As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — internet heartthrob of the early pandemic era — finds himself clinging to power in Albany amid investigations into several high-profile sexual harassment allegations and COVID-19 death rates in state nursing homes, an unlikely source of support has emerged: women. Particularly middle-aged and older white Democrats who found themselves politically activated during the Trump years, including some who feel the #MeToo era has gone a little too far.
Thousands of women have joined forces both online and in-person over the last few months to rally around Cuomo, organizing through social media and phone campaigns, raising tens of thousands of dollars for advertising, and even planning a number of traditional real-world rallies. Their proximate goal is to keep the embattled governor in office, at least while investigations of his alleged misdeeds play out — and perhaps also make it possible for Cuomo to run for a fourth term next year.
Salon identified at least 20 Cuomo support groups on Facebook with more than 75,000 members — though it's unclear how many of these have duplicate members across multiple pages. The most prominent of these is "Women for Governor Cuomo," which counts more than 70 percent of its 1,200 members as women over the age of 55, according to moderators.
The group burst into the spotlight following a Wall Street Journal article about its efforts last month, outlining several of the real-world initiatives organized through the page — several crowdfunded pro-Cuomo billboards and aerial banners over high-traffic areas in the state, as well as a coordinated effort flood an official state hotline meant for tips on the governor's misconduct. One member's actions even earned her a letter of thanks, and a shoutout for the group, from Cuomo himself.
"Please be sure to pass along my sincere gratitude to other members of your group," a copy of the letter posted to Facebook reads. It's unclear what exactly she did to earn the recognition.
Despite these accomplishments, organizers say the group is trying to outgrow its reputation as a "fan club" for the governor — some of the members continue to gush over pictures of Cuomo online, adding hearts and sparkle filters — and rebrand its members as something more like "activists."
In the weeks since the Wall Street Journal article, the group's more active members have sought to capitalize on the groundswell of support, courting media coverage and filing paperwork with the state to set up a pro-Cuomo political action committee called "We Decide New York."
The organization's leaders say several state Democratic party insiders have reached out to meet with them — while the founder of the original Facebook group, Pamela Morley, even told Salon she's considering a run for state office herself during the next election cycle.
Members attribute the recent spike in interest to the fact that many people who supported Cuomo but remained largely silent during the initial wave of sexual harassment allegations against him are now, in effect, coming out.
"I had a number of people call me and say, 'Oh my God, I heard you on the radio. I saw you in the paper. How could I get involved?'" Sandy Behan, one of the moderators of "Women for Governor Cuomo" and an organizer with "We Decide New York," told Salon. "What we're trying to do is let people know that they should [get involved], and that there is a venue for it.
"I think people are afraid to speak up, for both personal and business reasons."
Cuomo is facing sexual harassment allegations from more than a half-dozen women, but despite the rash of negative headlines the governor's support has remained surprisingly durable across the board, clocking in at just over 50 percent in the most recent Marist survey. He's seized on those numbers, and the increasingly public shows of support from groups like "Women for Governor Cuomo," as evidence that the public approves of his job performance and doesn't want him to resign.
Though the views of individual members in Cuomo-centric online groups vary widely, moderators of "Women for Governor Cuomo" tell Salon they're tied together by lingering doubts about his sexual harassment accusations and a commitment to due process. They say the various investigations into Cuomo's actions should be allowed to play out, and ultimately believe that voters should decide his future.
"If you didn't support Gov. Cuomo and you didn't question the accusations against him, you wouldn't be joining a "Women for Governor Cuomo group," Behan, 68, said. "I mean, it's very clear what we're about."
In an extended interview, several of the "Women for Governor Cuomo" administrators and "We Decide New York" organizers said they weren't particularly involved in politics before the election of Donald Trump, and that they had embraced Cuomo as a potent symbol of the anti-Trump resistance. They also repeatedly suggested that the allegations against Cuomo could be an act of political sabotage by his enemies.
"I mean, let's look at the timing of all this," Morley said. "Gov. Cuomo emerges during this pandemic as a shining star. I'm sure there was considerable resentment in the political arena. Why come out with [these allegations] now?"
A focus of particular ire within the group is Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo aide who was the first woman to make a public accusation of sexual harassment against the governor. She is currently a candidate for Manhattan borough president. Members have organized campaigns to attack Boylan on Twitter, with some even posting proudly within the Facebook group that they've been blocked by her, calling it a "badge of honor."
Morley, 41, says the standard of conduct for group members on social media is "don't be a jerk," though she admitted that it's impossible to police the actions of individuals within a dispersed group of this size.
"Online attacks like the ones I've received perpetuate a culture that makes it difficult for survivors to talk about the harassment and abuse they've experienced," Boylan said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. "We should hold our leaders accountable for their abuses rather than tear down those who have the courage to speak truth to power."
Arguments over the members' tactics and public statements appear to break down along generational lines: Younger women appear to be taking more of a wait-and-see approach on the veracity of the allegations against Cuomo, administrators said, adding that their primary online critics have been men.
"Regarding negative comments, when I looked at them like 80 to 90 percent were from men," said Valerie Skarbek, another of the Facebook page's moderators. "So to me, seeing that, I'm like, men are going to tell us women what to believe and what to think? Are you kidding me?"
All the "Women for Governor Cuomo" members who spoke with Salon said they had experienced sexual harassment in their own lives, and one woman said she had been raped. But many don't see Cuomo's alleged behavior — even if true — as rising to the level of sexual harassment. Several mentioned the Cuomo accusers' use of the word "survivor" as off-putting.
"It's a trigger, as a real survivor," Morley said. "It's a trigger when people try to make things up or embellish, claiming they're a victim or survivor. It's almost like a slap in the face to real survivors. It's an insult."
Behan, a communications and advertising executive who said she had climbed the corporate ladder over the course of her career at a Fortune 500 company, said the group's members were better equipped to make judgments about these kinds of accusations because they've experienced the full range of workplace harassment themselves.
"I mean, at our age, we tend to be movers and shakers — we're real confident, we're experienced, and I think we're really insightful and objective on this topic," Behan said. "A lot of us were in the work environment in the '90s, '80s, '70s, and at that point in time there was really no laws against sexual harassment. Women had to just deal with it and keep their head up high and continue to work. And I think that we can see more clearly when an accusation like this may be embellished or could be not all true."
Some even said they perceived an out-of-control #MeToo movement that distorts the due process rights of the accused. Author Jill Filipovic, who has written several books on both feminism and generational divides, said this tension over how far to go in righting historic wrongs around sex and gender is by no means new. She said she hadn't heard of the pro-Cuomo online phenomenon, but clearly recognized the dynamics at play.
"I think there's always been a tension between how you balance fairness and process with the reality that supposedly 'fair' processes have long not worked for women — and people of color for that matter," said Filipovic. "All of a sudden, after #MeToo, you have a big shift among older feminists toward concerns about due process that perhaps weren't there when women were on the losing end of the process. There's definitely a generational tension between who puts more emphasis where."
Younger women, Filipovic added, come into the workplace with different expectations about workplace conduct, and are more likely to demand change rather than simply putting up with it.
"I think a lot of these young women are entitled — and I use that word in an unequivocally positive way, not a negative one," she said. "They feel entitled to a workplace where they're not treated like sex objects, where their hard work is rewarded and they don't have to fend off advances from older bosses. Whereas I think older generations of women didn't come in with that set of assumptions. That doesn't mean they didn't object to the behavior — but I think it was overall less shocking than it was to younger women."
Cuomo's rise to pandemic stardom has clearly played a huge role in forging his online fan base. Skarbek, a former New Yorker who now lives in Illinois, says she watched nearly every press briefing Cuomo held during the first and deadliest wave of the pandemic last spring, a sentiment echoed by the group's other administrators. And every woman who spoke with Salon for this piece mentioned the fact that Cuomo stood up to Trump as a key reason for their support.
"At that time I was really seeking out good leaders and people with leadership skills, and I saw a lot of that in Cuomo," Skarbek, 47, said.
"Cuomo during the pandemic was compassionate. His guidance, his leadership through all that time was incredibly important to me personally," Behan added. "It was a really lonely time, and I waited for him every day to come on to let me know what was going on — not only in the world, but what he was doing for us as New Yorkers to help us get through all this. He literally kept us calm through it all. I mean, it was extremely difficult not being able to see your family, your grandchildren, your children. And he was the one thing that gave us hope."
Perhaps that personal connection is why other politicians in similar positions haven't attracted the same level of support. Several posts have appeared in the pro-Cuomo Facebook group backing New York mayoral candidate Scott Stringer, who was recently accused of sexually harassing a former intern decades ago, but they haven't gained much traction.
One parallel that several group moderators did raise was the case of former Sen. Al Franken, a widely beloved Democrat who was forced to resign in 2018 after several allegations of sexual harassment. The "Women for Governor Cuomo" organizers all agreed that Franken should have remained in office at least until a full investigation had been completed.
The group is currently arranging several campaigns and fundraising through "We Decide New York" to support Cuomo's potential 2022 re-election bid — and even envisions continuing its support if he runs for president in the future.
"We are not planning on going away anytime soon," Behan said. "We're like a support group for each other. Honest to God, something comes out or something ticks you off, you go to the group to see what people are posting, what people are saying."
"It just shows how we've bonded, how we come together over this issue," Skarbek said. "We're setting up for a long-term commitment."