In 2014, Tony Caifano and his girlfriend Jean Kim found themselves huddled in freezing temperatures watching the inauguration of Bill de Blasio. Both were steeped in New York City’s political world: She was a well-known lobbyist, he served as the political action director for a printers union.
As they sat on steel folding chairs, Caifano could feel his toes becoming numb. But it was important for both of them to be there. “It was a see-and-be-seen kind of day,” he said.
The day would later become emblazoned in both their minds for other reasons. According to Kim, it was the last time she remembers interacting with Scott Stringer, the current city comptroller and mayoral candidate who she accused last week of sexually assaulting her when she volunteered on his 2001 public advocate campaign.
For Caifano, it was the first time Kim shared the details of her alleged harassment and abuse with him.
Caifano is so far the only person who has attested to Kim previously talking about the alleged incidents, which include forcible kissing and groping. Stringer has vigorously denied the accusations, saying he and Kim had a consensual relationship. “We had a friendship, with a little more,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer this week. The accusations have roiled the mayoral race, resulting in several high-profile supporters rescinding their endorsements of Stringer.
Stringer told Lehrer that he welcomed a full investigation, although it is not clear what agency could undertake one.
During an interview on Wednesday afternoon at their Upper East Side apartment, Caifano and Kim, who are now engaged, provided detailed recollections of the events leading up to her accusations. Kim’s lawyer, Patricia Pastor, was also present.
Kim elaborated on some of the factors that made her decide to stay silent, namely the need to avoid making powerful enemies in a cutthroat industry, the role that race and class played, and the context in which the alleged assault took place.
“The Me Too movement hadn’t happened. [Black Lives Matter] didn’t happen,” she said. “He was this white man of privilege in a very powerful position with a lot of political connections.”
An Awkward Encounter
On that inauguration day, Caifano said the couple attended a victory party for Letitia James, the current attorney general who won the 2013 race for public advocate. They later tried to make their way to de Blasio’s event but the line was too long and they lacked VIP passes. As they headed back toward their car, they passed friends walking out of Surrogate’s Courthouse. They said the party there for Stringer, who had been elected to his first term as city comptroller, had the best macaroni and cheese.
Kim seemed reluctant, Caifano recalled, but it was frigid and he was starving. As they walked up, they immediately saw Stringer in front of the courthouse steps.
“And he looked right at us, and looked away quickly,” he said. “I was like, ‘That was strange.’ And Jean didn’t say anything.”
After getting their food, the couple had another interaction with Stringer, one that was more unpleasant. Caifano recalled that Stringer said Kim had come out “on the wrong side of history,” an allusion, he assumed, to her having worked for Elliot Spitzer, the rival comptroller candidate.
He asked Kim to explain what had happened. She said she wanted to go home.
As he drove along the FDR Drive, he said Kim began to cry. Not wanting to pressure her, he stopped asking questions. Later in the evening, after a glass of wine, she told him the story, he said.
He was dumbstruck, not only by the revelations but how she related them to him.
“She didn’t even realize what she was telling me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Do you realize he was setting you up for sex?’”
In the end, he said, she wanted to put the alleged events behind her. He promised not to get involved.
“It was her story to tell, and I had to support her,” he said. “We never spoke of it again.”
But the matter resurfaced in recent months. Kim, he said, had become increasingly tense and sad as she watched the mayoral campaign unfold. Stringer has promoted himself as progressive candidate and defender of women’s rights. His first commercial, which the campaign unveiled last Tuesday, cited his work on domestic violence.
One day, he watched her break down in tears after watching Stringer on television.
“Something’s got to be done,” he recalled telling her.
Last Tuesday, Caifano stood beside Kim as she read a statement to reporters.
Responding To Inconsistencies
Since making her claims, Kim has come under intense public scrutiny.
On Tuesday, the Intercept published a story that questioned her timeline of events, whether she was an intern or a volunteer at the time, and if she is somehow connected to Andrew Yang, one of the leading mayoral contenders.
Kim has maintained she is not supporting any candidate for mayor at this time. She recently distributed ballot petitions for a friend named Esther Yang, who is running for district manager. Her petitions also happened to list Andrew Yang.
Veteran petitioners say that Stringer’s campaign should have known better.
“You carry petitions even if you don’t support everyone on it,” said Ben Kallos, an Upper East Side City Councilmember who has known Kim since 2005 and says he fully believes her account.
Kim, who is 49, admitted to being hazy on dates. Asked on The Brian Lehrer Show, Stringer himself could not remember when he first met her. During his 2001 public campaign, she was 30 while he would have been around 41.
Stringer has asserted Kim was never an intern. She has said she called the job an internship because that’s what it felt like. By day, she worked at an entry-level job at a public relations firm and, and after work and on weekends, she helped out on the campaign for long hours, with no pay. She said Stringer offered to teach her advance work, which entails following around a candidate, anticipating all their needs and questions.
She acknowledged asking Stringer’s office about a possible job in 2013, another point his campaign has raised as a red flag. But she maintained her inquiry was strategic rather than earnest. She said Spitzer’s consultant had offered her a spot on his campaign, but she was worried about how Stringer would respond. She explained that lobbyists often have to navigate these tricky situations and avoid offending powerful officials.
“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,” she said. “So this way he had the first right of refusal.”
Stringer’s campaign has also scrutinized Kim’s campaign donations following the alleged incidents. According to her attorney Pastor, Kim often donated to various elected officials to advance the interests of her lobbying clients.
Similarly, Kim has said she kept her membership with the Community Free Democrats because it was important to have diplomatic ties with an influential political group.
Reflecting the lengths to which Stringer’s campaign has gone to discredit her with reporters, she has been forced to explain a portion of her CUNY masters’ thesis about the struggles of women working in standup comedy which was published in 2019. Towards the end, she writes, “I have no stories about comics who flashed themselves in front of me, or of sexual groping episodes.”
Kim has said the sentence is referring to her specific experience as a comedian.
Finding A ‘Surrogate Family’
Her first political job was in her home state of Ohio, where she arrived when she was only two years old as a Korean immigrant. After graduating from Ohio State University, she worked for a year as a legislative aide for then Assemblywoman Priscilla Mead. She moved to New York City in the fall of 1997 in search of a bigger world. She remembered those early years as scraping by working temp jobs. At one point, she lived with two roommates in an apartment above a pizzeria on 82nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
She recalled being drawn into the city’s political scene after one day seeing Eric Schneiderman, who was then running for state senator, handing out pamphlets on the street. She had no idea who he was but she asked him how she could get involved in politics. According to Kim, he handed her a card for the Community Free Democrats, a political club on the Upper West Side that was founded in the 1960s by a group that included Congressman Jerry Nadler. Schneiderman, she said, told her to look for Scott Stringer.
From the start, she stood out, both in age and ethnicity. The club members were mostly elderly Jewish women. But they gravitated toward her, getting her involved in fundraisers and other club duties. They also looked out for her, which she appreciated. “I developed this whole surrogate family of Jewish old ladies,” she said.
Stringer usually headed the meetings, where afterwards the members would grab drinks at a bar. She said she viewed him as a trusted mentor, someone who could show her the ropes of campaigning.
She said she did not see him as a friend, as Stringer has maintained, nor as someone to have a relationship with. Stringer was said to be living with a long-term girlfriend.
According to Kim, her first uncomfortable incident with Stringer happened in 2001 inside a taxi, where he briefly put his hand on her knee. But she decided to dismiss it. They had been talking excitedly about the campaign at the time and she figured he may have meant it as a way of saying “good job.”
Several weeks later, during another cab ride, he touched her knee again, she said, only it was more “insistent” as well as sexual. His hand went up her thigh. She said she shifted over to show him that she wasn’t interested. It didn’t escalate any further because he reached his destination and got out of the taxi.
She said the worst event occurred at a bar during the week leading up to the September primary. She and other campaign staffers and club members were at a bar following a campaign event. As the night wore on, she found herself sitting alone at the bar with Stringer.
It was then that she said he planted a kiss on her mouth.
“I didn’t totally know what to make of it,” she said. “But then he pressed further and he kissed me again. But this time, he parted my lips with his tongue to find mine.”
At the same time, she said, he put his arm around her back and reached into her underpants, stroking the top of her buttocks.
She said she wriggled out of his embrace, and that he then told her not to tell anyone about what had happened.
Afterwards, she tried to avoid him, she said. But during another cab ride, she felt him touch her knee again, and whisper in her ear, “Why won’t you fuck me? Why won’t you fuck me?”
Stringer has adamantly denied making these such statements and doing anything to Kim without her consent.
‘A Known Quantity’
Over the years, Kim has accumulated ties to many prominent city officials. In her words: “I’m a known quantity in New York City politics now.”
She recalled how on September 11th, she was sent out to Flushing, Queens to do a last burst of campaigning for Stringer on primary day. But after the terrorist attacks, subway service halted and she and other campaign staffers found themselves stranded.
Fortunately, they ran into John Liu, who was running for City Council at the time. Liu took Kim and several others to his house, where they spent much of the day hunkered down with his family.
The two have stayed in touch ever since.
Liu, who is currently a state senator, was one of several prominent elected officials to reach out to her last week after she went public with her accusations.
He thanked her for her bravery and offered her his full support.
At one point during the call, she told him she didn’t know what his political relationship was with Stringer. To which he replied, “As of four hours ago, I don’t have a relationship.”
Liu later confirmed the conversation and how they met.
“I’ve known Jean for a long time,” he said. “This is not somebody who tries to be in the limelight.”
Liu is among those who have since called on Stringer to withdraw from the mayoral race.
“What I’ve called upon him to do is the same as what he called upon Andrew Cuomo to do,” he said, referring to Stringer’s response to sexual misconduct allegations against the governor.
Similarly, Kallos, who has publicly called Stringer a “bully,” said that he believed Kim “immediately.”
“She has always been a consummate professional,” he said.
Although he has hemorrhaged progressive support, Stringer has not been without his allies. “I have known Scott to be a man of enduring character and integrity,” Nadler said in a statement.
One of his most prominent organizational supporters, the United Federation of Teachers, has not withdrawn their endorsement.
Former female city officials, including Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s former public advocate, and Ruth Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president, have called for further investigation into Kim’s claims.
“Believing women means accepting the allegation and investigating it thoroughly and objectively,” they said in a statement released through Stringer’s campaign.
But a conclusive investigation into claims dating back two decades will be difficult if not impossible. The statute of limitations on the alleged assaults prevents Kim from filing a criminal complaint. The city Department of Investigations recently declined Kim’s case after concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter because Stringer was a state assembly member at the time of the alleged incidents, not a city official.
On Tuesday, Kim filed another complaint, this time with the civil rights bureau of the office of the New York Attorney General. It is unclear whether the agency, which is currently overseeing a sexual harassment investigation of Governor Cuomo, will take up the matter.
An Anti-Harassment ‘Bill Of Rights’
Kim said one of her goals with coming forward is to create an anti-harassment “bill of rights” that would list unacceptable behavior and be posted inside every political campaign offices. She said she did not want her story to deter other women, especially those of color, from working in politics. She said she hopes that all politicians will sign onto the effort.
She herself is gradually preparing to leave that world behind, part of the reason why she felt she could come forward now, she said. For the last five years, she has dabbled in stand-up comedy. She currently has a job booking acts at the Comic Strip, a comedy club on the Upper East Side.
Last week, the Stringer campaign shared a video to reporters of her joking about her accusations during a Zoom comedy show.
“I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but I had to MeToo one of the politicians I used to work with because he couldn’t keep his thing in his pants,” she said during the show.
Kim said she never planned to address her allegations, but that the MC had prompted her by noting that she had been on the news a lot lately.
“Half of the comedians in the room had no clue what she was talking about,” she said, noting that some lived outside the city.
Her jokey response, she said, was designed to maintain the energy of the room while sharing “very lightly.”
In the end, she credited comedy with giving her a platform to express herself.
“I’m a lobbyist,” she reflected. “I’ve been sharing my clients’ opinions for all this time, but never my own.”
The Stringer campaign was asked to comment on Caifano’s and Kim’s recollection of these events but declined to do so by Gothamist’s deadline. The story will be updated with any relevant response.