Cuomo management style in spotlight amid Moreland corruption accusations

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces his appointment for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces his appointment for the Moreland Commission to investigate the State Legislature at Hofstra University Club in Hempstead on July 2, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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ALBANY -- "We operate at two speeds here," a close aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo once said, "Get along and kill."

That hard-charging, hands-on style helped usher Cuomo into office in a landslide nearly four years ago after four years of gridlock and scandal that made state budgets late and blocked legislation.

He quickly amassed wins. In 2001, he personally lobbied Republican senators to legalize same-sex marriage, even suspending debating rules so his victory lap in the state Senate could make the late TV news. In July, he swooped in to end a threatened strike at the Long Island Rail Road.

Now his management style is at the heart of Albany's latest conflict: whether Cuomo and his top aide interfered with the Moreland Commission on public corruption and steered subpoenas away from Cuomo allies.

Critics have long accused him of being a micromanager and -- often privately -- a bully, requiring, for example, that all public comments from state agencies be vetted through the executive chamber and dispatching aides to harangue those who disagree with him. As he's advanced his agenda, Cuomo has sparred with top Democrats, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, and the least powerful faction in state politics, Republican Assembly members, whom he threatened to campaign against if they didn't provide a unanimous vote to support his 2011 tax package.

In the Moreland controversy, The New York Times reported Lawrence Schwartz, the secretary to the governor, last year called commission co-chairman William Fitzpatrick after a subpoena was planned for the TV ad production company used by Cuomo's campaign. "This is wrong," Fitzpatrick recalled Schwartz saying. "Pull it back."

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Cuomo and Fitzpatrick have said that the governor's office merely provided necessary advice and that the subpoena eventually was issued. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has subpoenaed records in the matter.

"It's no secret that his style hasn't engendered warm, fuzzy feelings," said Judith Hope, the former state Democratic chairwoman and longtime friend of the governor and his family. " . . . But you can't ignore the fact that Andrew has achieved remarkable change and progress in situations that everyone else had given up on.

"Mistakes were made with the Moreland Commission, to be sure, but it would be truly unfair and bad for New York if this episode were allowed to define Andrew Cuomo."

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Playing hardball

Critics see a darker side to the governor's approach. "His style is to bully and intimidate," said one longtime state official. "He does it because he can and it's tough to fight back because he has the governor's mantle. . . . It's the mindset that if you don't go with us, we are going to get you."

Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College, called the governor "a transactional actor, Machiavellian in the fullest sense of the term. He is a savvy strategist who appreciates the necessity of expediency, and expediency can and often does produce socially beneficial outcomes.

"But he is a macro- and micromanager where administration officials' and agencies' decisions and actions are dictated and orchestrated," Muzzio said. "The governor plays hardball -- like Roger Clemens, willing to throw fastballs at opponents' heads but also the master of the curve and change-up."

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The off-speed pitch can be just as effective. Former Sen. Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), who cast the historic, deciding vote to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, negotiated behind closed doors directly with Cuomo.

"He was personally and deeply involved," Saland said. "He was a gentleman who worked through to accomplish an end. . . . At no time during the course of negotiations was there an attempt to override or impose himself on me or any other party."

 

Chats have 'real intensity'

Where his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, ran meetings through deliberation, Andrew Cuomo has a much different style, said a former confidant and operative for both Cuomos.

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Andrew Cuomo "actually doesn't talk a lot," the former official said. "He'll frame the discussion. He'll draw people in and listen to what they have to say, but then, often abruptly and with real intensity, he'll say: 'OK, this is what we need to do. You do this. I'll do that. Now let's get it done.'

"And at virtually any moment of day or night, you could get a call asking for a status update," the official said. "He'll just say, 'Hi ya. Did you hear from so and so? What's the latest?' "

Cuomo has shown opposition to dissension and to those who don't toe the line. People who served on the state ethics commission and a special Cuomo panel to overhaul the Long Island Power Authority complained the administration wanted unanimity and preordained outcomes. When Long Island teachers planned to protest at the state Democratic convention over the governor's education policies, Cuomo confidant Joe Percoco unsuccessfully tried to talk the union into canceling the rally.

In 2013, a state Department of Transportation engineer retired early rather than face disciplinary charges after he talked to a newspaper without getting permission from the governor's press office, even though he praised the DOT's handling of Hurricane Irene.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group worked for Cuomo on a public records project when Cuomo was attorney general in 2006. "I saw . . . [his style] firsthand and it can be very effective," he said.

"What makes . . . [the Moreland Commission] reports ring true is this is an administration that believes in top-down management and closely manages state agencies," Horner said. "To some extent, I think the problem they had with the Moreland Commission is they treated it like a state agency. It is not a state agency to be managed. . . . I don't think they thought it through, and it blew up."

 

Keeping score

Cuomo's style is evident in every win and in his few losses, big and small.

In 2013 the administration prompted a rewriting of the voter referendum to allow Cuomo's initiative to authorize Las Vegas-style casinos. The rewritten referendum question added the uncertain promises of jobs and aid to schools. Editorials called it "advocacy language, pure and simple," "perverting the constitutional amendment process" and "trying to rig the vote." It passed.

"His failures are due to the excess of his virtues," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

"In seeking to take advantage of the moment, he goes too fast -- and makes avoidable mistakes," he said. Benjamin cited Cuomo's SAFE Act gun control law, which the governor persuaded the state Legislature to approve a month after the killing of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, giving New York the claim of being the first to act. In hindsight, there were complications. The law required 7-bullet magazines, which aren't manufactured, and ignited a backlash against Cuomo by once-loyal upstate voters and most Republicans.

"His aggressiveness is jarring, and can be intimidating and scary," Benjamin said.

"Moreland was seen and done in Cuomo's usual frame of political calculations, but I think he had a rare failure and produced a crisis because a powerful, autonomous player entered from outside the state system -- the federal prosecutor -- and he did not anticipate this," Benjamin said.

"It is the classic case of using what worked for you many times in the past in a new context, where it was a bad idea," Benjamin said.

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