Defending Silver, Cuomo says sexual harassment is a societal problem

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Governor Andrew Cuomo said this morning that sexual harassment is not a problem that's unusually endemic to the New York State Assembly, disgraced member Vito Lopez notwithstanding.

"There is societal discrimination, I believe, subliminal, subconscious, but insidious against women," said Cuomo during an interview with WCNY's Susan Arbetter this morning.

"Why are women still paid 73 cents to a man's dollar?" he continued. "You want to talk about an institutionalized discrimination and power imbalance, why do we have fewer women in positions of leadership in corporations and on boards of directors? There is a societal discrimination bias, subtly, culturally, societally against women. And that's the truth."

Two investigations released last week found that not only had Lopez harassed several women in his office, but when the initial allegations were brought to the attention of speaker Sheldon Silver's office, he and his staff reached confidential settlements with the victims so as to protect the legislative body's reputation.

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It was only after subsequent accusations came to light that Silver followed Assembly rules and referred those cases to the ethics committee. Nor was this the first instance in which Silver's inaction has enabled men to mistreat women in the Assembly.

Arbetter argued that Lopez was able to so flagrantly harass women in his office because he had accrued substantial power over several terms in office, and that his behavior was a strong argument for term limits, a measure Cuomo said he continues to oppose.

"The system has to do everything the system can do," he said. "Will you ever stop people from doing venal, stupid, criminal, illegal acts? No. Not in government. Not in politics. Not in the military. ... This is prevalent through society."

Cuomo used the topic to tout his women's equality agenda.

He also responded to this morning's Siena poll, which showed that exactly half of respondents believe Cuomo's assertion that New York state government is working again, even as 67 percent said the state is "getting more dysfunctional every day," in light of the recent corruption scandals. 

Cuomo called it a "duality," and said "people do sort of get what's going on."

"The government's working better, but there are corruptions and scandals and politicians doing bad things," he said. "Both things are true. And by the way politicians doing bad things—they read that in the paper—that's different than if the government is working."

Cuomo's own favorability rating rose slightly to 64 percent, suggesting voters aren't holding him accountable for the rash of arrests in the state legislature.

"Is the governor to blame for Vito Lopez's sexual harassment? No," Cuomo said, adding that it would be "silly" to hold him responsible for the legislators' bad acts.

Arbetter suggested voters might have seen it differently, with the buck stopping at the governor's desk.

"No, it depends on the buck, Susan," Cuomo said.