. Biaggi said it became clear to her soon after joining the governor’s office that, in addition to what she described as a chaotic workplace, where staffers were routinely berated and siloed off from one another, that the RHA was not a priority – despite the governor’s public pronouncements.

“The priority was to keep his friends in power. The priority to keep himself in power,” Biaggi said. “The governor benefited from the IDC (because) he didn’t have to sign into law or be pushed into a corner to do any of those progressive kinds of legislation. He could say that he stood for it, but then he could point to the Senate and say, ‘No, no, see, I can’t get this done because there’s this Republican Senate that won’t let the bill get to my desk.’ So it was a cover for him.”

As evidence, she pointed to some of Cuomo’s most high-profile accomplishments, including the 2011 passage of the Marriage Equality Act, which succeeded even after the IDC’s formation earlier that year.

“It’s not like he couldn’t do things. If he really wanted to, he would,” Biaggi said. “But the problem was that he didn’t want to. So to say that he cared about the RHA or any of these things, it wasn’t real.”

Cuomo has laid the blame for inaction on those measures at the feet of the legislature.

Givner, his spokeswoman, pushed back against the suggestion that governor’s office was a hostile work environment.

“Working in the Governor’s office is a highly demanding job and over the past decade, hundreds of dedicated employees have contributed to the incredible accomplishments for the people of this state,” Givner said in an email. “We remain focused on getting through this pandemic and continuing to work hard for the people of New York.”

Biaggi’s criticism of Cuomo’s handling of legislation like the RHA mirrors the charges leveled by activists and progressive lawmakers against the Women’s Equality Party – that it was a pink-washed vessel for the governor, intended to distract from where his public voice conflicted with his private agenda.

Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a longtime Cuomo ally who helped with the WEP’s launch, spoke at the time about growing it into an ambitious, lasting organization. Instead, after securing the 50,000 votes necessary to guarantee four years on the ballot in 2014, it largely fell off the map, and came up short of the threshold in 2018.

Quinn maintains that her involvement was driven by a focus “on advancing the Women’s Agenda in New York State, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, in the face of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court and clear hostility to reproductive rights at the national level.”

But she conceded, in an email to CNN, that WEP fell short of what had been initially advertised.

“I would have liked to see the party develop into a more cohesive, organized political party with women’s issues being the single platform matter – forcing anyone who wanted its backing to unequivocally support policies to promote choice, women’s health, and access to reproductive health care,” Quinn wrote. “I have made it my life’s work to advocate for women, and this was an effort to further that work. That’s why I supported the effort.”

Quinn added that she is “deeply concerned about the numerous allegations against the Governor” and supports New York Attorney General Letitia James’ ongoing probe into the accusations. She has not called for Cuomo’s resignation.

For others, the failure of the WEP was less of a disappointment.

The party came under particularly harsh scrutiny during the 2018 midterms, when it endorsed a male House candidate named DuWayne Gregory over Liuba Grechen Shirley, a working mother who would make headlines – and, eventually, history – when she successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow for the use of campaign funds for child care expenses.

“My children were the biggest reason I wanted to run and the biggest reason holding me back,” Grechen Shirley told a local CBS affiliate before her request was granted.

Gregory’s campaign cast doubt on Grechen Shirley’s crusade, with a spokeswoman saying at the time, “Ethics rules exist for serious reasons, and using campaign funds for personal expenses is a very slippery slope.”

In a tweet on Sunday, Grechen Shirley recalled her interaction – or lack thereof – with the WEP.

“I was a first-time candidate running for Congress with two babies,” she wrote. “The ‘Women’s Equality Party’ refused to interview me, but endorsed my opponent – a man who said I shouldn’t spend my campaign funds on childcare.”

Monica Klein, a progressive political consultant who worked on Grechen Shirley’s campaign, told CNN the same thing days earlier – that the WEP never interviewed her candidate, who eventually won the Democratic primary before losing in November to since-retired Republican Rep. Peter King.

“Liuba Grechen Shirley was bringing energy and excitement into the campaign, and she was also literally changing laws and breaking boundaries for first-time candidates by starting a ripple effect of changing the way that women were able to run for office through this FEC ruling,” Klein said. “And instead, the quote-unquote ‘Women’s Equality Party’ chose to endorse her machine-picked opponent … It was such a crystal clear moment of what the Women’s Equality Party actually stood for, and they did not stand for women.”

‘It’s not like you can say no to the guy’

Former Democratic state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk served a single term, from 2013 to 2015, after winning an upstate district drawn up by – and for – Republicans. In an extremely close race, she ultimately prevailed – with an 18-vote margin – after a court fight.

But her victory was not greeted with the kind of excitement she might have expected. Not least from Cuomo, who – as Tkaczyk told CNN this week – ignored her at the first event she attended after her election was confirmed, instead offering “lavish, wondrous prose and praise” for the GOP state senators sitting on either side of her during his speech.

“That was my first interaction, face-to-face with Governor Cuomo, where a newly elected Senator who fought to get there, who ran in this gerrymandered district, was completely ignored in public. And everyone noticed,” she said. “And people came up to me afterwards, (saying) ‘Wow, the governor really dissed you. What’d you do to him?’”

Tkaczyk believes it was her surprise victory, in a seat the governor likely expected to be inhabited by a Republican, that irked Cuomo.

“I kicked over an apple cart they were not planning on,” she said. “I definitely got the cold shoulder from him from the get-go because I dare to run and win a Senate seat as a Democrat.”

Cuomo’s office did not comment on Tkaczyk’s account.

In 2014, Tkaczyk said a member of the governor’s staff offered to secure her a place on the ballot line of the newly-formed Women’s Equality Party. Tkaczyk says she had no interest in it. She was a Democrat and would also be on the Working Families Party lines – and did not, she believed, need yet another.

Ultimately, Tkaczyk decided it would cause her more trouble to turn down the offer than accept it and carry on with her campaign.

“His office assured me they would collect the signatures for me. And it’s not like you can say no to the guy. It’s like, ‘Oh, OK’,” said Tkaczyk, who was kicked off the WEP line before she could appear on it because the signatures were mostly from outside her district.

Tkaczyk fell short in 2014, to the same Republican she defeated two years earlier, but her anger at the governor over his use of the WEP, which she described as a sham designed to siphon votes away from Cuomo’s liberal rivals, persisted.

“It was a joke. If you went to the events, they’re all Democrats in the room. He essentially whipped up his Democratic colleagues and committees and got them to spout that, ‘We’re starting this new thing,’” Tkaczyk said. “They drove around in a bus that looked like a box of pink tampons.”

So she decided to gum up the works.

Tkaczyk got a couple friends to join the party with her as fellow members and they filed bylaws that would, in effect, allow them to take it over. The WEP had, in Tkaczyk’s estimation, been a drain on resources that could have been devoted to electing more Democrats and passing the party’s stated agenda. Her endgame was simple.

“I wanted to take it over to kill it,” Tkaczyk said.

But her efforts, and those of a group of Republicans who were also trying to take over the WEP, were eventually defeated in the courts.

Cuomo kept control of the party he created. It lasted two more election cycles, endorsing Democrats while slowly fading from public view.