Ana Liss was in her twenties when she won a fellowship to work in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in 2013. She was surprised, upon arriving, to be quickly invited by senior staffers to sit at a desk positioned right near the governor — in his “line of sight,” as she described it.

At first, she didn’t understand why. Another woman in the office offered Liss some insight, telling her Cuomo “likes blondes,” particularly those in stiletto heels.

“You gotta wear heels when he’s in Albany sweetie, that’s the rule,” Liss, who is blonde, said the woman told her. So, although Liss was more accustomed to flats or boots, she soon amassed a small collection of stilettos — not because it was a written rule, but because it seemed necessary to succeed.

Nearly a dozen current and former staffers of Cuomo’s office who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC this week said Cuomo has cultivated an intense work culture that was brutal for some, traumatic for others. We are withholding all of their names because they fear professional or personal retaliation from the governor and his senior staff. Many still reside in New York where Cuomo’s reach extends far and wide.

Their comments follow a tumultuous week for the governor, who is accused of sexual misconduct by three women, including two former staffers who said he harassed them at work, allegations he has denied and the Attorney General is investigating.

The former staffers said they weren’t surprised by the allegations, in part because they described a workplace where outdated gender binaries were the norm, bullying was constant, and where people worked non-stop, blurring the lines between personal and professional lives.

They said they were expected to answer texts and phone calls and attend meetings at all hours of the day and night, any day of the week. They faced personal attacks on their professional worth and competence for seemingly small mistakes. And loyalty, rather than creative thinking, problem-solving, or passion for public service, was valued above all else.

“There’s no right or wrong way. It’s the Cuomo way,” one former staffer said she was told when interviewing for the job. “He wants people who are literally going to fall on the sword for him, and they all will.”

As Liss told us, "We all would have taken a bullet for the governor. He was the most important person.”

While at first Cuomo said his alleged actions may have been misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation, on Wednesday he apologized, saying he kissed and hugged many people in his role as governor and did not intend to offend or harass anyone.

“You can find hundreds of pictures of me making the same gesture with hundreds of people, women, men, children,” he said. “It is my usual customary way of greeting... by the way, it was my father’s way of greeting people.”

None of the staffers who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC said they witnessed sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by the governor. Liss said she received kisses on the cheek, just as one of the women who spoke out against the governor described. At the time, Liss said it felt like a fatherly gesture. Cuomo also asked her personal questions, including if she had a boyfriend, which she did not consider out of line.

“I felt like I was special,” Liss said, adding she preferred a kiss on the cheek to the screams she heard directed at staff members who’d angered Cuomo or his top aides. She watched other women who didn’t fit the archetype get bullied and mocked.

“I knew by looking cute, and not being obstinate or opinionated, and doing what I was told and looking polished... That is the only way I would survive there," Liss said.

Some former staffers who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC had a more generous interpretation of what it’s like to work for Cuomo. Some refuted the characterization that it was a toxic workplace or that there were dress codes, but they conceded the environment was not for everyone.

“I think everyone there wants to do the best work they can. Sometimes that work-life balance is sacrificed. I was definitely burned out by the end of my time there,” one said, adding, “I didn’t take it personally.”

Micromanager "to the 100th Degree"

Cuomo needed to personally approve every detail of every project, down to which photos were sent to the press, and what backdrop he would stand in front of, the former staffers said. They had Google alerts set for his name, and sent him messages anytime he was mentioned in the press. He would pit people against one another, assigning them the same project to see who could do it better or faster.

“A micromanager to the 100th degree,” one former staffer recalled. “One of the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Setting up events for the governor was an endlessly complicated assignment. They were canceled or changed at the last minute because Cuomo decided he didn’t want to do them, or rescheduled with just a few hours notice. Sometimes workers in other agencies were told to cancel their regular work schedules to accommodate the last-minute plans.

“It’s not just chaos for his close staff,” another former employee said. “It’s chaos for his whole administration.”

Everything down to the room temperature (between 67-71 degrees) had to be just so. Year-round, staff would place two small fans behind his speaking podium to keep him cool. Sometimes Cuomo would call staff on site from a blocked number just to double-check the room was cold enough.

“So that way he didn’t sweat,” another former staffer said. More than once, staff scrambled to locate a full air-conditioning unit to place near the governor. “If you do any Andrew Cuomo event you know it has to be a particular temperature.”

And you had to be ready to work at all times.

“They flew me back from vacation once because they needed something done,” one former staffer said, adding she still jumps at the ping of a Blackberry. “You had go-bags. You literally had to be ready to go at a drop of a hat.”

Bursts of anger from Cuomo and his top aides came quick, often, and without warning. The most vitriolic personal attacks, former staffers said, were often reserved for men in Cuomo’s close orbit. If something happened that made the governor feel he looked stupid or foolish, he’d lash out at the person he thought was to blame.

One staffer described an incident in Buffalo in 2017, where an aide briefly left his side, and Cuomo walked out onto the stage before being formally introduced by the loudspeaker. Embarrassed, he’d retreated back into the wings, ripping into the young staffer. Cuomo fired the man on the spot, another staffer described, though his bosses kept him on without the governor’s knowledge.

“Cuomo fired a lot of people and we just didn’t put them in front of him,” the woman said. “This guy continued to [work] but we would hide him at events.”

The micromanaging also expressed itself in how people were expected to dress when the governor was around, and not just women. Men in Cuomo’s inner orbit wear white shirts. Their shoes must be spotless. One staffer said they witnessed the governor taking a knee and polishing someone’s shoes himself.

“There was a general sense that when the governor was in the building that you were to walk on eggshells,” another said. “And while you’re walking, make sure those shoes are nice and shiny.”

Melissa DeRosa and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, May 2020.

Melissa DeRosa and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, May 2020.

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Melissa DeRosa and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, May 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Office

"Stockholm Syndrome"

You were either in the governor’s good graces or you were out. Cuomo and his top staffers either liked you, or they didn’t. If the Albany office had the feel of an old boys’ club, the New York City office was ruled by top-level female staffers who acted as gatekeepers to the governor. They jokingly referred to themselves as “mean girls," and others in the office knew them as such, several former staffers confirmed.

At the center were Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, and Stephanie Benton, his executive secretary, as well as several other female aides. DeRosa defended the office as a place where women could thrive professionally when asked about the recent allegations against Cuomo on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve seen more women rise to the highest levels in terms of commissioners and senior staff members, and senior staff levels,” she said. “We’ve promoted one another, we’ve supported one another, and I don’t think that this diminishes any of that.”

Asked specifically about whether “mean girls” was used in the office to describe top aides, spokesperson Rich Azzopardi dismissed it, saying “that characterization is sexist and offensive.”

“These are some of the highest ranking women in state government and some of the smartest, hardest working public servants I have ever met,” Azzopardi added.

Three former staffers used the words “Stockholm syndrome” to describe life in Cuomo’s office, a psychological reaction when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors. Another described it as a textbook abusive relationship.

“They push you until you want to be there. You want them to like you,” one former staffer said. Another, who said she’s been talking with former employees since the allegations broke, put it this way: “We’re all kind of waking up to the fact that we were in a cult.”

People stayed because of what working in the Cuomo administration could mean for their careers; many former staffers hold top positions in government, public relations, technology, finance, and other companies. If things were not going well, administration officials could withhold a referral letter for their next job, or thwart their career in New York politics. If they couldn’t handle the environment, some staffers were made to believe it was their own personal failing.

“That’s what we were all led to believe, ‘Well I can’t hack it. That means I’m a failure. I’m a loser,’” a former staffer said.

Open Secret

Stories of Cuomo’s management style have extended as far back as 2000 when he worked as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. They bubbled up again around election time. They were more recently brought back into the public eye by Assemblymember Ron Kim, who in mid-February described a threatening phone call from the governor after Kim had criticized him for his handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes.

Since then, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, reporters, elected officials and federal employees have stepped forward, describing similar threatening phone calls. Albany’s open secret, once again unearthed, is that Cuomo, despite glowing national coverage and an Emmy for his televised pandemic briefings, can be a bully.

In recent weeks, as news coverage of Cuomo has snowballed from nursing homes to bullying to sexual harassment, morale inside the office has worsened.

“Staff members are blaming each other for the way things are unfolding,” one said. “No one ever tells the governor he’s wrong about anything. People who are in a position to do that don’t... the rest of us have to deal with the fallout.”

Cuomo’s defenders, old-guard political allies as well as some new supporters he picked up during the pandemic, deny or downplay the allegations. Some tend toward conspiratorial thinking, that some sort of plot orchestrated by Donald Trump has been set in motion to oust him. Others say this is how Albany is.

“I think they play hardball up in Albany, there’s no question about it. And you have to have a thick skin to work up there,” said Jay Jacobs, State Democratic Chair and Cuomo’s long-time ally and confidant on NY1 Tuesday night. “There’s this misconception that producing good government results is going to be nice, or sweet, or easy — it’s not.”

Cuomo spokesperson Azzopardi said New Yorkers have trusted the governor to deliver results for 14 years.

“Yes, they have seen him get impatient with partisan politics and disingenuous attacks,” he said. “We have a top-tier team and the Governor is direct with people if their work is subpar because the people of New York deserve nothing short of excellence from us.”

By the time Liss left the governor’s office, she was deflated. Despite accomplishing some work she was proud of, the cost was too high: She told Gothamist she had lost weight, drank too much, cried all the time. With the benefit of hindsight, she now feels differently about those years.

“I hate the fact that I viewed it as a professional, personal failure that I couldn’t survive because of how f----ed up and mean and nasty everyone was,” Liss, who is now 35, said. “Power was the number one goal. It wasn’t really about making things right or making things better for New Yorkers.”

Editor's note: The original version of this story, published on March 4th, 2021, withheld Ana Liss's name and used a pseudonym to refer to her, at her request. On March 6th, Liss came forward publicly, describing her allegations to the Wall Street Journal. Liss has since granted Gothamist permission to identify her, and this article has been updated accordingly with her name.