Andrew Cuomo’s ‘conceptual architect’ works quietly

Andrew Zambelli ()
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Andrew Zambelli, a 62-year old pollster, psychology PhD, and newly named counselor to Andrew Cuomo, has been involved with the family since the early 1980s. And like any good Cuomo lieutenant, he doesn't have much of a public profile to show for it.

According to the official description provided by the governor-elect’s office, Zambelli "will serve as senior advisor to the Governor and be responsible for the oversight and strategic integration of the communications, inter-governmental, legislative and constituency efforts of the Office of the Governor.”

Insiders would read all that as something like "handler in chief."

In the words of Fred Siegel, scholar in residence at St. Francis College and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute: "“That’s an extraordinarily important position. It’s someone with continuous access to the governor, someone who’s at the governor’s side.”

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The heavily mustached Zambelli—he's known to his associates as Drew, and has a habit of twirling his facial hair when thinking big thoughts—is in many ways typical of Andrew Cuomo’s inner circle. He’s a Mario man who has known known the governor-elect for decades; he has very little name recognition, and no apparent appetite for it; he’s smart, savvy, Italian-American, and, of course, unavailable for an interview.

Zambelli and the Cuomos go way back, though, oddly enough, he entered Cuomoland by way of a Cuomo nemesis.

During the elder Cuomo’s 1982 primary election against Mayor Ed Koch, Cuomo chose Carl McCall to run on his ticket for for lieutenant governor, while Koch chose Westchester County Executive Al DelBello. DelBello’s campaign manager was none other than Andrew Zambelli.

“He was active coming out of Mount Vernon, he was active in politics locally, so I guess I just knew him,” DelBello said in an interview with Capital. “He was campaign manager when I ran for lieutenant governor and he was my chief of staff when I was lieutenant governor.”

Soon after the election, it became clear that DelBello and Cuomo did not get along, at all. In an astonishing March 1983 piece in the New York Times called “Me and My Shadow,” DelBello publicly yearned to be granted access to the inner circle, while Cuomo publicly scoffed at him.

"I fully knew that when I ran for the office, I wouldn't be running things,” DelBello told the Times. “I wanted the statewide experience. But I would like to be part of his inner circle, to be called in and relied on in areas where I have expertise. I don't expect that to happen right away. But I would like to be included. If I'm found to be of some value, good. If not, I'll go out and do whatever else he wants me to do."

For his part, Cuomo faulted DelBello for at times publicly taking issue with his policies, and told the paper, “I think he sees shadows. He kind of anticipated that I would be unhappy because he went with Koch. It's not true. It's going to take him a little time to realize that I want to make the most of his experience, his credentials. But I already think we have consumed more time, energy and effort discussing his psychic indisposition than it's worth.''

But while his boss struggled to gain access, Zambelli achieved it. For himself.

“He had gotten very close to Andrew while I was lieutenant governor,” recalled DelBello, in the interview.

How did DelBello feel about that?

“I’ll keep that to myself,” he said, chuckling.

Zambelli officially entered the Cuomo fold in 1985, when DelBello, who never did manage to get along with the governor, resigned. Zambelli went from DelBello’s camp straight to Cuomo’s. After a brief stint as the governor's director of communications, Mario Cuomo made Zambelli secretary to the governor in 1991.

After the elder Cuomo left office, Zambelli earned a living doing polls and focus groups.

For example, in 1999, he conducted a poll for the Journal News and Manhattanville College about Y2K that concluded, according to the News, that "seventy-five percent of Westchester, Rockland and Putnam residents expect to confront some or a significant disruption in their daily lives as a result of the year 2000 computer gremlin."

In 2007, he helped found Strategic Frameworking Incorporated—advertised on the company website as "A Corps of Conceptual Architects," with the word 'Conceptual' rendered in spooky purple font—where he did work for General Motors, Pillsbury and American Express, among others. His site bio says, "Dr. Zambelli, with a doctorate in psychology, has over 20 years experience in qualitative and quantitative research methods."

When Andrew Cuomo decided to run for governor, he tapped Zambelli to handle his polling and manage his message, slotting him neatly into an operational inner circle comprised of other white, male former Mario aides like Michael Del Giudice and Joseph Percoco.

He looks the part, too. As one Albany insider put it, “He looks like they all do, which is they look like they got dressed from a second-hand store. They show no signs of wealth or class.”

While the governor can parcel out power however he desires, there are generally understood to be three reigning positions on the Capitol’s second floor: communications director, counsel to the governor (the head attorney) and the secretary to the governor. During Mario Cuomo’s tenure, Zambelli occupied two of those positions, both excruciatingly stressful 24-7 gigs. There is also sometimes a chief adviser, or counselor, someone with vast institutional knowledge of the governor’s office, and who can act as liaison between the new executive and other old-timers. That, it appears, will be Zambelli. (More on the "counselor" title from the Times Union's Jimmy Vielkind here.)

“Zambelli is solid as a rock,” said one former official in Mario Cuomo’s administration. “And, strangely enough, a little quirky. He’s like a mad scientist”

He’s also considered more even-tempered than his boss, and more wont to compromise, which should come in particularly handy when the other two men in the room with Cuomo start asserting their prerogative.

“If he sees new evidence, he quickly will adjust course,” said the official. “That’s a great quality for somebody on the second floor.”