NYC Comptroller and Mayoral Candidate Scott Stringer proposed Summer in the City Agenda at presser at Commodore Barry Pool. – New York, NY – April 6, 2021 (Shutterstock)
By Sally Goldenberg and Amanda Eisenberg, Politico
NEW YORK — An accusation of sexual assault against a top-tier New York City mayoral candidate threw the race into a tailspin eight weeks before Election Day and threatened a 30-year political career.
Hours after City Comptroller Scott Stringer unequivocally denied a charge that he groped a woman who volunteered on a 2001 campaign, one of his highest-profile and most loyal supporters pulled her endorsement. Several district leaders announced they too would drop their support. And some of his Democratic opponents began retooling their electoral strategies as they surveyed the damage to a longtime politician who had just begun to gain momentum in the crowded race.
“This kind of behavior is unacceptable in any workplace and those who have perpetuated such acts must be held accountable for their actions, not given bigger platforms,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos tweeted two hours after Stringer finished addressing a horde of reporters outside his Lower Manhattan residence. “After hearing Ms. Kim’s account today, I am officially rescinding my endorsement of Scott Stringer for mayor of New York City. After the year New Yorkers have had, we need a leader who can rise to meet the moment and will not be distracted by scandals.”
During an emotional interview with POLITICO, Ramos said she recognized the magnitude of her decision. In enthusiastically joining Stringer’s campaign launch last September, she presented a counter to his identity as a 60-year-old white, male career politician. She also lent credibility to his platform as a progressive Democrat who could appeal to the party’s young, diverse voters.
It was that ideological commitment that undergirded her decision Wednesday.
“We’re two months away from the mayoral primary, and we need to beat Andrew Yang in order to protect working families in New York,” Ramos said.
Yang has been leading in the polls and has quickly amassed a campaign war chest. A group affiliated with the left-leaning Justice Democrats has begun fundraising to halt his surge.
“We need the progressive movement to coalesce,” she added. “There is no time to waste on distractions, and the next few weeks should be squarely focused on the struggles that New Yorkers are facing; they are many, and they are great.”
She said she believes Yang would not be a friend to labor unions and is concerned about his connections to Uber: His campaign consultant, Bradley Tusk, was an early proponent of the massive for-hire vehicle company that poses an existential threat to taxi drivers.
Nevertheless, she said yanking support for Stringer was a difficult choice, adding, “I’m one of his closest friends.”
Other progressive female lawmakers who endorsed Stringer — Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar — issued a statement saying, “as survivors of childhood sexual assault, we believe survivors.”
Though they did not mention Stringer by name — only saying their “zero tolerance standard” applies to “our friends” — a person who spoke to several of them said they were upset and assessing how to handle the matter. They did not comment beyond their statement.
The Working Families Party, which ranked Stringer first in its three-way endorsement, issued a statement saying the news “is of serious concern.”
“For too long, New York politics have been dominated by a culture where harassment is commonplace and survivors are silenced,” it continued. “We will listen to the facts as they continue to come to light and ensure accountability follows.”
The allegations that surfaced Tuesday night rocked a campaign that had been steadily gaining traction in recent weeks.
Read Statements From Other Candidates About Scott Stringer’s Sexual Abuse Allegations
Lobbyist Jean Kim, who said she interned on Stringer’s 2001 race for public advocate, outlined her accusations against him during a press conference Wednesday morning with her attorney, Patricia Pastor.
Kim accused the city comptroller and mayoral candidate of kissing and groping her without consent after a night out at a bar. During several cab rides to or from political events, she alleged through Pastor that Stringer put his hands on her thigh and between her legs — lashing out when she refused him.
“Why won’t you f— me? Why won’t you f— me?” Stringer allegedly said.
Stringer denied Kim’s account of what he called a consensual relationship, saying “that’s not the language I use.”
“This isn’t me. I didn’t do this,” Stringer said. “I am going to fight for the truth because these allegations are false.”
He described Kim as a “peer” — a 30-year-old volunteer, not an intern on his campaign. He acknowledged they had a “light relationship” that he said lasted for a couple of months, while he was living with another woman.
Stringer implied that Kim was peeved she wasn’t given a role in his comptroller campaign, a competitive primary against Eliot Spitzer, whom she worked for during that 2013 race. He also denied her allegation that he would make her a district leader in exchange for her silence regarding the alleged sexual misconduct.
“Women have a voice and should be heard, and I respect that, I really do,” Stringer said. “I respect what she feels, but I also have my own truth, and I’m getting that out as well, and I hope we both get to do that.”
His wife, Elyse Buxbaum, stood by his side and tearfully shared her own history of sexual abuse.
“I chose Scott because I felt safe with him — safe in a way I didn’t know possible. He listens to me, he protects me, he respects me,” Buxbaum said. “Although I’m his wife, I’m not the anomaly. So many of the female staffers who work with him now have been with him for years, for decades, because they know the Scott I know.”
Buxbaum said if “even a fraction” of the accusations levied against her husband of more than 10 years were true, she would not stand by him.
Other supporters were hard to come by.
Six district leaders in Queens and one in Brooklyn announced they were pulling their support, and City Council candidate Amanda Farias rejected Stringer’s prior endorsement of her campaign.
One city lawmaker who has yet to endorse in the mayor’s race told POLITICO, “For anyone that was watching the race and potentially going to endorse Scott Stringer for mayor, today likely puts an end to that possibility.”
Another political candidate who was preparing to endorse Stringer called candidate Maya Wiley’s team to say he was shifting support, a person familiar with the exchange said. Several other Wiley supporters indicated they would hasten their public support of her campaign.
And at least two campaigns confirmed they were already strategizing how best to pick up Stringer’s supporters, many of whom live on the voter-rich Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Recognizing the potential, his opponents quickly pounced.
Former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia and former Bloomberg and Obama official Shaun Donovan were quick to call for Stringer’s resignation.
“It does take a tremendous amount of courage to come forward, and we were taught not to speak of these things,” Garcia said at Wednesday night’s TalkRadio 77 WABC mayoral debate. “We were taught to keep our mouths shut. So supporting them and holding people accountable for their actions is imperative if they are in public service.”
Wiley said sexual assault was “its own pandemic in this country” during the debate.
“What we must have in all of our public officials who hold the public trust, who are responsible for protecting and serving the public and that means everyone because that includes our residents who also work for us,” she said. “Women count.”
Dianne Morales, who has been ranked alongside Stringer for several progressive endorsements, issued a statement saying she is, “focused on supporting survivors.”
“I am concerned that with 50-something days left, that we need to ensure that the voters of New York City, when they look at the progressive candidates, that they have a vote of confidence that their next mayor is going to center their needs and concerns,” Ifeoma Ike, senior adviser for the Morales campaign, said in an interview.
While his opponents scrambled, Stringer’s employees struggled with the news. A meeting of staff in the comptroller’s office was quickly postponed because people were so distraught, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Supporters were equally upset.
“I know a number of us are very angry. We felt like we wouldn’t have to worry about this with him. But we really can’t have these presumptions anymore,” one long-time backer said. “Goodbye to the [New York] Times endorsement, goodbye to a path to a respectable second place.”