“It’s The Cuomo Way”: Former Staffers Describe Toxic Workplace Under Governor’s Relentless Thumb


Sarah, a blonde lady in her twenties, gained a fellowship to work in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s workplace in 2013. She was shocked when she was shortly invited by senior staffers to sit down at a desk positioned proper close to the governor — in his “line of sight,” as she described it.

At first, she didn’t perceive why. One other lady within the workplace provided her some perception, telling her Cuomo “likes blondes,” notably these in stiletto heels.

“You gotta put on heels when he’s in Albany sweetie, that’s the rule,” she mentioned the lady informed her. So, though Sarah was extra accustomed to flats or boots, she quickly amassed a small assortment of stilettos not as a result of it was a written rule however as a result of it appeared essential to succeed.

Practically a dozen present and former staffers of Cuomo’s workplace who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC this week mentioned Cuomo has cultivated an intense work tradition that was brutal for some, traumatic for others. We’re withholding all of their names, together with Sarah’s, as a result of they concern skilled or private retaliation from the governor and his senior employees. Many nonetheless reside in New York the place Cuomo’s attain extends far and huge.

Their feedback comply with a tumultuous week for the governor, who’s accused of sexual misconduct by three girls, together with two former staffers who mentioned he harassed them at work, allegations he has denied and the Lawyer Common is investigating.

The previous staffers mentioned they weren’t shocked by the allegations, partly as a result of they described a office the place outdated gender binaries had been the norm, bullying was fixed, and the place folks labored continuous, blurring the strains between private {and professional} lives.

They mentioned they had been anticipated to reply texts and telephone calls and attend conferences in any respect hours of the day and evening, any day of the week. They confronted private assaults on their skilled value and competence for seemingly small errors. And loyalty, moderately than inventive pondering, problem-solving, or ardour for public service, was valued above all else.

“There’s no proper or incorrect means. It’s the Cuomo means,” one former staffer mentioned she was informed when interviewing for the job. “He desires people who find themselves actually going to fall on the sword for him, they usually all will.” As Sarah informed us, “All of us would have taken a bullet for the Governor. He was an important individual.”

Whereas at first Cuomo mentioned his alleged actions could have been misinterpreted as undesirable flirtation, on Wednesday he apologized, saying he kissed and hugged many individuals in his function as governor and didn’t intend to offend or harass anybody.

“You will discover a whole lot of images of me making the identical gesture with a whole lot of individuals, girls, males, youngsters,” he mentioned. “It’s my standard customary means of greeting… by the way in which, it was my father’s means of greeting folks.”

Not one of the staffers who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC mentioned they witnessed sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by the governor. Sarah mentioned she obtained kisses on the cheek, simply as one of many girls who spoke out in opposition to the governor described. On the time, Sarah mentioned it felt like a fatherly gesture. Cuomo additionally requested her private questions, together with if she had a boyfriend, which she didn’t think about out of line.

“I felt like I used to be particular,” she mentioned, including she most popular a kiss on the cheek to the screams she heard directed at employees members who’d angered Cuomo or his high aides. She watched different girls who didn’t match the archetype get bullied and mocked.

“I knew by wanting cute, and never being obstinate or opinionated, and doing what I used to be informed and searching polished… That’s the solely means I might survive there,” she mentioned.

Some former staffers who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC had a extra beneficiant interpretation of what it’s prefer to work for Cuomo. Some refuted the characterization that it was a poisonous office or that there have been gown codes, however they conceded the atmosphere was not for everybody.

“I believe everybody there desires to do the perfect work they will. Generally that work-life steadiness is sacrificed. I used to be undoubtedly burned out by the top of my time there,” one mentioned, including, “I didn’t take it personally.”

Micromanager ‘to the one hundredth Diploma’

Cuomo wanted to personally approve each element of each venture, right down to which images had been despatched to the press, and what backdrop he would stand in entrance of, the previous staffers mentioned. That they had Google alerts set for his title, and despatched him messages anytime he was talked about within the press. He would pit folks in opposition to each other, assigning them the identical venture to see who might do it higher or quicker.

“A micromanager to the one hundredth diploma,” one former staffer recalled. “One of many worst I’ve ever seen.”

Establishing occasions for the governor was an endlessly sophisticated project. They had been canceled or modified on the final minute as a result of Cuomo determined he didn’t wish to do them, or rescheduled with only a few hours discover. Generally employees in different companies had been informed to cancel their common work schedules to accommodate the last-minute plans.

“It’s not simply chaos for his shut employees,” one other former worker mentioned. “It’s chaos for his entire administration.”

All the pieces right down to the room temperature (between 67-71 levels) needed to be simply so. 12 months-round, employees would place two small followers behind his talking podium to maintain him cool. Generally Cuomo would name employees on website from a blocked quantity simply to double-check the room was chilly sufficient.

“In order that means he didn’t sweat,” one other former staffer mentioned. Greater than as soon as, employees scrambled to find a full air-conditioning unit to put close to the governor. “For those who do any Andrew Cuomo occasion it must be a selected temperature.”

And also you needed to be able to work always.

“They flew me again from trip as soon as as a result of they wanted one thing achieved,” one former staffer mentioned, including she nonetheless jumps on the ping of a Blackberry. “You had go-bags. You actually needed to be able to go at a drop of a hat.”

Bursts of anger from Cuomo and his high aides got here fast and quick and infrequently. Essentially the most vitriolic private assaults, former staffers mentioned, had been usually reserved for males in Cuomo’s shut orbit. If one thing occurred that made the governor really feel he regarded silly or silly, he’d lash out on the individual he thought was responsible.

One staffer described an incident in Buffalo in 2017, the place an aide briefly left his aspect, and Cuomo walked out onto the stage earlier than being formally launched by the loudspeaker. Embarrassed, he’d retreated again into the wings, ripping into the younger staffer. Cuomo fired the person on the spot, one other staffer described, although his bosses saved him on with out the governor’s information.

“Cuomo fired lots of people and we simply didn’t put them in entrance of him,” the lady mentioned. “This man continued to [work] however we’d cover him at occasions.”

The micromanaging additionally expressed itself in how folks had been anticipated to decorate when the governor was round, and never simply girls. Males in Cuomo’s inside orbit put on white shirts. Their sneakers have to be spotless. One staffer mentioned they witnessed the governor taking a knee and sprucing somebody’s sneakers himself.

“There was a basic sense that when the governor was within the constructing that you just had been to stroll on eggshells,” one other mentioned. “And when you’re strolling, ensure that these sneakers are good and glossy.”

Melissa DeRosa and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, May 2020.


Melissa DeRosa and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Could 2020.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Workplace

Stockholm Syndrome

You had been both within the governor’s good graces otherwise you had been out. Cuomo and his high staffers both favored you, or they didn’t. If the Albany workplace had the texture of an previous boys’ membership, the New York Metropolis workplace was dominated by top-level feminine staffers who acted as gatekeepers to the governor. They jokingly referred to themselves as “imply ladies” whereas others within the workplace knew them as such, a number of former staffers confirmed.

On the heart had been Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, and Stephanie Benton, his government secretary, in addition to a number of different feminine aides. DeRosa defended the workplace as a spot the place girls might thrive professionally when requested in regards to the latest allegations in opposition to Cuomo on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve seen extra girls rise to the best ranges when it comes to commissioners and senior employees members, and senior employees ranges,” she mentioned. “We’ve promoted each other, we’ve supported each other, and I don’t suppose that this diminishes any of that.”

Requested particularly about whether or not “imply ladies” was used within the workplace to explain high aides, spokesperson Wealthy Azzopardi dismissed it, saying “that characterization is sexist and offensive.”

“These are among the highest rating girls in state authorities and among the smartest, hardest working public servants I’ve ever met,” Azzopardi added.

Three former staffers used the phrases “Stockholm syndrome,” to explain life in Cuomo’s workplace, a psychological response when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors. One other described it as a textbook abusive relationship.

“They push you till you wish to be there. You need them to love you,” one former staffer mentioned. One other, who mentioned she’s been speaking with former workers, put it this manner: “We’re all form of waking as much as the truth that we had been in a cult.”

Individuals stayed due to what working within the Cuomo administration might imply for his or her careers; many former staffers maintain high positions in authorities, public relations, know-how, finance, and different firms. If issues weren’t going nicely, administration officers might withhold a referral letter for his or her subsequent job, or thwart their profession in New York politics. In the event that they couldn’t deal with the atmosphere, some staffers had been made to consider it was their very own private failing.

“That’s what we had been all led to consider, ‘Nicely I can’t hack it. Which means I’m a failure. I’m a loser,’” a former staffer mentioned.

Open Secret

Tales of Cuomo’s administration type have prolonged way back to 2000 when he labored because the U.S. Secretary of Housing and City Improvement. They bubbled up once more round election time. They had been extra just lately introduced again into the general public eye by Assemblymember Ron Kim, who in mid-February described a threatening telephone name from the governor after Kim had criticized him for his dealing with of COVID-19 in nursing houses.

Since then, New York Metropolis Mayor Invoice de Blasio, reporters, elected officers and federal workers have stepped ahead, describing comparable threatening telephone calls. Albany’s open secret, as soon as once more unearthed, is that Cuomo, regardless of glowing nationwide protection and an Emmy for his televised pandemic briefings, is usually a bully.

In latest weeks, as information protection of Cuomo has snowballed from nursing houses to bullying to sexual harassment, morale contained in the workplace has worsened.

“Workers members are blaming one another for the way in which issues are unfolding,” one mentioned. “Nobody ever tells the governor he’s incorrect about something. People who find themselves able to try this don’t… the remainder of us must cope with the fallout.”

Cuomo’s defenders, old-guard political allies in addition to some new supporters he picked up in the course of the pandemic, deny or downplay the allegations. Some have a tendency towards conspiratorial pondering, that some type of plot orchestrated by Donald Trump has been set in movement to oust him. Others say that is how Albany is.

“I believe they play hardball up in Albany, there’s no query about it. And it’s a must to have a thick pores and skin to work up there,” mentioned Jay Jacobs, State Democratic Chair and Cuomo’s long-time ally and confidant on NY1 Tuesday evening. “There’s this false impression that producing good authorities outcomes goes to be good, or candy, or simple — it’s not.”

Cuomo spokesperson Azzopardi mentioned New Yorkers have trusted the governor to ship outcomes for 14 years.

“Sure, they’ve seen him get impatient with partisan politics and disingenuous assaults,” he mentioned. “We’ve got a top-tier workforce and the Governor is direct with folks if their work is subpar as a result of the folks of New York deserve nothing wanting excellence from us.”

By the point the younger lady, Sarah, left the governor’s workplace, she was deflated. Regardless of undertaking some work she was pleased with, the price was too excessive: She had misplaced weight, drank an excessive amount of, cried on a regular basis. With the advantage of hindsight, she now feels otherwise about these years.

“I hate the truth that I seen it as an expert, private failure that I couldn’t survive due to how f—-ed up and imply and nasty everybody was,” she mentioned. “Energy was the primary purpose. It wasn’t actually about making issues proper or making issues higher for New Yorkers.”