Schwartz_Cuomo

A WINGMAN AND A PRAYER: Governor Cuomo, with longtime aide Larry Schwartz to his right in happier times, has protested attempts by other elected officials to get him to resign as 'playing politics,' but that's precisely what he has deployed Mr. Schwartz to do over the years, most recently with the man he appointed his vaccine czar calling county officials and asking whether they remained loyal to Mr. Cuomo. Mr. Schwartz said he did it on his own with no ulterior motives, but one official reportedly has asked the State Attorney General to investigate whether this constituted a veiled threat to withhold a fair share of the coronavirus vaccine.

There was a moment on the afternoon of March 12 when it was possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for Governor Cuomo as Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand joined the swelling chorus of New York Democrats demanding that he resign based on sexual-harassment and hostile-work-environment claims made by past and present female staffers.

The signing-on of the state's two U.S. Senators to the campaign to drive him out was supposed to be the Coup de Cuom, the gong telling him that time was up. But the Governor responded that afternoon that he still had the support of the public, explaining, "People know the difference between playing politics—bowing to cancel cultureand the truth."

Some critics fixated on his invoking "cancel culture," a phrase most often used by Republicans to protest what they consider excessive political correctness. But Mr. Cuomo seemed on target in ascribing the sudden jump by Mr. Schumer and Ms. Gillibrand onto the bum-rush bandwagon to "playing politics."  

They acted more than 48 hours after the latest allegation of outrageous behavior by Mr. Cuomo: a story in The Albany Times Union that a staffer had been summoned to the Governor's Mansion on a pretext, and then Mr. Cuomo allegedly approached her from behind, thrust his hand under her blouse and groped her. By the following day, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had moved from being on the fence about a resignation to persuading his Democratic conference to initiate an impeachment process.

An AOC Double Bank-Shot?

And so a more-logical explanation for New York's two Senators finally deciding the day after that to demand the Governor's resignation was that a political force of nearly as much consequence as Mr. Cuomo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that morning had called for him to leave.

Mr. Schumer, despite his new stature as Senate Majority Leader, which was enhanced when he helped craft the virus-relief package that got unanimous support from fellow Democrats, still seems nervous about a possible re-election challenge next year from the second-term Congresswoman. And if seconding her emotion was his version of a me-too moment, it also had a liberating effect on Ms. Gillibrand, who has been gun-shy about demanding Democratic departures since her leading the charge to drive out Minnesota Sen. Al Franken three years ago created a delayed backlash that made her run for President briefer than Bill de Blasio's.

But any concern that Mr. Cuomo was caught beneath a political stampede rather than a loss of public confidence in his leadershipa perception that got some confirmation from a Siena College poll released March 15 showing that 50 percent of those surveyed didn't want him to quitwas overwhelmed by another bit of political wheedling that came out over that weekend.

That was when the Washington Post reported that Larry Schwartz, a longtime Cuomo hatchetman who is currently the state's vaccine czar, had been making calls to some Democratic county officials to ask whether they still supported the Governor. One of those officials didn't view the question as chit-chat from a man who has no medical degree but can operate with the worst of them in Albany, and contacted the State Attorney General's Public Integrity Unit as a prelude to filing an ethics complaint.

Mr. Schwartz told the paper that he made the calls on his own as a longtime friend of the Governor and it was an innocent question. He claimed his conversations with those officials were "cordial, respectful and friendly" and contained no hint that their answers might determine whether their counties continued getting a fair share of the coronavirus vaccine.

He subsequently told The New York Post, "At no time has politics ever entered into the discussion or decision-making regarding vaccines."

Doesn't Pass Smell Test

To believe those claims, you would have to be ignorant of the way that Mr. Schwartz and the Governor have done business for more than a decade, earning both reputations free of adjectives like "cordial, respectful and friendly." 

Mr. Schwartz's ties to the Cuomo family began with the late Mario Cuomo, whose unsuccessful 1994 run for a fourth term as Governor he assisted as Deputy Campaign Manager. He first served as Secretary to the Governor for David Paterson, although one action he took in the last month of that administration raised questions about whether he was angling for the same job with Andrew Cuomo, who had been elected Governor and was about to take office.

Mr. Paterson, soon after succeeding Eliot Spitzer, who resigned 15 months into his term in March 2008 because of a hooker scandal, had the state take over the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation. At the time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was ready to shut it down because it was losing money after years of bad management combined with a surcharge on winning bets that drove away many gamblers who could get full track odds elsewhere.

Continued red ink forced OTB into Federal Bankruptcy Court and led to a deal in the fall of 2010 with its two unions that would have cut 700 jobs but kept 400 employees on the payroll, using an early-retirement incentive. Mr. Paterson had given Mr. Schwartz responsibility for overseeing OTB and getting the deal approved by the State Legislature.

Upstate  and suburban Republican Senators, however, saw this as an opportunity to arrange infusions of cash to six other regional OTBs, and when Mr. Paterson refused to expand the deal, opposed its passage. Mr. Schwartz scheduled a vote on the bill for Dec. 7, a day when three New York City Democrats were away from Albany, with one of them in Japan, and the measure was narrowly defeated, putting NYC OTB out of business.

Serving Two Masters?

The following week, District Council 37 held a lunchtime protest outside the Bay Ridge office of State Sen. Marty Golden, one of two city-based Senators who voted against the OTB bailout. After speaking briefly to the union members about what he would try to do to salvage the situation, Mr. Golden beckoned a reporter into his office and asked a question: why were the demonstrators blaming him when it was Mr. Schwartz who held the vote on a day when Democrats were three Senators short and the next Bankruptcy Court hearing was three weeks away?

He had a point: one of the cardinal rules of politics is to make sure you have the votes in hand before scheduling anything. One Albany official had questioned why Mr. Paterson made Mr. Schwartz his point person in discussions with the Senate on the bill, saying, "They have no respect for him in the Legislature on either side of the aisle." But that wasn't because he didn't know how to count.

Mr. Paterson clearly wanted NYC OTB to survive. He appreciated DC 37's past support and, while he disagreed with his father on some things, he had inherited Basil Paterson's affinity for working people. The elder Paterson was a former State Senator who served as Ed Koch's Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations. After four years as Gov. Hugh Carey's Secretary of State, a job in which he succeeded Mario Cuomo, who had become Lieutenant Governor, Basil returned to a law practice in which he represented a number of prominent unions, from Transport Workers Union Local 100 to Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union.

But Andrew Cuomo, despite the labor support that was crucial to his father's election as Governor in 1982, wasn't particularly sympathetic to unions and had declined their support during his 2010 campaign. And so the most-logical theory about Mr. Schwartz's bad timing was that the Governor-elect had indicated to him that if NYC OTB couldn't become profitable even after the labor concessions, he didn't want to be saddled with the headache of pulling the plug.

So OTB was scratched. The new Governor opted to install Steve Cohen, his top aide when he was Attorney General, as Secretary, but retained Mr. Schwartz as a Special Adviser who helped secure the votes for the Same-Sex Marriage bill Mr. Cuomo enacted six months into his term. When Mr. Cohen left a couple of weeks later and was replaced by Mr. Schwartz, a Newsday columnist with extended service in Albany described the switch as going from "Bad Cop to Worse Cop." 

Governor's Fixer

Any thought that this was a cynical assessment was banished before the Governor's first term was over. His first attempt to enact a Tier 6 pension plan even as he was already gouging state workers to accept concessionary contracts by threatening to lay off 9,800 workers if they and their unions didn't fall into line got no traction in the Legislature when he first proposed it in May 2011.

But the following year, with Mr. Schwartz suspected of being the driving force behind the push, legislators were persuaded to approve it in return for the Governor reneging on a campaign promise to appoint an independent districting commission, allowing them to keep drawing their own district lines.

Then in March 2014, Mr. Cuomo shut down nine months ahead of schedule the Moreland Commission he had created to investigate possible corruption in state government. He had said at the time he set it up that the panel could investigate anything and anyone, including himself. He hadn't really meant it, though. 

Even before U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara launched an investigation while subpoenaing the commission's records, The New York Times reported that Mr. Schwartz and Cuomo Counsel Mylan Denerstein would call commission officials to object to where they were looking. Their questions, according to the article, ran the gamut from "How can you issue a subpoena like this?" to "These people shouldn't be on it."

Mr. Cuomo during his first year as Governor declared during a radio interview, "I am the government," in explaining how broad his authority was. He topped that for sheer brass when he parried questions about the early shutdown of the panel by saying, "It's my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it."

That July, a Times follow-up story reported that Mr. Schwartz had ordered the commission to withdraw two subpoenas it had issued. One had been sent to the Committee to Save New York, a group of business interests that had spent roughly $20 million promoting the Governor's agenda. The other was for an ad-placement firm that worked on his 2010 campaign, whose name, Buying Time, has added resonance in light of his current efforts to stay in office.

Eliminate the Negative

That October, Capital New York reported that the Cuomo administration had delayed the release of a Federal study on fracking until it could edit out some of the more-damning conclusions. The changes included, the story said, "some of the authors' descriptions of environmental and health risks associated with fracking [that] were played down or removed."

Zephyr Teachout, who a month earlier made a surprisingly strong showing against the Governor in the Democratic primary, responded to the report by saying, "It's classic Andrew Cuomo: interference before science. It's an almost obsessive desire to control outcomes."

The controversy evaporated once the Governor, somewhat surprisingly, took a position against allowing fracking, which hurt him upstate in particular because it had been seen as a potential boon to the economy there. But Ms. Teachout's words seem prophetic now as the Federal Government probes his administration's handling of the nursing-home crisis, including the deletion last June of a passage in a state Health Department report that placed the death toll for nursing-home residents close to 3,000 above the count his administration continued to use until a damning report by the State Attorney General's Office two months ago.

Mr. Schwartz left his job as Secretary to the Governor early in Mr. Cuomo's second term, but didn't exactly sever his ties. In September 2018, shortly before the Democratic primary and at a time that a Siena poll showed the Governor with a 41-point lead over challenger Cynthia Nixon, the State Democratic Committee sent a flyer to 7,000 Orthodox Jewish households accusing the actress, who was raising her children as Jews, of anti-Semitism.

When the Cuomo campaign was asked about it, the response was that the only official who had looked at the mailer was Mr. Schwartz, and he hadn't examined the bottom part of it, which was where Ms. Nixon was slimed. This explanation was plausible only if you believed he had been surprised by the three Democratic absences on the day of the OTB-bailout vote eight years earlier.

An Overtime Smear

But  the Governor didn't hold this apparent oversight against him: soon after that, in his role as a Cuomo appointee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, Mr. Schwartz raised a commotion by taking allegations about overtime abuses by a handful of Long Island Rail Road workers and turning them into a broadside against transit workers in general. He argued that some people should be going to jail as if thievery was what accounted for high overtime costs at New York City Transit as well.

Mr. Cuomo, who prior to that had cultivated a comfortable relationship with TWU Local 100 once he realized he was going to need labor support to keep winning elections by large margins, did nothing to bring clarity to the situation. It created a rift with Local 100 that would grow when he decided last year to withdraw $145 million in funding earmarked for the MTA to deal with other budget problems. That led management to threaten to withhold two raises it had negotiated 15 months ago until President Biden's relief package plugged major holes in the budgets of both the state and the MTA.

The shifting of the money away from the MTA was one more demonstration of Mr. Cuomo's willingness to manipulate the levers of government to what he perceives as his advantage. It is why, notwithstanding Mr. Schwartz's claim that he reached out to county officials to gauge their loyalty on his own, it's hard to imagine he didn't run the idea past the Governor first.

The problem with relying on people like Mr. Schwartz and his successor, Melissa DeRosa, for counsel in times of trouble is that there's no indication that his trust in them extends to the point of them saying no when he needs to hear it.

That was underscored March 16 when The Times reported that last December, after Lindsey Boylan first accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment in a series of tweets, aides to Mr. Cuomo tried to persuade former staffers to sign a letter questioning her credibility and detailing complaints allegedly made by co-workers about her behavior while working for him.

Cuomo Helped Draft It

The Times quoted one person involved in the campaign as saying that the Governor had a hand in drafting the letter, which at least two people who received it declined to sign. The letter was never released, but some of the details of alleged misconduct by Ms. Boylan were leaked to media outlets in an effort to discredit her. 

They had the effect of putting a halt to media reporting on the dispute until she published an article in Medium last month that detailed her encounters with Mr. Cuomo, which ranged from unwelcome comments by him and other aides about her looks and how much she resembled a woman he once dated, to his allegedly telling her aboard a flight, "Let's play strip poker" and later allegedly blocking her from leaving his office and then kissing her without her consent.

It's clear why he would have wanted to damage her credibility. What's harder to figure is why he has so often created problems for himself with conduct that would embarrass anyone old enough to vote.

When two longtime aides, Joe Percoco and Todd Howe, were indicted in September 2018 in the Buffalo Billion scandal, the shock came not from the bribery charges against them but juvenile conversations they had that were captured on tape by the U.S. Attorney's Office. They repeatedly referred to "boxes of ziti," a code phrase for money that figured prominently in an episode of "The Sopranos," and called each other "Herb," which had its origins in a humbler piece of pop culture: a Burger King commercial from the 1980s about a nerdy guy who is going to finally become cool by trying a Whopper.

A Cult of Immaturity

It was hard at the time to imagine two men who had passed the age of 40 but behaved so immaturely when they thought no one could hear them being trusted by the Governor to do anything more responsible than fetching coffee. Yet each layer of the onion peeled back on Mr. Cuomo's tenure suggests elements of arrested development: a bully who seems incapable of relating to women his own age and so hits on younger ones; who repeatedly gets jammed up and then makes things worse in an effort to dodge responsibility.

He will hold out for as long as he can, which may not extend beyond the point when the special counsels appointed by Attorney General Letitia James complete their probe and issue their findings. But enough that is unrefuted is already out in the public square that it's hard to imagine Mr. Cuomo emerging with enough credibility to do more, if he's really lucky, than finish his term.     


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