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N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Faces 2 Sexual Harassment Allegations And Calls To Resign

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pressure is growing on Andrew Cuomo after a second woman accused the Democratic New York governor of sexual harassment. One former Cuomo adviser had previously accused him of kissing her without consent. The second woman told The New York Times that when she was a Cuomo aide, the governor asked intrusive questions about her sex life, including whether she slept with older men. The governor issued an apology on Sunday and gave New York state's Attorney General, Letitia James, the power to appoint an outside investigator. New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi is a fellow Democrat and longtime critic of Cuomo, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

ALESSANDRA BIAGGI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You were one of the first state Democrats to call on the governor to resign. You called him a monster on Twitter and have said lawmakers should be removed from office if they don't hold him accountable. Why not wait to see what an investigation uncovers first?

BIAGGI: So it's a great place to start. I mean, I want to be very clear about where I'm coming from. I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I am a legislator, a New Yorker, like many, chair of the Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. And I also am someone who has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace. It's one of the most important issues to me. It's what I ran on. It's what I've been fighting for. It's the legislation we passed in 2018. And frankly, you know, it's part of why Albany has been calcified with the secrets of abuse that have really, like, lined the halls. And so in order to be able to not only rid Albany of sexual harassment, something the Sexual Harassment Working Group was created to do, we have to have a zero-tolerance policy. And so the way that I'm looking at this set of circumstances is by the totality of information that I know about the governor's behavior. His behavior and what's been described and also what I know from my own experience working there and others that I am, you know, close with who have worked there...

SHAPIRO: Because you worked in his office before you were an elected official yourself, we should note.

BIAGGI: That's right. That's right. That's right. So I was - I worked in his counsel's office for roughly eight months in 2017. And so, I mean, this is part of a pattern of abusive and manipulative behavior from him. And it's also part of a bigger culture of fear that is pervasive throughout his administration.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying you speak from firsthand experience, but wouldn't there be value in having a thorough, exhaustive investigation so that you get things on the record and find out how widespread this is and give the truth an opportunity to be aired?

BIAGGI: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Yes, I do support an independent investigation. I believe that we're going to be able to have that now, since there will be a special prosecutor appointed by the attorney general. So we could be thankful for that. But when I look at the words that the governor used and the questions that he asked Charlotte Bennett, which the governor has not denied, things like, do you have sex with older men? Do you have sex outside of your relationship? And he repeated to her over and over again, knowing she was a sexual abuse survivor. You were raped and abused and attacked and assaulted. These are things that not only did he say to her personally and alone, but he said them while they were in his office in the Capitol in Albany. And he mentioned that, you know, as his response to this, it was meant to be playful. There is no gray area with what has gone on here.

SHAPIRO: Have you heard from your constituents about this? What are they saying to you?

BIAGGI: I think that there are people who are really shocked that this is, you know, coming to the surface. Why? Because a lot of people know the governor from what they see on television, right? Go back to last March and April and May and June and July, the whole summer when the governor was doing his press conferences about COVID, which provided a lot of safety for people. It made them feel really like they were - like the governor had their backs. The problem here is that that's the perception. That's the persona. Behind the scenes, especially with Charlotte Bennett - right? - she describes this happening during the peak of COVID.

SHAPIRO: We only have a minute left. But I'm curious, you know, as a Democrat, Cuomo is your party's de facto leader in the state. He's been governor for a decade. And there's a gubernatorial election in New York next year. So what does this mean for your party in the state?

BIAGGI: I mean, I think the most important thing that we can do as legislators and as members of any political party is collectively have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse. And I think that when we are confronted with these kinds of issues, we should not be thinking about party. We should be thinking about the people who have been harmed and how we are going to get them justice and also how we will hold accountable the people who actually caused these harms. So for me, this is not a political issue. I know it's being seen that way, but I would have the same reaction no matter who it was.

SHAPIRO: New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, thank you so much for your time.

BIAGGI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.