Richard Bamberger: The man who has what it takes to be Andrew Cuomo's communications director
Richard Bamberger may be Governor Andrew Cuomo’s communications director, the titular nexus of a media-obsessed administration’s tentacular approach to the press, but that doesn’t necessarily say much about him.
In the classic model for press-shop management, the communications director oversees the dissemination of the principal's message, which entails at least some regular contact with the press. He also oversees the press secretary and attendant deputies in press office. The superior to whom the communications director formally reports depends on the administration.
Bamberger, who had a successful career in TV news before becoming a press aide, is barely known to Albany reporters, who say they have little to no interaction with him on a regular basis. Instead, they deal with Bamberger’s subordinate, deputy communications director Josh Vlasto, with one of the governor's other close advisers, like counselor Andrew Zambelli, or with the governor directly.
If, on the face of it, Bamberger is the opposite of what one might expect in a communications director, his understated, behind-the-scenes style seems perfectly suited for the administration in which he serves. Governor Cuomo has a known predilection for aides whose personalities do not compete with his own, who show little appetite for public exposure, and who allow him to act on the belief that his way is really the only way to do business.
Bamberger is perhaps best known among the members of the press who cover Cuomo for his ability to survive more than two years as Cuomo’s communications director, and, to the extent they have gotten to know him directly, for his unusual kindliness.
“He’s the only one who’s actually nice,” one reporter said.
Niceness is not a trait often associated with the Cuomo administration. And, it’s almost certainly not the reason why Bamberger was picked for a job known for its grueling hours and heart-palpitating level of stress.
“A lot of people you speak with will say Rich is a really nice guy,” said a former coworker in the attorney general's office. “And everybody’s right. The guy's nice. But you need to understand that behind his big goofy grin is an extremely shrewd and loyal political aide.”
Bamberger’s appeal to the governor appears to be two-fold. First, he had meaningful experience in TV news production prior to joining Cuomo’s attorney general press office, an important attribute for a governor known to be fond of television and eager to further expand his public profile.
“Andrew’s a big name and comes from a great legacy, but as soon as Bamberger came in the door, all of a sudden, we were on a national platform,” said the former coworker in the attorney general's office. “He gave a lot of the issues we were dealing with a national platform, making them household issues."
Second, he now has a proven track record of getting along with Cuomo, having lasted two years as a press aide for a client who is arguably the most demanding in the business, a micromanager who is known to have an enormous regard for his own media savvy.
“Andrew runs the shop through Drew Zambelli,” said a political consultant, referring to the governor's decades-old friend and counselor. “Andrew feels that he knows the press well.”
RICHARD BAMBERGER, 40, GREW UP IN A HOUSE FULL of lawyers, his mother a Bronx judge, his father an attorney. His older brother now works as an assistant law professor at Berkeley.
Bamberger, who declined to comment for this article, went to Riverdale Country School and then Skidmore College, where he majored in English. He kept an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite on his dorm-room wall, and spent his free hours driving through upstate New York equipped with an Olympus camera. Occasionally he would stumble upon news, like a horse barn fire in Schuylerville, and submit photos to the local paper. In his spare time, he edited his college newspaper, the Skidmore News.
Attracted to a career in media, he interned at Albany’s CBS affiliate his last semester in college. When he graduated in 1992, he scored a job there as a script ripper and teleprompter operator.
“In college years, he had a very bad stutter,” recalled Peter Brancato, the news operation manager at CBS 6 in Albany who hired Bamberger. “So when he called to be an intern, and I talked to him, I thought, this kid’s going to have a tough time with this business.”
But Brancato said that within the year, Bamberger, who’d been going to speech therapy, had substantially eliminated his stutter.
“That showed me this kid wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way,” said Brancato. “The thing that amazed me is he’s such a likable guy. It became very apparent he was very friendly and could talk to anybody and get anybody to do anything he wanted them to do ... If he was trying to track down a story, he would get it done, and still be nice while doing it.”
Within a year, Bamberger had risen to producer, and met the woman he would marry, another young staffer named Kristin Quillinan.
Together, they charted a peripatetic, and successful, television career, moving first to Miami to work for CBS’s WFOR, then to Detroit to work for Fox’s WJBK, and then, finally, back New York’s WCBS, where Bamberger worked as managing editor, overseeing a staff well in excess of 100. Kristin worked as an executive producer. Their first day was September 10, 2001.
The following year, Bamberger received a call from a woman taken hostage at Fairfield University, in Connecticut. She was one of 28 people held captive by a former student using what was later found to be a fake bomb.
“Bamberger used information he'd collected on the story to confirm that the caller was a hostage,” reported Broadcasting & Cable. “He passed a note to the assignment desk, which alerted police. In more than a dozen calls over the next several hours, Bamberger and Arbelo communicated through the hostage, a student named Julie.”
"It was the most intense thing,” Bamberger told the trade magazine. “I had no idea if something I said would cause him to hurt someone."
Bamberger, who had always avoided on-camera appearances, did a debrief for the 11 p.m. news. It was his only on-air experience.
During his tenure at WCBS, Bamberger earned a reputation as a hard worker.
“He’s very eager beaver, and kind of a gee-whiz kind of guy ” said David Diaz, a former reporter at WCBS and now a professor of politics and journalism at CUNY Graduate School.
“I was actually kind of both shocked and amused to learn that he is going to be communications director,” said Diaz. “He never seemed to be that interested in politics. He was a tried-and-true local news guy.”
Diaz said Bamberger, as an editor, was always looking for "as much splash as possible."
“He’s a very, very excitable guy,” Diaz continued. “If something would come across, he’d say, 'Oh wow wee, we have to go after that. This is a really great story.' That kind of enthusiasm of one of the hallmarks of contemporary local news. Anything that has some sensational dimension to it or potentially sensational dimension.”
Following WCBS, Bamberger went on to work for "Inside Edition."
“'Inside Edition' in many ways would be much more hospitable to Rich Bamberger’s idea of news,” said Diaz. “He was one of those that often was guided by what was in the Post.”
While Bamberger was at "Inside Edition," Steven Cohen, now secretary to the governor, recruited him to work as Cuomo’s director of communications in the attorney general’s office.
Today, Bamberger lives in Westchester with his wife, who is now a stay-at-home mother of three. When in Albany, Bamberger stays with her parents in Rensselaer County.
The administration is looking to hire him some addition help—a press secretary who would fall between Bamberger and Vlasto in the press shop hierarchy, according to people familiar with the administration. The press secretary would ideally be someone who could take over for Bamberger, should there be any need.
“He’s a very capable, very smart guy,” said someone who knows him, and Cuomo. “In the end, the phenomenal thing is that he’s lasted longer than anyone else in the toughest job in communications.”