Cuomo and the 30% Solution

How one of the most powerful governors in America is going down, and why the rising numbers of women in power in Albany are making the difference.

In chemistry, a supersaturated solution is one that contains more dissolved solute than would be predicted by the solubility limit of the solvent. So, you can add sugar to water, and up to a point the sugar will dissolve, but once the water is saturated, some solid sugar will collect on the bottom of your container. Add heat, and the additional sugar will dissolve into the water. That’s because the heat increases the motion of the molecules of water and sugar, making more room between the water molecules for the sugar. So, while a liter of water might hold 900 grams of dissolved sugar at room temperature, that same liter could hold double that if you doubled the water’s temperature.

But here’s the fun part. As the water cools, the dissolved sugar may stay dissolved longer than would be predicted. That’s because the sugar molecules don’t immediately find their way to linking up with each other. So the water stays clear, holding more dissolved sugar than it should, based on the solubility of sugar. This is called a supersaturated solution. All that it may take for the sugar to recombine as a solid is the addition of a seed crystal. (Or a string dropped into the liquid, say, to form rock candy.)

Until the last few days, New York State’s politics have been a supersaturated solution, with demand for change held in a kind of suspended animation by an invisible power structure that has managed to sustain a painful status quo for millions of residents. Consider this: The state has far more registered Democrats than Republicans—6.7 million to 2.9 million, with 3 million choosing no party. But until 2019, power in Albany was split between Democrats who ran the Assembly and Republicans who ran the Senate (with the help of 8 renegade Democrats quietly backed by the Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo). It is the most unequal state in the union, with a Gini co-efficient of 0.5229—only in the District of Columbia is income more unevenly distributed. But despite that level of inequality, the very rich in New York pay a lower share of their income in taxes than do the poor and middle class—something that Governor Cuomo still refuses to change.

It’s not a coincidence that the state with the most inequality also has some of the loosest campaign contribution limits anywhere in America; political scientists have long pointed out that states that don’t reign in big money politics have worse socioeconomic justice measures. And New York has long had some of the most lax rules governing how much can be donated to candidates. Just 100 people donated more money to state candidates in New York in 2018--$7.5 million--than all the money donated by the 137,000 people who gave $175 or less--$5.8 million. And that’s not counting money from LLCs and corporations, which are overwhelmingly controlled by the wealthy. No politician has been better at vacuuming up huge sums from big donors than Cuomo, though in 2018 his re-election was embarrassed enough by that fact that a whole passel of his pals gave him dozens of $1 contributions in a transparent effort to lower his average donation size. But the open secret of Albany is how Cuomo has used his huge money advantage, along with a highly abrasive personal style, to intimidate other political actors into submission. His reliance on fatcats from Wall Street, real estate, the hospital lobby (and his service to them) has been the linchpin that keeps our politics pregnant with possibility, supersaturated but not quite crystallizing into change.

Women make up just more than half of the state’s population; of the legislature’s 213 members, 73 (34%) are women. The first woman to become the head of one of the legislature’s chambers, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, assumed that role just two years ago. Letitia (Tish) James, the Attorney General, is only the second woman to rise to that powerful position, following Barbara Underwood, who became AG when then-incumbent Eric Schneiderman had to resign after his physical abuse of women was revealed.

That last set of facts may be the most significant, given current events. Unless you’ve been ignoring the news the last few days, you probably already know that Cuomo is facing the biggest crisis of his three terms in office. As of this morning, three women have publicly accused him of predatory sexual behavior. Two of them were state employees who worked in his office at the time. The details in their charges are quite compelling and, in the case of the two state employees—Lindsay Boylan and Charlotte Bennett—amount to the creation of a hostile workplace. (“You were raped and abused and attacked and assaulted and betrayed,” Cuomo kept repeating to Bennett, who is a survivor of sexual assault, according to her account. “Let’s play strip poker,” he said to Boylan while seated knee to knee with her on a state jet, according to her account.)

Doing damage control, Cuomo admitted two days ago that he has “teased” employees at work, including making “jokes” about “their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married.” He should have invoked the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. According to New York State’s sexual harassment policy for all state employers, "A sexually harassing hostile work environment consists of words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence which are of a sexual nature, or which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex. Sexual harassment also consists of any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, which cause the recipient discomfort or humiliation, which interfere with the recipient’s job performance.”

Many New Yorkers are now calling for a full, independent investigation of Cuomo’s behavior. Some have gone further and are calling on him to resign. Over the weekend, both Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Tish James rebuffed attempts by Cuomo to control the process by which he would be investigated. Another state senator, Alessandra Biaggi, who is part of the Class of 2019, and who chairs the Senate’s committee on ethics and internal governance, has called for his resignation. Notably, far more women legislators than men have spoken up so far—29 of the 55 women in the assembly have called for an independent investigation; just 8 of their 105 male colleagues have joined them. On the Senate side 19 men and 13 women have spoken out for an inquiry. (This is according to a crowd-sourced spreadsheet built by NY activists; the precise numbers may vary.)

Longtime Cuomo observer Ross Barkan explains this variation is rooted in how the make-up of the Democratic Assembly differs from the Democratic Senate here, showing that the assembly is filled with more long-serving members who are less likely to challenge the state’s de facto power structure than the senate, which has more recent newcomers like Biaggi, all elected as progressive reformers. I strongly endorse that view and suggest you order an advance copy of Barkan’s soon-to-be-published book on Cuomo, The Prince. (The cover art alone should make you laugh.) Barkan is absolutely right that the big change of the last week is how few people are now afraid of Cuomo. The spell that the bully cast over New York is broken. But I have a related point about the wave of change now crashing over state capitol.

It wasn’t all that long ago that women were a tiny proportion of the New York state legislature. In 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman” in American politics, they were just 12.8%. The above chart is drawn from data collected by the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. Only in 2019 did the percentage of women rise above 30%.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the long-suppressed anger at Andrew Cuomo’s way of governing is now boiling into public view. Years ago, after studying a Fortune 500 company, Rosabeth Moss Kanter theorized that women needed to make up at least 30% of a team to contribute at their full potential. Below that, they would be treated as tokens. Above it, they had enough critical mass to shift the culture of the whole group. That’s because, as Drude Dahlerup, another scholar who extended Kanter’s work from the corporate world to the political arena, once the number of women rises above that proportion, it becomes easier for them to form supportive alliances. Three out of ten may also be the “magic number” where the presence of women on corporate boards also starts to impact decision-making. As other scholars have argued, the percentage of women doesn’t automatically lead to substantive differences; we still have to look at what specific actors actually do.

So why is Andrew Cuomo’s supersaturated hold on power in New York state now collapsing? It’s the combination of three things: first, a new generation that is less fearful of the power of older white men. That’s Lindsay Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, along with Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, who did something no other elected official has ever done before when bullied by Cuomo two weeks ago over his criticism of the governor’s handling of COVID in nursing homes: he fired back just as hard, and went on television to make his charges stick. Second, it’s the critical mass that women have achieved in Albany, along with a lot of organizing behind the scenes by progressives pushing for better policies. And finally, it’s the role of new women leaders, including Stewart-Cousins as one of the three leaders “in the room” for budget negotiations, and James in the Attorney General’s office with the power to investigate the executive branch. That, along with iconoclasts like Biaggi who, as a freshwoman in Albany, hasn’t accepted her presumed role as a back-bencher and instead has kept pushing—along with her legislator roommates Yuh-Line Niou and Jessica Ramos.

Right now, it’s still conceivable that Cuomo will tough out this crisis, assuming no one else comes forward and the special prosecutor investigation fails to turn up more evidence of problems. But after a year where he was lionized for providing what--in a non-Trumpian environment—was competent but flawed management of the state through the COVID crisis, Cuomo is now damaged goods. If we’re lucky, he’ll realize it and decide that he can’t stand for a fourth gubernatorial term next year. Given how many people he has bullied and offended over the years, it’s hard to believe there aren’t more stories about to surface. After all, the seed crystals are in the water now, and we know how this process ends.

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Odds and Ends

-A first look at campaign funding of state legislative candidates in several battleground states by EveryDistrict, shows that while more money has been flowing to support challengers (in the hopes of tipping chambers) most of the cash came late in the process. “Our candidates just did not have the early resources to build out their program and strategically and methodically build a coalition for their candidacy,” the group reports. As Amanda Litman of RunForSomething comments, “What we fund in 2021 determines what we can win in 2022.”

-“Black employees at Amazon often face both direct and insidious bias that harms their careers and personal lives,” Jason Del Rey reports for Recode. Current and former Amazon diversity and inclusion professionals — employees whose work focuses on helping Amazon create and maintain an equitable workplace and products — told him that “internal data shows that Amazon’s review and promotion systems have created an unlevel playing field. Black employees receive ‘least effective’ marks more often than all other colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers.”

Daniel Kreiss and Shannon C. McGregor, two leading researchers with the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill, argue for Wired that Facebook’s oversight board should uphold the company’s ban on The Former Guy. They write, “The former president clearly, repeatedly, and flagrantly violated Facebook’s Community Standards in his attempt to deny the American public’s right to vote him out of office. Banning Trump from the platform permanently would follow the company's history of suspending users who repeatedly violate policies. More importantly, it would affirm Facebook’s responsibility to protect democracies around the world by taking a strong stance against expression that undermines democratic accountability, especially free and fair elections.”

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