The Plea to “Stop Al Franken-ing” Cuomo Is Exactly What We Don’t Need

The New York governor is not the former Minnesota senator. He’s worse.


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On Monday, a third woman came forward with accusations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Anna Ruch, a former member of the Obama administration, told the New York Times that Cuomo had approached her during a wedding in September 2019 and asked, “Can I kiss you?” The question allegedly took place shortly after she brushed his hand away as he touched her back—she had been wearing a dress with an open back design. A photograph, taken by a friend, showed Ruch looking visibly tense as Cuomo held her face in his hands, apparently at the moment when he had asked to kiss her.

Ruch’s story comes after two former aides detailed allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo: On Saturday, Charlotte Bennett accused him of sexually suggestive behavior—which included repeated questions about her views on monogamy and older men—and, perhaps most disturbingly, expressed an unsettling interest in her experience as a sexual assault survivor. Earlier last week, Lindsey Boylan, a former special adviser to the governor, accused Cuomo in a Medium post of forcibly kissing her and overseeing a toxic work climate in which, she wrote, “sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected.” 

Since the second allegation surfaced, calls for Cuomo to resign have gained momentum. But these serious and credible allegations have been countered by what, at the moment, appears to be an even larger sentiment to stop “Al Franken-ing him,” an exhortation that has since exploded on social media. Al Franken has been trending on Twitter ever since.

The warning refers to the former Democratic senator from Minnesota who, in 2017, was forced to resign amid allegations of groping and sexual harassment. Deploying the former senator’s name into a rallying cry in response to Cuomo’s improprieties appears to be based on the logic that sexual harassment claims leveled against popular, liberal men shouldn’t erase their positive attributes. In the case of Franken, six women came forward describing unwanted kissing and groping, accounts that largely dated back to his days before becoming a senator. But for those who saw an iconic, progressive senator fighting back during the early days of Trump, the number of women and their corroborating narratives became, if not irrelevant, then not what we should all be paying attention to. The agony of Franken supporters over watching a supposed hero crash and burn at the hands of their Democratic colleagues was especially difficult when compared to the apparent impunity of Donald Trump.

And Franken had plenty of supporters. “What they did to Al was atrocious, the Democrats,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin told Politico. One letter signed by female staff members of Saturday Night Live read: “We feel compelled to stand up for Al Franken, whom we have all had the pleasure of working with over the years on Saturday Night Live… In our experience, we know Al as a devoted and dedicated family man, a wonderful comedic performer and an honorable public servant.” Even Republicans rushed to Franken’s defense.

Whatever the relative merits of the case may be, what’s important is to look at what followed after Franken resigned. Democrats considered this to be a critical, symbolic move, a way of demonstrating that they handled such allegations with much greater integrity than Republicans turning a blind eye to the dozens of sexual assault accusations against Trump. But was Franken’s disappearance from the Senate really such a catastrophe? After he resigned, Tina Smith, the state’s former lieutenant governor, who also served as an executive for Planned Parenthood, was appointed to replace him and in November, she was easily reelected. The country moved on—and Franken has survived the experience. The former Saturday Night Live cast member still enjoys a platform on national magazines and cable news networks. He also hosts his own podcast.

Still, plenty of Democrats and so-called progressives remain furious over what happened to him, arguing that the allegations were insubstantial and that his ouster was premature. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation, paid heavily for her stance; her failed presidential bid is often traced back to her crusade against Franken. She has insisted that she has no regrets over the way she handled the incident, but flash forward to now. Gillibrand appears to be striking a much more cautious tone, calling for an investigation into the allegations against Cuomo, rather than demanding his resignation—further evidence that Democrats are at least conscious of the warning not to repeat a Franken episode. That caution, however, appears governed by the calculation that Democrats paid too heavy a price by having a higher moral standard than Republicans in the age of Trump.

But seeing Franken’s sudden downfall as analogous to the current sexual harassment charges engulfing Cuomo may be misguided on more than a moral level. The New York governor had already been mired in scandal, perhaps the biggest of his long political career, before Boylan’s Medium post. Cuomo had been charged with an attempt to cover up data on the state’s nursing home deaths from the coronavirus. (The FBI and US attorney in Brooklyn are now reportedly investigating those allegations.) Cuomo is also facing a firestorm of controversy after he allegedly threatened to “destroy” Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim after Kim criticized his handling of nursing home deaths to the New York Post. “That’s classic Andrew Cuomo,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and frequent target of Cuomo’s wrath told MSNBC last month, an opinion echoed by many in Albany who saw Cuomo’s threat as just another example of the governor’s well-known tendency to bully subordinates—and anyone else who crossed him.

Perhaps even more telling is how Cuomo has responded to the harassment allegations. After Bennett came forward, the governor denied making any “advances toward” her, but as many have pointed out, Bennett never accused him of that. The next day, Cuomo offered an apology for past behavior that “may have been insensitive or too personal”—a statement that appeared to at least acknowledge some of the inappropriateness of his conduct. In the same Times story of Ruch’s account, a spokesman for Cuomo notably declined to “directly address” Ruch’s allegations, and instead pointed to his earlier statement. 

So it’s worth interrogating what the stop Al Franken-ing crowd is defending here. Is it the governor’s short-lived reputation as the supposed “best executive best suited” to handle the coronavirus pandemic? Or is it the longstanding and pernicious calculation involved when protecting liberal men with a record of behaving appallingly towards women, no matter the evidence or history, at all costs?  If the latter, it’s also worth  considering whether Al Franken-ing someone—to hold badly behaved men accountable despite their politics and replace them with equal if not better candidates—might be exactly what progress looks like.


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