Left-wing legislators have changed the game, taking on Cuomo for sexual harassment — and the style of politics he represents.
Six of New York’s most left-wing legislators called this week for the impeachment of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. On Tuesday, state Sens. Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, along with Assembly Members Emily Gallagher, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Zohran Mamdani, and Marcela Mitaynes, all self-identifying socialists, released a statement calling for Cuomo’s impeachment. If successful, it would be only the second such proceeding in state history, following the impeachment of Gov. William Sulzer in 1913.
That these left-wing elected officials made this call should come as no surprise. Not because Cuomo’s legacy as a technocratic, conservative Democrat makes him a natural and rightful enemy of the left, although that is indeed the case. Rather, the democratic socialists now in the state government recognize the necessity of dismantling the unaccountable power the governor has come to represent — epitomized by, but far from limited to, the incidents of sexual harassment of which he is accused.
Whether or not the tall order of impeachment succeeds, the effort to hold Cuomo accountable should be seen in the context of a burgeoning shift in New York politics. The rising left-wing politicians aim to challenge the state’s entrenched corporate, carceral, and propertied power structures, where gender-based and racial abuses flourish.
The statement calling for impeachment, written under the insignia-stamped letterhead of “Socialists in Office,” credits the three women “who have courageously come forward” with allegations against the governor while also dedicating a paragraph to the Cuomo administration’s nursing home scandal and cover-up, a counter to recent right-wing assertions that the harassment claims are a Democratic Party ploy to distract from the governor’s disgraceful treatment of nursing home residents, workers, and deaths in the pandemic.
Beyond Cuomo’s tenure, a break from his legacy of governance — away from mass incarceration, sex work criminalization, privatization, and austerity, and toward housing rights, free health care, as well as economic, racial, and social justice — is necessary to truly rupture the systems that allow sexual violence and patriarchal abuse to perpetuate on an endemic scale.
Gendered workplace harassment never happens in a vacuum. Cuomo’s mistreatment of women in his sphere sits alongside decisions to treat nursing home workers, teachers, and health care workers, among many others — the majority of whom are women — as disposable in the service of capital and political gain during the pandemic. As The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant put it, “Cuomo is, if nothing else, a boss. His targets are often women workers in subordinate positions, whether or not they report to him personally.”
“The impeachment is really about bringing forth a conversation between legislators and the executive powers,” Souffrant Forrest told me. She said that an “upheaval of power” in Albany is needed to “stop abuse not just for this governor, but for any governor.” For Souffrant Forrest and her colleagues, impeachment investigations would necessarily encompass the sexual harassment claims and concomitant abuses of power. It would include coercive treatment of workers and other officials alike, such as the governor’s threats and bullying of Assembly Member Ron Kim over the nursing home scandal.
“You will be destroyed,” the governor told Kim on a call, after the assembly member refused to aid Cuomo’s suppression of nursing home death numbers. Kim’s uncle died in a New York nursing home of Covid-19. Souffrant Forrest told me that her father is currently in one such facility, where she can hardly contact him. She said, “It’s personal for me.”
In the short years since 2018, when left-wing Democrats gained greater purchase in the New York State Legislature, there have been a number of progressive victories. Legislation vastly improving tenants’ rights was signed into law; Amazon’s plans for a second headquarters in Queens were thwarted; and the pernicious “walking while trans ban” was repealed last month, among other positive signs of political change.
These progressive gains were the fruits of years of social movement toil — with no thanks to Cuomo.
Instead, the governor was focused on burnishing his own image, playing power politics with business interests, and carrying out terrible criminal justice policies. From time to time, he pays lip service to a progressive agenda: He has lauded his achievements as a defender of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, overstating his leadership on marriage equality and the 2019 Reproductive Health Act. Yet his politics of austerity, policing, and mass incarceration have supported key sites and systems of racialized, gendered oppression.
While Cuomo postured about an inclusive agenda, the battles that the “Socialists in Office” have taken up are inextricably linked to the fight against gendered abuse and sexual violence: Prison rape is an epidemic; sexual assault by police officers is rampant; women without access to secure housing are rendered vulnerable to domestic violence; the criminalization of sex work produces inordinate violence, particularly against trans women of color. The list goes on and on.
“We need to beat back against a governor who is pushing abuse, with legislative bodies willing to do what we need for the people.”
Allegations of Cuomo’s sexual misconduct ought to be taken extremely seriously, but so too should the carceral hierarchies of gender-based violence that he oversaw and enabled.
“The governor pushes austerity, not just in terms of the budget, but also in a way that means we are not able to voice our concerns,” said Souffrant Forrest. “We need to beat back against a governor who is pushing abuse, with legislative bodies willing to do what we need for the people.”
The assembly member for Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, a majority-Black, working-class neighborhood hard-hit by the pandemic last year, stressed the need to pursue bills aggressively taking on corporations and taxing the rich.
She and her allies are also pushing efforts for rent cancellation, defunding the police, true universal health care, and the “Justice Roadmap” legislative agenda against the violence of the criminal legal and immigration systems.
The call for Cuomo’s impeachment should be viewed as being coherent with, and part of, a break from the New York politics for which the governor has long stood: calculating, hierarchical, and crucially, with power in his, not the people’s, hands.