Upward bound: Cuomo takes the press on a tension-easing field trip
"Who's coming?" asked Governor Andrew Cuomo, standing on a rocky bank of the Boreas Ponds on Sunday afternoon, just above an empty canoe.
"Come on, Kaplan," he said to Thomas Kaplan, the young Albany reporter for the New York Times, who struggled to pull on a life vest while the governor took a seat in the back.
Cuomo has had a strained relationship with the media over the years, owing in part to a reputation for closely controlling his public image, but on Sunday he invited the press corps along for a field day, at a newly acquired parcel of 69,000 acres in the Adirondack State Park, the largest addition to the park in the last 100 years.
Members of the press, after signing an exhaustive waiver, were told to meet in the parking lot of Frontiertown, an abandoned amusement park, and were then driven half an hour down a winding dirt road past two checkpoints. Reporters were skeptical of the invitation, with a running joke about why the governor's office might be luring them, en masse, to a remote spot in the woods, two hours north of Albany and five hours from New York City.
But the event, whose official purpose was to publicize the region for tourism-promotion and economic-development purposes, was surprisingly uncontrolled by Cuomo standards, and, at least on this day, the Albany reporters and the governor's staff both seemed content to enjoy themselves.
After some brief remarks celebrating both Cuomo and the park, reporters were free to go on hikes, take out a canoe, or wander around the lodge and buttonhole any of 20 or so commissioners, who made the two-hour trip up from the capital together on a big SUNY-Albany bus.
There was even a tasty lunch buffet, and a taxidermy-lined lodge with a roaring fire.
There was only one request.
"On the hike, just keep it off the record, this is supposed to be recreational," said Josh Vlasto, the occasionally combative press secretary, who was wearing a new piece of Cuomo outerwear that said "TEAM CUOMO, WE DELIVER," and was having a good time playing along with the press-corps-disappearing-in-the-woods jokes.
A handful of reporters tagged along for a very short hike to a very old pine tree, which had somehow evaded the timber company that previously owned the land, and is now thought to be 350 years old.
Housing commissioner Darryl Towns helped measure the tree's circumference with Secretary of State Cesar Perales, both of whom hail from Brooklyn, and they subsequently got a kick out of posing with a big axe, alongside SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.
"A tree grows in Brooklyn, but not like this!" Towns said.
On the way to see the tree, the van spotted Joe Lhota, the M.T.A. commissioner, ambling up the hill. Lhota declined to accept a ride.
On the way back, the whole group stopped at a couple of scenic dams, with long views of a lake lined with trees turning to gold and rust.
Towns said he had never been to the Adirondacks, and compared the scenery to "the guy from PBS"—Bob Ross—saying, "when I first got out, it was like every place I looked looked like one of his pictures."
The press did have some grumbles, of course.
Journalists, including photographers and camera men, weren't allowed to get a close-up of Cuomo disembarking from the dock for his fishing trip, and instead were made to settle for a far-off shot from a lofty bank. (He caught an 8-inch trout.)
But the governor made up for it later, with the impromptu canoe trip, when he pulled Kaplan along with him. "This is what you do with an uncooperative reporter: a one-way canoe trip," said the governor, whose office has pushed back on recent stories by one of Kaplan's colleagues about the archival access to materials from the "Troopergate" investigation.
Other reporters and aides, mixed between canoes, followed Cuomo to the center of the lake, as an afternoon drizzle turned into a driving rain. (A Times photographer lamented that he wouldn't be able to use any of the canoeing photos, since they also prominently featured a Times reporter.) I shared a canoe with an unruly Vlasto, who splashed at least one reporter and repeatedly shook our canoe as if to capsize it.
When Cuomo returned to the shore, the governor offered a friendly fist-bump to Liz Benjamin, the "Capital Tonight" host and blogger, about whom the administration had reportedly prepared a "dossier" of specific complaints last year.
Earlier, he had bantered with Benjamin over her mistaken reference to Cuomo showing up in his Mustang at a balloon festival the previous day.
"I never arrived in a Mustang," said Cuomo, a noted gearhead. "A Mustang is a much different thing."
"Sorry, I don't do cars," Benjamin replied.
"'Roared up in a Mustang,'" he said, derisively. "1975 Corvette."
At the entrance to the lodge, Cuomo stood with Lhota, greeting commissioners and reporters as they returned to warm up, and the staff cranked out pots of coffee.
"The subway will be here shortly," Lhota joked.
Later, as one reporter dried her feet by the fire, Cuomo sat down and gave a light touch to her sock, to check on the progress.
Fred Dicker, the New York Post state editor who enjoys a closer relationship with the governor than any other member of the media, did not attend.