Andrew is out and Kathy is in — a stunning political tale that seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Unless you have a long memory, that is, and have lived in Nassau County for a generation or more.
Remember Karen Burstein? She’s still alive and well, and as far back as 1970, when she was 28, she ran as a Democrat for Congress opposed to the Vietnam War. She lost that contest. In 1972 she was elected to the State Senate from the Five Towns, and ended up serving three terms.
The long commute to Albany must have given her plenty of time to think — and seethe. Burstein has since revealed that she found herself immersed in a misogynistic world where male chauvinism was just a prelude to sexual harassment, and where high skirts and low blouses were often the requirements for staff advancement. In an era when demands for equal pay for equal work were met with smirks, and staying after office hours wasn’t about reviewing legislation, Burstein has said she found it a toxic, demeaning and corrupting environment.
She confronted it publicly, condemning it for what it was. The result was indifference. Albany’s sexist culture crossed partisan divides, Senate districts and generations of politicians.
As late as the 1990s, political consultant Dick Morris told the Village Voice, “Our image of the Empire State is as a bastion of liberalism, feminism and good will to women who seek higher office. In fact, it is one of the most sexist political environments in the nation.”
And now here we are, solidly in the 21st century, when we have made enormous progress in creating genuine equality in the workplace — unless you review the predatory actions of one Andrew Cuomo. Let legions of therapists try to analyze his tortured person. This was a man who, at the same time he was signing legislation empowering women to speak out against sexual harassment in the workplace, was engaging in inappropriate, unwanted behavior that would have fathers of daughters lying in wait outside the governor’s mansion to pop him in the nose.
Now, New York’s first woman governor has taken over the office. Kathy Hochul has an urgent agenda that ranges from ever-changing coronavirus issues to public works to a progressive State Legislature that is pushing jobs, investments and entrepreneurs out of state. Oh, and she also has to raise tens of millions of dollars to run what may be a primary followed by a general election. She also needs to clean house of Cuomo staff loyalists who would like nothing more than for her to fail.
It still remains a rocky road for women in New York state politics.
Geraldine Ferraro ran for U.S. senator twice and never got past the primaries. Elizabeth Holtzman was another Senate race loser. Burstein ran and lost the race for state attorney general. Kathleen Rice didn’t survive the primary for that job. There are other names as well, like Mary Ann Krupsak, who are known only to students of arcane state politics, but their experiences reflect the difficult life of women in an Albany distilled by Cuomo’s most recent actions.
There is an axiom in politics that if you aim for the king, your shot better be fatal. In the case of Cuomo, a punitive, vindictive, abusive politician who has fallen from grace is far from mortem. Consider his interview with New York Magazine. “I feel like I did the right thing,” he said. “I did the right thing for the state. . . . I’m not gonna drag the state through the mud, through a three-month, four-month impeachment, and then win, and have made the State Legislature and the state government look like a ship of fools, when everything I’ve done all my life was for the exact opposite. I’m not doing that. I feel good. I’m not a martyr.”
This is surely not the voice of a penitent man.
Karen Burstein would probably ask us, “And just what were you expecting?”
Ronald J. Rosenberg has been an attorney for 42 years, concentrating in commercial litigation and transactions, and real estate, municipal, zoning and land use law. He is currently with the law firm he founded in 1999, Rosenberg Calica & Birney, in Garden City.