Andrew Cuomo's Former Press Secretary on Surviving Decades of Working for Powerful Men: 'A Bee's Nest'

"I hope readers will take the truths from my past and that will help strengthen their own truths, from both past and the present," Karen Hinton says about her new memoir

Karen Hinton
Karen Hinton. Photo: Sartoris Literary Group

When Karen Hinton first heard Charlotte Bennett's allegation last year of being sexually harassed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, she curled up into the "fetal position" on her couch.

"I was astounded by the news of what he was saying and doing with the women in his own office — and the fact that they were so young, inexperienced and vulnerable," says Hinton, a former Cuomo aide who first joined his team as press secretary in 1995, when he was an assistant housing secretary.

"I had seen the flirting, and I know what had happened to me, but I never thought that, at his age ... He knew better. He knew not to do what he was doing," Hinton tells PEOPLE. "Yet he did it anyway."

Hinton's complicated relationship with Cuomo is just a few chapters in her new memoir, Penis Politics, which is first and foremost a nuanced coming-of-age story, revealing a woman beset with her own personal challenges. In an interview, Hinton discussed her book and how she feels her journey is tied to the culture of harassment that women continue to face, decades after her own entry into politics.

Bennett, the other Cuomo aide, first came forward in an interview published with The New York Times in February 2021 as part of a wave of women whose stories ultimately ended Cuomo's once-lauded career. Bennett alleged that he had harassed her the year before while she was serving as an executive assistant and health policy adviser in the governor's administration.

"I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared," Bennett said then.

An independent investigation concluded Cuomo had harassed multiple women, leading to his resignation last year. He has maintained he "never inappropriately touched anybody" or intentionally committed wrongdoing but apologized for what he insisted was inadvertent behavior. He has not been charged with a crime.

Hinton, a rural-Mississippi native, has had her own problematic experiences with powerful men — Cuomo included. She moved to Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s and built a career in the halls of power as an aide first to Cuomo and later for future New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The former spokeswoman had planned to detail some of her experiences in the testosterone-fueled political arena in the early drafts of Penis Politics. But when a growing list of women came forward with harassment allegations against Cuomo beginning in December 2020 she decided to revisit her book. Hinton wanted to provide her own testimony about Cuomo's inappropriate behavior toward herself and other women decades before, she says. (Cuomo's team has repeatedly challenged Hinton's account and did so again for this piece. They have dismissed her as a "known antagonist.")

"I hope readers will take the truths from my past and that will help strengthen their own truths, from both past and the present," she says.

Penis Politics: A Memoir of Women, Men and Power by Karen Hinton
Sartoris Literary Group

Penis Politics has its share of headline-grabbing details, some of which stirred up the tabloids ahead of the memoir's release in December. Hinton recalls Cuomo's bullying tactics toward his staff, his unwanted sexual advance to her in 2000 and then-President Bill Clinton's invitation to his hotel room when she was just 26 years old that left her "humiliated."

But Penis Politics is more than just a titillating title and a list of humiliations endured and overcome. Hinton also remembers growing up in rural Mississippi, where she witnessed racial injustice, and shares how she went from journalism to politics in order to better fight for social causes that continue to matter deeply to her. A through-line in Hinton's book is how the culture of sexual harassment and gender politics that has been plaguing her throughout her life remains a problem for women to this day.

She learned early on to "speak up, not shut up," she says. Now she's found a new source of inspiration watching young women like Bennett come forward.

"I told my story," she says. "I want other women to tell their own stories."

Writing as a Form of 'Healing'

In April 2017, Hinton suffered a traumatic brain injury after an accident at her local gym. She doesn't remember what happened, but was later told by her husband and doctors that she was "thrown" from a treadmill and hit her head hard on the floor, according to her memoir. The cement floor was covered by only a thin layer of carpet.

In the years since, she has worked hard to regain her speech, mobility and memory, though her recovery is ongoing. Her husband, Howard Glaser, another former aide to Cuomo, said her first fully-formed sentence was "Get me the f--- out of here." (She has retained her long-term memory but still has difficulty with short-term memory.)

In recent years, her husband encouraged her to revisit her past to help her regain her writing ability and, later, to publish the account of her years in politics.

It was during the writing process that Hinton realized how much an incident during her teenage years had impacted her life — and interactions with men — going forward. In Penis Politics, she writes that her childhood best friend, Janice, was 16 years old when Janice was raped by a school athletic official.

Janice eventually dropped out of high school, Hinton writes, and she faced other losses in life, including the death of her young daughter. Janice died by suicide when she was 51.

Watching her friend's early trauma "shaped my life immensely," Hinton says of the sexual assault, which went unreported. "I never realized it, though, until the accident [on the treadmill years later]. I almost died, and it brought back memories that I had either forgotten or never really grasped the understanding of."

Karen Hinton
Hinton recovering from surgery after her accident. Courtesy Karen Hinton

Hinton says she realized that many of her life choices were affected by Janice's story.

"I felt like I had failed her because we never talked about what happened. We never told anybody what happened. It was a secret that she demanded we keep," says Hinton. "And I felt then, and I feel now, that I let her down."

From then on, Hinton says, "I pushed myself to do things that would normally frighten me and scare me, but I took them on anyway."

Power Play on Capitol Hill

When Hinton arrived in D.C. in the '80s, she'd already had some experience dealing with the imbalances between men and women in the world of Southern politics. (She had worked as a journalist in Mississippi and as a press secretary for Robert Clark, a Black Mississippi legislator, during his 1984 congressional bid. She came to D.C. to work for Mike Espy, helping him become Mississippi's first Black congressman since the Civil War.)

But Hinton says that Washington's sexual dysfunction was even more intense.

"When I get to D.C., I'm somewhat prepared, but Capitol Hill was a bee's nest of men who were flirting, making sexually-laden comments to women who either worked in the office or worked around them," says Hinton. "There was harassment ... And then just trying to get the woman to sleep with them."

Hinton experienced much of this during her four-and-a-half years working with Cuomo when he was in the Clinton administration. Their relationship was complicated from the start.

These days, both Cuomo and Hinton have a lot to say about each other. When contacted about this story, the former governor's spokesman cast Hinton as a manipulator and liar, citing past instances (and an email) when she had spoken in flattering tones of her former boss.

"In 2018, when Ms. Hinton was not consumed with chasing headlines to sell a book, she wrote: 'I've been fortunate to have male bosses, like Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, who know how to be respectful of women even while being no-nonsense managers,' " the spokesman said. "It's clear that her opinion of Governor Cuomo changes depending on whether he could be personally helpful to her or whether she can personally profit off his name. Consider that when gauging her credibility and this latest transparent attempt to rewrite history."

There is no love lost on either side. Hinton responded to this depiction with a fierce rebuttal of her own, which Cuomo's team then pushed back on. ("Cuomo's statements about me only further expose the real Andrew Cuomo: a man obsessed with power, control and intimidation," Hinton said.)

Despite what she has said before, she insists now that she decided to join her voice with Cuomo's other accusers, adding tinder to the inferno that left his reputation in ashes.

Hinton says that at first she "loved" working with Cuomo, who was then the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's assistant secretary. She was excited to work for the big-personality Democrat because he prioritized finding solutions to homelessness and other issues she cared about deeply.

"I was very attracted to that, even though other people would say, 'Well, he's difficult. He's arrogant. He's bullying me. He's just a pain in the butt,' " Hinton remembers.

After working in D.C. for eight years, Hinton says she had no problem "push[ing] back" when Cuomo "attacked" or "criticized" her on an issue. Hinton says she also shut down his attempts at flirting.

Bill Clinton; Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo and Bill Clinton. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

"Did he flirt with me? Sure. But he flirted with a lot of women," says Hinton. "You just had to ignore it. I did, I just ignored it."

"I would say, 'I don't have time for that! Enough with your compliments about my dress or my hair or my makeup or whatever. We got to stuff to do here, here are the issues,' " she says. "And then we would often argue about the issues."

In addition to her own interactions with Cuomo — which she characterizes as pretty standard behavior for men of that ilk and era — Hinton also writes about stories that her colleagues shared with her.

A "close friend" of Hinton's who worked at HUD told her that "she mentally drew a curtain in front of her face" in order to survive the "hours of bullying, unreasonable demands and public humiliation by Andrew," according to Penis Politics.

Uncomfortable Encounters

Hinton says that her relationship with Cuomo became more volatile after she decided to come forward about then-President Clinton to detail a 1984 encounter she had with him when he was still the governor of Arkansas.

Hinton went on the record for Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff, whose book Uncovering Clinton was published in 1999. In it, Hinton details her chance meeting with the future president at a restaurant where she remembers they talked intensively about policy.

Clinton then handed Hinton, just 26 years old at the time, a napkin with his hotel name and room number on it, according to Penis Politics.

"I was humiliated," recalls Hinton, who says Clinton's philandering ways were common knowledge in the South even then. "When he gave me the napkin, I was completely downfallen because I knew he wasn't interested in my thoughts. So, I was devastated by that."

(In the years since, the allegation has bubbled up in news stories. President Clinton has repeatedly decline to comment.)

RELATED VIDEO: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Resigns

Hinton says that she decided to come forward in the '90s about her encounter with Clinton in part because she was disgusted by how Monica Lewinksy — a former White House intern whose affair with the president would fuel his impeachment trial — was being treated. "I am appalled by the fact that they are calling her a bimbo and blaming her for the whole thing," Hinton says now. "And I know she's telling the truth."

When Isikoff's book was published, Hinton wasn't fired, even though Cuomo worked closely with the Clinton White House. Instead, Hinton claims, Cuomo privately requested that she not be confirmed for the assistant secretary for public affairs position.

She says he took it a step further when Hinton requested to go to Russia with her then-husband Pat for five days to adopt a 13-month-old girl. (By this time, Hinton had had two miscarriages and failed fertility treatments.) Cuomo was less than understanding, Hinton remembers.

He told her, according to her memoir, "Why don't you just let Pat go get your daughter?"

When Hinton returned, after less than a week away, she says Cuomo had given her job to someone else. Hinton was "livid," she says. She finally quit after they got into a yelling match over a project about which she was passionate.

Despite their phone call ending with a mutual "f--- you!", Hinton served as a consultant for Cuomo in the summer of 2000. She was tasked with promoting his HUD events on the West Coast, tied to the upcoming Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. It was while in this role, Hinton says, that Cuomo asked her to come to his hotel room to chat, like they'd done before, to discuss business. But she remembers that this interaction was different.

Hinton says Cuomo started asking about her marriage and discussing his own. She became increasingly "uncomfortable" and started to leave.

"And [Cuomo] says, 'Well, wait.' And he embraces me," Hinton says. "And, at first, I think it's just a get-to-know-you-better hug, but he pulls me close and it's very intimate. And honestly, I can tell he was aroused."

When Hinton pulled away, she says, Cuomo "pulls me back and says, 'We have to take care of each other. Can you do that? I can do that. Can you do that?' "

Hinton didn't know what to make of the question or the physical contact. She tried to leave again.

"I said, 'I really need to go back and just get some rest. So, I'll see you tomorrow,' " Hinton says. "And we never talked about it after that because he knew I was saying no."

Hinton has made this allegation before and it's been challenged by Cuomo's team.

A spokesman for him told The Washington Post in a statement in March 2021 that Hinton's recollection was false and "reckless" on her part.

"This did not happen," the spokesman said. "Karen Hinton is a known antagonist of the Governor's who is attempting to take advantage of this moment to score cheap points with made up allegations from 21 years ago. All women have the right to come forward and tell their story — however, it's also the responsibility of the press to consider self-motivation. This is reckless."

'One D--- to Rule Them All'

Hinton had to deal with Cuomo again when she became press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015. Her appointment stirred up even more antagonism between the two politicians, whose bitter feud was the talk of New York politics for years.

Hinton only held the position for 12 months, but she came away with one big lesson.

"When it comes to politically-motivated men, for the most part, it's always about one d--- to rule us all," says Hinton, referencing a chapter in her book called "One D--- to Rule Them All."

The experience reaffirmed what Hinton knew about ego and masculinity in politics. But she has hope for the women who decide to speak up — especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement and Cuomo's sudden fall.

"Men and women in New York grew to hate Andrew, the same way Bill hated him," says Hinton. "But they didn't have the control, the power to end his political career. But the 11 women did — they did it."

Penis Politics is on sale now.

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