Old-Timer’s Day: Team Cuomo and the inside-out approach to changing Albany

Governor Andrew Cuomo. ()
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ALBANY—Andrew Cuomo wants to change Albany, not reinvent it.

That much was evident by his inaugural gesture of restoring the Capitol to its Mario-era state—opening up the halls to the public and removing the Pataki-installed barriers out front—and by his spoken acknowledgement of the leaders of what he has fashioned as a halcyon era, in the Albany of his 20s: "my father, Governor Mario Cuomo, who was Lt. Governor at that time; Governor Hugh L. Carey; Mr. Fink, Mr. Stanley Fink; Mr. Warren Anderson."

It was also evident by the team of aides and allies he put together as he begins his governorship.

At the inauguration, sitting in an oddly chilly War Room next to the bishop who delivered the invocation, was Michael Del Giudice, a former aide to Carey and Fink who was chief of staff to Cuomo 52 for his first two years in office. According to several people familiar with its workings, he set up the transition team to Cuomo 56, and was mentioned as having the right of first refusal for any post in the administration. He opted to stay in private life, though, and when I approached him told me, “Andrew has his own team; it’s a great team.”

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Much of that team’s core is drawn from Andrew’s aides in the attorney general’s office: Steve Cohen moves from chief of staff to secretary to the governor; Ben Lawsky moves from being one of the “special assistants” close to Andrew to chief of staff; Les Leach moves from running the division of state counsel to serving as appointments secretary; Mylan Denerstein will be counsel to the governor. Most of Cuomo’s press staffers are migrating, too.

But to do the nitty-gritty of government, at least for now, Cuomo has Howard Glaser—his chief of staff at HUD and, before that, a senior advisor to Mario Cuomo—as director of state operations. Larry Schwartz, deputy manager of Mario’s failed 1994 campaign, an experienced hand from Suffolk and Westchester County governments and Gov. David Paterson’s last, arguably most competent, secretary, is staying on in the governor’s office as a senior adviser.

And then there’s Drew Zambelli, the focus-group king and former secretary to Mario, who is serving as “counselor;” the role is something like a message czar, setting the tone for other press aides like Rich Bamberger, Josh Vlasto and John Milgrim.

Zambelli and Del Giudice spent time at the inauguration talking to Mario aides Tonio Burgos and Sandy Frucher before Andrew led in the Cuomo clan, lauding Mario in his address as the man “who has taught me everything that I know.”

The Times ran a feature over the weekend about all these “old hands” back on board, mostly from the perspective of what it means to them to be back in the Capitol. But their prominence is also reflected in the Cuomo agenda: Andrew, himself a veteran of his father's administration, has already run several plays straight from Mario's book. There were the symbolic moves: moving the State of the State speech from the Assembly chamber to the Empire State Plaza Convention Center, a windowless square in the modernist festung bürokratische that defines Albany’s skyline, for the same stated reasons his father once gave for moving his own inauguration; and cutting a ribbon to the Hall of Governors, the portrait-adorned passageway connecting the offices of the governor and his top aides.

Again, more significantly, Cuomo's team clearly signals his intention to play an insider's game in the service of what he has fashioned as a reform agenda.

His most sophisticated play, arguably, will be executed through the Committee to Save New York, a coalition of business groups, real estate interests and a private-sector labor federation set up to lobby in support of an agenda that looks very much like the new governor's. Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, said the idea for the committee came from Cuomo as well as others in the business community. While Cuomo has no formal ties to the group, John Marino and Bill Cunningham at DKC, a firm founded by Andrew’s friend Dan Klores, will use the $10 million the organization hopes to raise for an extensive “public education” campaign about the fiscal woes Andrew tries to undo, Wylde said. Marino chaired the Democratic State Committee under Cuomo 52, and has been an informal political adviser to Andrew in his past three campaigns.

“I think what we’re trying to make sure is that our effort is independent of Cuomo,” Wylde explained. “It’s as much intended to hold the governor’s feet to the fire as anybody else’s, so I haven’t thought about that. Obviously DKC has a relationship—most all the groups have a relationship with the governor. But we have a relationship with legislative leaders. We’re not going to be focused narrowly on the governor because the problem is so much broader.”

Wylde did allow that, given his rhetoric, this would mean supporting Cuomo against legislators. Business leaders like Wylde have sought to organize as a counter the political influence of public-sector labor unions, who Cuomo seems to have singled out for especially rough treatment in the early going.

Several people who know Zambelli from the Mario days assumed he would act as an informal connector with the independent group—a sort of liaison to the Mario-era veterans on the outside. (It’s also worth noting that Tim Russert, the first man to hold the “counselor” title Zambelli now has, once played a similar role keeping in touch with allied lobbying efforts.)

The new governor spoke this weekend of a “constructive impatience” as he pushes his agenda on a recalcitrant legislature, and the theory behind this new fellowship of the old-timers is that they are uniquely qualified to help him find the most direct route to the results he promised to deliver during the campaign. This will not be a repeat of Spitzer, Paterson, or even Pataki: no relying on best-and-brightest outsiders out of Harvard and McKinsey. There will still be young men and women in suits bragging about the size of their blackberries, sure, but there will also be enough adults will be in the room to move things smoothly.

“What we need to do is promote a tone of everyone coming to the table,” said Denis Hughes, president of the AFL-CIO and skeptic of the Committee to Save New York, before Cuomo's inauguration speech. “I think what you’re going to see is Andrew is going to reach out to the most experiences and best people in politics in New York state. And yes, some of those people in the last 25 years worked for Mario Cuomo.”

It will not be a return to the past, exactly. It will be a new effort, in new circumstances, guided by people who happen to know where every body is buried. And this starts with the governor himself. As his erstwhile rival David Paterson noted admiringly, Cuomo has had “previous service, has had administrative service and has had a sense of the state for over a quarter of a century even before he became governor." (Some day, Paterson might also talk about the political capability Cuomo demonstrated in easing him out of a potential Democratic primary.)

Cuomo begins with broad support for the basic elements of his agenda: re-organize state government, cap local property taxes and impose tougher ethics laws. He campaigned on it, after all, and won 60 percent of the vote. (There are, of course, other reasons for that margin as well.)

“I hope the governor sets a high bar and says the days of wine and roses are over,” said George Marlin, a Conservative investment banker who ran the Port Authority under Gov. George Pataki. “I’m rooting for him. I think all New Yorkers are.”

The question, at some point, will be about what happens when the politics stop lining up quite so neatly—when he and his gray-haired army, in need of tangible results to match the campaign rhetoric, are obliged to do what they know best, by haggling, deploying sticks and carrots, and eventually arriving at deals with the other men in the room and their minions. But that's for later.

One lobbyist who is friendly with the new governor recalled an exchange with Cuomo from earlier this year.

“I saw him a few months ago during the campaign, walked up to him and said, ‘So, Andrew. After all these years it turns out good government really is good politics.’”

Cuomo's smiling response, according to the lobbyist: “Who knew?”