Gov. Andrew Cuomo's inner circle: All roads lead to Westchester

Howard Glaser, chief of state operations, Larry Schwartz, Howard Glaser, chief of state operations, Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor and Drew Zambelli, governor's advisor. Photo Credit: Newsday/AP

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Meet Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's team of insiders.

The Westchester cast of Howard Glaser, Larry Schwartz and Drew Zambelli plays key behind-the-scenes roles in shaping the governor's vision for New York State, each pushing Cuomo's legislative agenda on big issues such as gun control and same-sex marriage. They draft the script that everyone, from agency heads to in-the-trenches workers, are supposed to follow.

"They each have the governor's ear," said one longtime Democrat who asked not to be named.

From day to day, the trio stage-manages each minute detail of the state's affairs for the governor, who is rumored to have presidential aspirations. And while they are not political operatives, if Cuomo lands in the White House because of his gubernatorial track record, he will surely have his Westchester team to thank.

Political experts also say that if Cuomo -- a native son of Queens who now lives in Mount Kisco -- does launch a presidential bid, it won't hurt that both he and his top advisers call Westchester home.

"Westchester has always been the heart of the eastern establishment," said veteran KVOX radio host Bill O'Shaughnessy. "It's where people go to to sell a book or to sell an idea.

Cuomo's office refused to comment for this story.

THE ADVISER AND THE MONITOR

Zambelli, the governor's counselor, has the deepest ties to the area. He grew up in Mount Vernon and lives in Eastchester with his wife Barbara, a Westchester County Court judge.

A one-time pollster who worked for Cuomo's father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, Zambelli's job is crafting the narrative on the issues of the day for the governor and the rest of the administration.

"Whatever the issue is he's going to be the first one out there," said one Democratic insider who declined to be named. "His finger is constantly in the air."

Zambelli, 64, is known to devour what editorial writers are saying, carefully gauging how the governor should respond.

Among his strengths is the experience of having grown up in a working class city surrounded by well-to-do towns, according to Richard Brodsky, a veteran Westchester pol who has known Zambelli for 30 years.

"Drew Zambelli grew up in Mount Vernon," said Brodsky, a former state assemblyman. "He knows the mix of socioeconomics in Westchester."

Not to mention the rest of the state, Brodsky added.

Glaser, the head of state operations, moved here from the Washington, D.C., suburbs after working as an aide to Cuomo while he led the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.

Glaser's job is keeping tabs on and staying in touch with the heads of agencies such as the State Police and the Department of Transportation.

He is often a pillar for Cuomo during major events such as superstorm Sandy, often appearing at the governor's side at news conferences and community visits.

'THE ENFORCER'

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And then there's Schwartz, the governor's secretary. Schwartz is a former deputy Westchester County executive under Andrew Spano. He grew up on Long Island and lives in White Plains. His day-to-day job is keeping close tabs on the state Legislature and making sure the budget passes.

Last summer, he was out front as the governor's point man on the administration's efforts to replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge with a new $3.9 billion twin span.

The few times he made headlines was when he suggested at a public meeting that tolls on the new bridge could rise as high as $14. Days later, he backed off the claim after the governor said it was too high.

Before he did, though, he got to share his own thoughts on a bridge he crossed every day.

"This is one of the most painful bridges to drive over," Schwartz said at a town hall meeting on the bridge last summer. "It is old. It is congested. It is unsafe."

He clearly knew his audience. The crowd, packed with hard hats eager for jobs on the bridge, erupted in applause.

Those who know him say he can be dour and gruff, especially when the conversation is not going his way. One local official called him the administration's "enforcer" who's adopted the role that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had in the early part of the Barack Obama White House. Schwartz has been known to make phone calls on behalf of Cuomo to those who oppose the governor's views on the new bridge.

"He's a very politically astute guy and he has no time for small talk," said the Democratic insider.

Schwartz's role as the Tappan Zee point man has been picked up by another longtime Westchester hand, Brian Conybeare, who was hired away from his anchor job at News12 to be the administration's voice on the Tappan Zee.

Schwartz is said to have pushed for Conybeare's appointment because the Tappan Zee needed a full-time voice who had the respect of the local community.

The administration has cast the project as a cornerstone of its efforts to show that the state -- and its governor -- can do big things. The bridge project is expected to produce tens of thousands of jobs for the Hudson Valley and is among the biggest public works initiatives in the nation.

Should Cuomo ever run for president, his record on the Tappan Zee Bridge is almost certain to become an issue.

PERFECT PLACE FOR A PRESIDENTIAL RUN

And, political pundits say, the place that Cuomo and his inner circle call home could prove to be the perfect launchpad for a run for the White House.

It is, after all, a place where the moneyed and the powerful bump into one another at the town diner, they say.

"It's home to a lot of decision-makers and media professionals," said O'Shaughnessy, a longtime friend of Gov. Mario Cuomo. "It's where the influence resides."

Not to mention the money.

"On my show, we call it the Golden Apple," O'Shaughnessy noted.

Westchester ranked third in per capita donations among New York counties during the 2012 election cycle, according to a January report by the New York Public Interest Research Group. Westchester residents doled out an average of $2.28 each to state legislative candidates, according to the report. Only Manhattan at $3.75 and Albany at $2.77 had a higher rate, the analysis showed.

And, politically, it's not the Republican stronghold it once was, said Jeanne Zaino, an Iona College political science professor.

"About twenty-plus years ago, we began voting more Democratic, particularly at the national level," she said.

In some ways, Zaino says, it's a place that mirrors Cuomo's political evolution.

"As a centrist governor who prides himself on working with both sides of the aisle, supporting Democrats and Republicans and in some people's minds governing more like a centrist Republican governor than a Democrat, Cuomo seems in some ways to reflect the division we find in Westchester," Zaino said. "So I think he also sees this as a must-win county not only because he makes his home here but because he has been so careful to appeal to exactly the type of swing voters we find here."

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