Her Boss Got #MeToo’d. She’s Still Standing By Him.
Melissa DeRosa was one of the most influential millennials in politics until her boss Andrew Cuomo was felled by sexual harassment allegations. Can she make a comeback without renouncing him?
Melissa DeRosa walks into Docks Oyster Bar like she used to own the place. The Manhattan restaurant sits on the ground floor of the skyscraper that houses the office of the New York governor — a building that served as the scene of DeRosa’s rise and fall when she worked for Andrew Cuomo.
Docks is where DeRosa’s now ex-husband — then, like her, a Cuomo aide — wooed her over wine and strategy. And where DeRosa once met with then New York City Public Advocate Letitia James to form a political alliance, one that later fell apart when a report from James’ office accused Cuomo of misconduct with 11 women. It’s where DeRosa held court in a backroom at the height of her power.
That was then. There is no backroom for her when we meet for our interview on a recent, chilly Sunday afternoon. There isn’t even table service. When DeRosa asks the staff if we can grab a table by the bar, a sort of end-run around the lack of table service, she learns she’s not getting special treatment here anymore. But DeRosa has a memoir, What’s Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics & Crisis, out now from Union Square & Co., to promote. She sidles up to the bar and orders a mimosa.
“It’s a hard time to write a book with everything going on in the world,” she begins, setting down her phone with its infinite scroll of global conflict and political chaos. “How can you be anything other than depressed and feeling a little lost?”
Depressed and lost are not words that spring to the minds of those who crossed paths with DeRosa on her ascent in New York politics. Climbing from Cuomo’s communications director to his top cabinet position in the 2010s, DeRosa developed a reputation as her boss’s sharp-elbowed enforcer and steely strategist. Then she got a little bit famous. She was next to the governor at his nationally televised COVID-19 press conferences; she was tapped by model Christy Turlington Burns to grace the cover of Harper's Bazaar and by designer Rebecca Minkoff to appear on a billboard in Times Square. When it all came crashing, she was photographed boarding a state chopper in oversized sunglasses after Cuomo announced his resignation in 2021, amid a probe into his pandemic-era management of nursing homes and the attorney general report alleging sexual harassment.
His resignation would have been a strategic moment for DeRosa to loudly part ways with her boss, but instead she disappeared from public life. When she announced that she was coming out with a memoir this fall, those of us who had watched DeRosa’s career in politics wondered if the moment of separation had finally arrived.
In fact, quite the opposite. On the spectrum of throwing your former boss under the bus to standing by him, DeRosa’s book broke the scale. It struck back at her and her boss’s adversaries and accusers, a group that DeRosa accused of either weaponizing benign interactions or simply lying. She painted Cuomo’s accusers as rivals in a struggle for power and influence, not as whistleblowers hoping to rectify a sexist power structure, and roasted the women, some of whom were written about in the same magazines that once warmly featured DeRosa, for failing in their subsequent professional ventures. According to Stephanie Benton, a longtime colleague of DeRosa’s who still works for Cuomo, “Melissa’s telling the story in a way that’s compelling and would get people's attention and provide an opportunity to renew the conversation.”
The question is: to what end? DeRosa has quietly returned to politics, consulting on communications and policy for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the D.C.-based executive agency that represents the territory in dealings with the U.S. government. She has begun writing a Daily Beast column critiquing Democratic strategy. In our interviews, she says she is interested in running for office, maybe mayor of New York City one day. She thinks there’s a dearth of executive leadership right now, and she believes in putting your money where your mouth is. But as DeRosa tries transitioning from political surrogate to a public figure in her own right, she finds herself reentering public life in a time when the spiky style of ambition that fueled her rise is viewed with suspicion, and when few of those still in government share her interest in publicly revisiting the events that led to her leaving.
“Maybe I should move to Paris, eat cheese, drink wine, and enjoy life,” she tells me. “But I’m not ready to give up.”
DeRosa resigned from the Cuomo administration on Aug. 8, 2021. Then, she went to a family home in Cape Cod and “picked up the pieces of my broken existence.” She finalized her divorce and reflected on how her boss had gone from a 77% approval rating to an early retirement in about a year.
She never seriously considered abandoning Andrew Cuomo. “There were many points where I could have — and many urged me to — separate myself from him, to throw him under the bus, to say I feel betrayed by what I read in this report,” she tells me. “But that’s not who I am.” In the book, she admits only to momentary annoyance, hopping out of an idling SUV and bemoaning the allegation that Cuomo had a conversation, newly under scrutiny, with another aide about the aide’s past sexual assault. “I know Andrew Cuomo,” she says, “I lived in the [Governor’s] Mansion during COVID. I feel like there was a period of time when there was a tremendous amount of gaslighting going on, and I wouldn’t let myself give in to that.”
There were also the costs she had already sunk into his career. Behind every hard-fought political victory — a $15 minimum wage; shorter lines at the DMV! — there was an aspect of her personal life left unattended. In one scene in the book, DeRosa’s phone rings as she is with a doctor to discuss potentially freezing her eggs. When the doctor asks her if the call can wait, she responds, “Usually no,” and takes it. She gave her attention to work, she writes, and her then-husband eventually “found attention elsewhere.”
“When you choose these all-consuming, high-stress jobs, that’s a choice, and that choice comes with a cost. You do everyone a disservice when you lie about that.”
“People talk about living in the moment like it’s some sort of transcendent achievement in life,” she says, leg bouncing beneath the bar. “For all those years I was hyperliving in the moment and that allowed me to ignore a whole part of my personal life.”
After Cape Cod, she moved back to New York, splitting time between an apartment on the Upper East Side and a family home in the Adirondacks, and got to work on the book while consulting for companies (she declines to name them). “It was a strange thing to feel like, ‘Who am I now?’” she says. “‘What’s my identity?’ And trying to decide what I want the next part of my personal life to look like, and do I want a child, and has that ship sailed? I certainly never thought I’d find myself 41 and divorced.”
“When you choose these all-consuming, high-stress jobs,” she adds, “that’s a choice, and that choice comes with a cost. You do everyone a disservice when you lie about that.”
One could imagine how, given the sacrifices DeRosa made on behalf of Cuomo, allegations that he acted in harmful, career-endangering ways might feel cutting to her too. But because DeRosa views the sexual harassment allegations as largely a political conspiracy, in her eyes Cuomo is guilty only of miscalculation. “If I were working for a politician today, I’d say put your hands nowhere near anyone. Don’t tell people they look lovely,” she said. “The problem with where #MeToo has lost course is that it’s conflated rape with assault, with a kiss on the cheek, with an inappropriate comment, with a look that you perceive to be meaningful in some certain way.”
The attorney general’s report that ended her career included the allegation that Cuomo groped his aide Brittany Commisso’s breast (Cuomo has denied the allegation), as well as lesser allegations such as Cuomo asking an aide about her dating life in a suggestive way. “I’m not saying all 11 are lying,” DeRosa says. “I concede he kissed women on the cheek. I concede he said, ‘How ya doing sweetheart.’” But DeRosa does not believe Commisso, and following the case she lays out in the book can make one feel like Homeland’s Carrie Mathison at her color-coded wall. DeRosa draws one’s attention to testimonies she says conflict, dates that, in her telling, don’t add up, covert political allegiances afoot, and unflattering bits of gossip that she believes undercut the report. (The Albany DA dismissed a misdemeanor charge against Cuomo related to the Commisso allegation, saying that, although Commisso was credible, there was not enough evidence to meet their burden at trial.)
Still, asked in our interview why Commisso would lie, DeRosa appears momentarily unsure. “Ya know,” she says, “I don’t know. Only two people were in that room,” but adds it doesn’t comport with the Cuomo she knows.
(DeRosa was implicated in the report, too. It charged that she suppressed allegations, ignored allegations, organized employees to sign statements denying them, and shared a confidential file about one of Cuomo’s accusers. Of the suppression allegation, she says she did not want inaccurate information to be reported. Of the retaliation allegation, she says had a “right to correct the record.”)
Late last year, Commisso sued Andrew Cuomo and the state of New York for sexual harassment. In an interview with Bustle, Commisso described DeRosa’s book as a “failed attempt to rehabilitate her image and defend her compatriot,” meaning Cuomo, and said DeRosa “ignores facts, denies truth, and falsely disparages me because she is unconcerned about how her conduct hurts others.”
DeRosa resists generalizations about the culture of the Cuomo administration that might close the gap between Cuomo’s accusers’ perceptions of it and her own. Asked if Cuomo was affectionate, she says she’ll “refer [me] to her transcript” — her own interview with investigators for the attorney general’s office — where she states he kissed her on the cheek. She says that it’s the picture drawn by the AG’s report, actually, that was reckless in its lack of regard for people’s lives. For one, the AG’s probe included transcripts of secondhand claims that Cuomo was seen making out with a senior staffer, whom The New York Post later claimed was DeRosa. She tells me the report left out sworn testimony from the supposed eyewitness, saying it was not true. (The attorney general’s office declined to comment.)
If one accepts DeRosa’s view that the allegations were politicized, it would be fair to wonder how she and Cuomo ended up at odds with former political allies and some of their own former colleagues. DeRosa says they “undoubtedly” made too many enemies in their approach to government, and she has some ideas about why. But alienating others in Albany is wrapped up in what she and her remaining allies also believe made the Cuomo administration a success. Rich Azzopardi, who worked with DeRosa in the administration and now works as Cuomo’s spokesperson, put it this way: “We were a bunch of hammers and everything was a nail.” As Benton put it: “Do you want somebody who is your pal, or do you want somebody who is going to get the job done?”
As DeRosa’s book publicity tour continued on after our drink, the relationship between Cuomo’s sexual harassment allegations and DeRosa’s current ambitions came into sharper relief. She appeared alongside Cuomo on Bill Maher, seemingly carving out a place in the anti-“woke,” center-left lane of politics. She says a local New York City radio show is forthcoming. Along with her old boss’s political favorability, DeRosa appears determined to bring back parts of the mid-2010s altogether, eschewing new ideas about workplace boundaries. “The idea that nobody needs to work more than 9 to 5, and you’re breaking some rule if you email them after hours — we’re heading down a bad path,” she says. “There’s a lack of passion in people.”
Watching DeRosa relaunch her career is a reminder of how much the discourse around women and power has changed in the past 15 years. She rose in the heady, early days of the #GirlBoss, when female presence in the halls of power was uncritically celebrated, and before the anonymously sourced takedowns of prominent female CEOs’ management styles.
“When you’re in the boxing ring, which is essentially what politics is, you have to expect you’re going to get punched in the face. What matters is who’s left standing in the end.”
It was after an angry phone call from DeRosa, who did not like a story I’d written, that I first learned the psychological warfare term “psy op,” from a fellow journalist covering the administration. In the AG report, the governor is quoted chiding her as a “mean girl,” a title she disputes. Well, she was only as mean as her male bosses. The daughter of an Albany lobbyist, DeRosa says she took it to heart when her father told her she could never let them see her sweat.
“Was I demanding and difficult? You bet your ass,” DeRosa says now. “And in this new woke environment, where people don’t want to be told they have to do things or be responsible early in the morning or late at night, or on weekends, if you don’t want those demands on you, you shouldn’t be working in a high-level government job. It was hard and grueling on a good day, but it was an honor.” When she gets going on this front, you can imagine why some of her former colleagues might not have rushed to her defense amid the political fallout. “We demanded perfection,” she says. “That was the environment. The people who were superior thrived. The people who weren’t up for it found something else to do.”
After the book’s publication, it didn’t take long for DeRosa’s fighting spirit to reveal itself intact. While we spoke in October, her lawyer was going back and forth with New York Magazine over an article about the book by Rebecca Traister that details the financial and psychological toll of Cuomo’s legal defense strategy. When a New York state senator posted that piece on X, DeRosa replied to the senator with a link to an unrelated article alleging the senator follows porn stars on social media. “Have you responded to this?” she wrote.
“When you’re in the boxing ring, which is essentially what politics is, you have to expect you’re going to get punched in the face,” she tells me. “What matters is who’s left standing in the end.”
It all seems like an exhausting way to live, but also a slightly thrilling one. Imagine never picking your battles or holding back what you think. What if every time someone acted morally superior, you felt free to use every scrap of gossip you had about them to take them down a peg? Shamelessness can be its own sort of superpower, allowing one to deflect criticism while plowing ahead with self-promotion.
There was even, in the early days of the Cuomo administration, something a little endearing about DeRosa’s undisguised striving, her 4 a.m. jogs and caffeine-fueled gait through the Capitol. But now, the young women who could be the audience for DeRosa’s book are talking about “snail girl” life, quiet-quitting their jobs, and reevaluating career achievement as a concept. The upheavals of #MeToo, COVID, and remote work are informing a professional culture that aspires to be less cutthroat, more egalitarian, and less central to our identities. DeRosa’s modus operandi feels distinctly out of style — but, then, most things do just before they come back.
What’s Left Unsaid is unfailingly loyal to Cuomo, but squint and you’ll see DeRosa making efforts to distance herself. When the governor resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, he was simultaneously under investigation for his decision to allow recovering COVID patients to return from hospitals to nursing homes. While the book defends the administration’s COVID-era management of nursing homes, DeRosa tells me she would have been more transparent with the data on nursing home deaths “from day one.” (Cuomo’s spokesperson said the former governor’s handling of the issue was investigated by multiple government agencies and they “found no there there.”)
She also tells me she disagreed with her boss behind the scenes on whether he should run for a fourth term; she suggested he bow out after the third. After all, Cuomo’s two immediate predecessors resigned in scandal (Eliot Spitzer) or left after a single term (David Paterson). “It is hubris to think something that happened to everyone else couldn’t happen to us, but we didn’t see it coming,” she says in our interview. “Perhaps in retrospect that was our bad.”
Still, her book has kept them intertwined, and kept Cuomo in a political conversation he’d otherwise exited. The timing has been serendipitous. With the embattled New York City Mayor Eric Adams facing a plummeting approval rating, there’s blood in the water. Politico reported that Cuomo is eyeing a run for mayor, and Cuomo was the winner in a poll about a hypothetical special election.
For a moment it seemed DeRosa’s ambitions and Cuomo’s might even be on a collision course. DeRosa’s interest in running for office got its own story in the Post after the Politico piece; the article said DeRosa’s name was floated in a private poll. But, when asked about it, DeRosa is coy. She declines to provide the poll. “I have no plans to run against the governor in the future,” she says of the possibility they are eyeing the same job.
If Cuomo does mount his own return to politics, the alleged sexual misconduct won’t be far from mind, thanks to Commisso’s lawsuit. In which case, it would be helpful for him that his closest female ally had spent the past months sowing doubts about those allegations, and the #MeToo movement broadly.
DeRosa could end up back where she began: boosting Cuomo's political fortunes. “If Andrew Cuomo were running for office,” she says, “I would support him in any way I could” — but, some separation at last — “short of officially working for him.”
She adds, “At some point you have to go off on your own.”
Photographs by Michael Mundy
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Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
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