Scott Stringer, #MeToo, and What's Next for the Left

A major scandal roils the mayoral race

In April, a woman named Jean Kim accused Scott Stringer, one of the top contenders for mayor of New York City, of sexually assaulting her 20 years ago, when she was an intern on his unsuccessful campaign for public advocate. “During this campaign, I traveled back and forth to campaign events with him, and Scott Stringer repeatedly groped me, put his hands on my thighs and between my legs, and demanded to know why I wouldn’t have sex with him,” said Kim, who works as a registered lobbyist, at an April 28th press conference next to City Hall. She noted that Stringer asked her repeatedly “why won’t you fuck me?”

“I pulled away and tried to avoid him. He warned me not to tell anyone,” she said.

At the press conference Kim stood with her attorney, Patricia Pastor, and did not take questions from the media. In her press release to reporters, and in her remarks, Pastor referred to Kim as an “intern” on that public advocate campaign. Kim was new to the city at the time, Pastor said, and decided to get involved in politics on the Upper West Side.

According to Kim, Stringer, who was then a state assemblyman, had offered to make her the first Asian Democratic Party district leader on the Upper West Side, with one condition. “You would have to prove yourself to me,” she recalled Stringer saying.

Stringer furiously denied the allegations at his own press conference later that day, appearing with his wife. Stringer did confirm he and Kim had some kind of relationship, but insisted the events as described never happened. “Sexual harassment is unacceptable,” Stringer said. “I believe women have the right and should be encouraged to come forward. They must be heard. But this isn’t me. I didn’t do this. I am going to fight for the truth because these allegations are false.”

Over the course of the next couple of days, Stringer lost many of the coveted endorsements from progressive elected officials and organizations he had been securing for months. Rising star state senators like Jessica Ramos, Alessandra Biaggi, and Julia Salazar all rescinded their endorsements, as well as the Sunrise Movement and the Working Families Party. Other prominent backers, including Congressman Adriano Espaillat and City Councilman Mark Levine, withdrew from Stringer. Jamaal Bowman, the popular new congressman from the Bronx, rescinded his backing as well. Stringer probably lost his shot at a New York Times endorsement.

Just about all of the elected officials had called for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing as many as a dozen sexual harassment allegations, to resign, so withdrawing support for Stringer ensured they were maintaining a consistent standard: sexual harassment, in politics and elsewhere, is unacceptable, and all predatory men—even allies—have to be held accountable. Kim later lodged a complaint with the State Attorney General’s Office.

But there was a political dimension to this, of course, because in a campaign everything is politics. While Ramos withdrew right away, the WFP, Bowman, Salazar, and Biaggi and others took a little longer, deciding on April 30th that Stringer could no longer be their candidate.

What happened over the course of two days?

Stringer, in the fashion of a 20th century candidate, had gone scorched earth on Kim. In the process of exposing legitimate discrepancies in Kim’s account—these will be addressed shortly—Stringer’s campaign sought, very publicly, to discredit her entirely, even alleging her decision to carry petitions for a Manhattan district leader candidate meant that she was backing rival Andrew Yang in the primary. (Yang, as well as other Democrats from Manhattan, were listed on the petition.)

Stringer’s campaign erred terribly here. In 2021, you do not blast away at the accuser, like Cuomo did with Lindsey Boylan. If you believe you are innocent, you deny the allegation and try to move on. Stringer did not. He  waged war on Kim in the media and this backfired. Just as he seemed to be gaining some momentum in his quest to be the left’s standard bearer against Yang and Eric Adams, he had cost himself tangible support.

Stringer, in the world of New York politics, is known as a sharp-elbowed, even arrogant contender. In 2020, his endorsement pitch to politicians and organizations was both straightforward and presumptuous: I’m the progressive Democrat who is going to win this race. There might be other candidates who excite you more, but you will get on my train because you don’t want to be riding with a loser. And Stinger was—and remains—the top tier left-of-center candidate with the best chance of winning the nomination. Never mind that many of his endorsers, including the likes of Ramos, Salazar, and Bowman, had to promote Stringer—a cautious, career Democratic insider—as some kind of leftist crusader. Stringer had reinvented himself well enough. He was the viable Democrat that the activist and NGO left trusted the most.

Stringer, unlike Cuomo, had never developed any kind of reputation of acting inappropriately toward women. There were no stories of boozy holiday parties or anecdotes of hugs and kisses that lasted far too long. Stringer was especially not flirtatious. Current and former aides, many of them female, spoke highly of him.

Stringer, at age 40 or 41, may have been a sexual predator. But he may not have been. The incident with Kim took place 20 years ago. There are no witnesses, as of now, that have come forward to recall that Kim related this allegation to them in 2001 or shortly after.

For the first time, on May 7th, Kim’s fiancé said Kim told him of Stringer’s alleged sexual assault in 2014. “The Me Too movement hadn't happened. [Black Lives Matter] didn't happen,” Kim said, explaining why it took so long for her to come forward. “He was this white man of privilege in a very powerful position with a lot of political connections.”

Kim said in April she waited until 2021 to speak out because Stringer was a top candidate for mayor presenting himself as a progressive and champion of women, and she couldn’t bear to watch his advertisements on television.

New questions have arisen about Kim and her attorney’s initial account to the media. Kim’s attorney described Kim as an “intern” on the 2001 campaign, which to most journalists made it sound like Stringer had preyed on a college student or someone even younger. But Kim was 30 at the time, volunteering for Stringer. On campaigns, there is a clear difference between a volunteer and an intern. A volunteer is anyone who shows up for free to knock on doors, make phone calls, hold signs, or hand out campaign literature. Volunteers can be in their teens, thirties, or seventies. An intern specifically refers to someone who is in college or high school, since many campaigns run full-fledged internship programs, sometimes granting school credit. Describing a 30-year-old that way is curious.

Kim’s attorney also said Kim did not apply for a job to work on Stringer’s 2013 campaign for city comptroller. Kim did. Kim also continued to donate to Stringer’s campaigns after 2001.

In 2013, Kim ended up working for Stringer’s rival, Eliot Spitzer. In an interview with Gothamist, Kim said the job application to Stringer was strategic rather than earnest, since she had already planned to work for Spitzer. “I said, let me just check in with Scott’s office, because if they find out that I'm working for Spitzer, they're going to go nuts,” Kim said. “So this way he had the first right of refusal.”

The Intercept, in their reporting, turned up further discrepancies. Interviews with mutual friends and a review of documents cast doubts on Kim’s claim that she first met Stringer in 2001, during that campaign. Rather, the Intercept found that Kim was an “established member of the group’s social set,” assisting a friend in Stringer running for higher office.

They described a casual, “more than friends” relationship that dated back to the 1990s. Both Stringer and Kim were active members of the Community Free Democrats, a powerful reform club on the Upper West Side. Records the Intercept obtained showed that Kim became a dues-paying member of the Community Free Democrats on January 27, 2000. Stringer, club members told the Intercept, never missed the small meetings. Kim also donated to Stringer’s campaigns as early as 1999, at a time when online donations were rare or impossible—giving to a candidate meant either mailing a check or showing up, in-person, at a fundraiser.

Kim’s attorney said that Kim quit the Community Free Democrats and moved to the East Side of Manhattan to get away from Stringer. Club records showed, however, she paid dues until at least 2006, five years after Stringer allegedly assaulted her. Club members recalled Kim attending events and staying involved years after 2001. Kim, they said, was an active volunteer on Stringer’s successful 2005 campaign for Manhattan borough president.

None of this, on its own, proves Kim is lying. But it does raise an uncomfortable question for the progressive Democrats most concerned about holding men in politics accountable for their untoward behavior: how much evidence is really required for an allegation? What allegations should be strong enough to end a political career? The standard set from the Stringer incident is that one allegation made by one person, no matter the time elapsed or the amount of evidence presented, is sufficient. And perhaps, they would argue, that is how politics should be conducted from 2021 onwards. Women should be believed. Once they speak out, that’s enough.

At least, with Cuomo, there are many allegations, and some of the calls for his resignation have stemmed from a potential cover-up of nursing home deaths and a scandalous pandemic response. Some of the women stepping forward against Cuomo accuse him of harassing them as recently as last year. Kim’s allegation, having taken place 20 years ago, cannot be substantiated in such a way. It is notable, too, that many long-time Stringer allies were willing to ditch his mayoral campaign entirely even though no man or woman has come forward to tell the media that Kim related the incident to them in 2001. For investigations into claims of harassment and assault, this is the initial bar of evidence that usually needs to be cleared.

If one allegation, with shaky evidence, is enough to short-circuit a political career, a new playbook is opened up, one left-leaning Democrats must take into account when embarking on future campaigns. Last year, a popular 31-year-old progressive running for Congress in Massachusetts, Alex Morse, was accused of engaging in improper sexual conduct with younger men when he was a college instructor. Morse, who had been mayor of the town of Holyoke at the time, insisted all relationships he had were consensual. No one accused him of dating men younger than the age of consent.

The allegations, the Intercept later reported, were a farce. The College Democrats at the University of Massachusetts Amherst had plotted in 2019 about ways to ensnare Morse, a young gay man, in scandal. They were all supporters of Morse’s establishment opponent, Richard Neal. The State Democratic Party of Massachusetts even coordinated with the College Democrats on how these allegations could be planted in the media. In the end, the scheme worked: Neal, the incumbent congressman, won re-election comfortably.

What happened to Morse could easily happen to other ascendant progressives in the future. Conservative political operatives—or those aligned with the Democratic establishment—can aim to coordinate or manufacture an allegation, knowing that left institutions and politicians will rapidly withdraw their support for the rising candidate. Morse quickly lost the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement and other progressive organizations, though the allegations immediately appeared dubious. If Democrats on the left want to end any semblance of due process—if allegations, on their own, are the equivalent of a conviction—than it is not hard to imagine how this will be exploited by nefarious actors.

Stringer is not Morse and there’s no evidence that other Democrats are coordinating with Kim to damage Stringer’s campaign. Kim very well might be telling the truth. The allegation lacks direct evidence, but Stringer cannot disprove it, either. It will be up to voters, ultimately, to judge Stringer, because he has rejected calls from his rivals to drop out. With more than $7 million to spend, he is forging onward, toward an uncertain finish on June 22nd.

What’s not yet clear is how Stringer will be evaluated by the hundreds of thousands of Democrats who will show up to vote. Polling in the next few weeks will tell us. It’s very possible the allegation doesn’t hurt Stringer’s position all that much. His supporters, many of whom have been voting for him since the 1990s and 2000s, aren’t all defecting to front-runners like Yang and Adams. Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales are hoping to hoover up disaffected Stringer voters, though we don’t know yet how many of these people they’ll be able to pull into their own camps. There is growing evidence in polling data that older Democrats are not so easily moved by sexual harassment and assault allegations. There’s a reason Cuomo has ignored calls for his own resignation. Some Democrats, believing Al Franken was unfairly driven from the Senate, are becoming less willing than progressive organizations and politicians to throw their own overboard, especially since Republicans almost never do.

That’s Stringer’s political calculus. Assuming no new allegations, it may work in at least maintaining a kind of stasis: a consistent third place in the polls, with the hope of a last minute surge. Stringer’s most pivotal endorsers haven’t defected yet. Congressman Jerry Nadler, the king of the Upper West Side, is still with Stringer, as is the United Federation of Teachers. Older voters of color are also not likely to judge Stringer especially harshly, since it was Spitzer, the scandal-scarred former governor, who dominated Black and Latino neighborhoods as he narrowly lost to Stringer in that 2013 comptroller’s race. It’s no accident Stringer has been hitting the church circuit every weekend.

If Stringer remains viable and manages to come close to capturing the Democratic nomination, it will be a further indictment of the nonprofit left organizations and the elected officials aligned with them. For the last decade, these organizations, like the Working Families Party, have boasted of their power to move voters, to decide the direction of the left flank of the Democratic Party. Most of the politicians who deserted Stringer are closely allied with WFP and their member organizations, and seem to believe, publicly at least, they are representative of the working class voters of this city and can mobilize them at pivotal moments.

WFP, after ditching Stringer, has co-endorsed Wiley and Morales. If the polls are any indication, both women are very unlikely to win. Assuming they don’t, and assuming a WFP candidate cannot breach the top three or four of this mayoral race, it will be another indication of what these organizations and elected officials are—and what they are not. Stringer, meanwhile, will return to the campaign trail and hope he can get enough voters believe what he has to say.