New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing backlash from women's rights groups after inviting only male lawmakers to meetings about a sexual harassment policy for his state's annual budget. Although he reportedly promised to include Andrea Stewart-Cousins — New York State Senate Minority Leader and the state's only female caucus leader — to the meetings, Stewart-Cousins said the governor did not follow through on this pledge. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Stewart-Cousins argued that a woman should be present at meetings about sexual harassment policy, especially when the state budget is concerned.
“I’m not in the meetings, and I have not been included in other ways,” Stewart-Cousins told WSJ on Tuesday. Stewart-Cousins explained that Cuomo had merely briefed her on "generalities" over the phone, rather than inviting her to discuss the policy.
Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, told WSJ disagreed that Stewart-Cousins has been excluded. David said that he recently discussed the annual budget with two attorneys representing her caucus, and reiterated that Cuomo had spoken to Stewart-Cousins on the phone. He also suggested that Stewart-Cousins has not been included in the four-way talks between lawmakers because she is not representing a legislative majority.
The state budget deadline is just a few days away, and women's rights groups are concerned that the state's sexual harassment policy may be decided by a group composed entirely of men. Actress Cynthia Nixon, who recently announced that she would be running against Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in September, accused Cuomo of "mansplaining" sexual harassment, and criticized him for failing to include women in this conversation.
“At a time when millions of women are making their voices heard, why should we settle for sexual harassment policies that are being discussed behind closed doors without a single woman present?” Nixon said on Monday.
Although Stewart-Cousins has allegedly been excluded from meetings about the sexual harassment policy thus far, a Senate Democratic spokesperson tells Bustle that she may still be able to participate because the state budget has not yet been locked down. The spokesperson also confirmed that there has been no further communication between Cuomo and Stewart-Cousins since the WSJ published her comments on Tuesday.
“My conference laid out a series of proposals to combat sexual harassment, as well as plans to address gun safety, expanding women’s healthcare rights and protections, voting reforms, ethics reforms, criminal justice reforms, and many other issues that I would have pushed for in the budget negotiations," Stewart-Cousins says in a statement obtained by Bustle. "New Yorkers deserve real action on these issues, and my conference will keep demanding they be addressed, if not in the Budget, then as soon as possible.”
Stewart-Cousins has been vocal in combating sexual harassment for quite some time. Back in January, under her leadership, the New York's Senate Democrats proposed a series of bills to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We must have zero tolerance for sexual harassment," Stewart-Cousins said at the time. "No New Yorker should be subjected to harassment at their workplace. This Senate Democratic bill package will send a strong message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated."
Stewart-Cousins also said this week that she is not prepared to endorse Cuomo for another term as governor, citing the budget as a major part of her concerns.
“I am considering the budget and getting this budget done,” Stewart-Cousins said during an appearance on WNYC radio. “I have not been included in any negotiations about sexual harassment. ... We don’t know what’s going on in that room.”
Cuomo's counsel's argument of why Stewart-Cousins hasn't been in meetings did little to dispel concerns from women's rights advocates, especially because one of the four men negotiating the budget's sexual harassment policy — Senate Majority Co-Leader Jeffrey Klein — is currently being investigated by the state for allegedly sexually harassing a former staff member. Klein has denied these allegations, but the staffer who made the allegation, Erica Vladimer, has since collaborated on a letter with a group of other women urging Cuomo to have a woman at this particular table.
“There are 10 million women in New York,” the women wrote to Cuomo. “They are not represented when there is not one woman in the room.”