News Coverage on Executive Powers

Crain's New York

Cuomo: The boss

Jeremy SmerdDaniel Massey
Sunday, March 25, 2012

 

During a radio interview last fall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proclaimed, “I am the government.” He didn't mean to brag. But to those familiar with the inner workings of the Cuomo administration, his quip was simply a declaration of fact.

 

 

“He is so unbelievably involved in almost everything,” said an Albany insider of Mr. Cuomo. “On one level, it's very impressive because he's a machine in the way he works. But it's also completely paralyzing and debilitating because [agencies] can't go to the bathroom without him giving the go-ahead.”

Mr. Cuomo is not the first executive to involve himself in the minutiae of state operations. But in dozens of interviews, people inside or close to his administration portrayed an intense, micromanaging style that has kept his agencies almost perfectly in lockstep with his agenda. It has impressed longtime observers of Albany but also frustrated some state officials accustomed to more autonomy, sources said.

To carry out an agenda that includes making the state more welcoming to business, Mr. Cuomo depends on a handful of trusted advisers ensconced in the executive suite on the second floor of the Capitol. Beneath state agency heads Mr. Cuomo has installed deputies who act as direct lines of communication to his office. In many cases, the agency heads act more as operating, rather than executive, officers. On some Thursdays and Fridays, they travel the state making speeches that promote the governor's agenda.

“The attempt to control the message has been a hallmark of other governors—it's not unprecedented,” said Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz political-science professor. “But the discipline and focus on delivering the message and staying on the agenda, I think, are more coordinated and new in their manifestations.”

 'We're assumed to be wrong'

 

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg delegates authority and holds his commissioners accountable, the reverse is true in the Cuomo administration, said one agency head, who, like many of those interviewed, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

“Other than the people who surround the governor, everything we do is assumed to be wrong,” said the agency head. “That attitude is great for the short term—everybody's on message. But unless things loosen up, you're going to see staff at the agency level leave office before the first term is up.”

Sometimes agencies do stumble. Last September, the Department of Motor Vehicles announced that drivers could “self-certify” that their vision was adequate. Intended to save the state money, the plan was ridiculed as dangerous. Mr. Cuomo shelved it within 72 hours.

Yet such episodes have been rare, according to a senior administration official, who said the second floor doesn't interfere with 95% of what agencies do, but gets involved when policy issues come up.

Officials justify their approach by saying Mr. Cuomo was elected to turn around a government that had become a laughingstock. Backers say Mr. Cuomo's high approval rating and string of legislative victories—a no-growth budget, gay marriage, pension and tax reform—validate his methods.

“Judging from results, this governor is the most effective governor that we have seen in my lifetime,” said Dennis Mehiel, who recently resigned as Mr. Cuomo's vice chairman of the Empire State Development Corp. “He prioritizes. He focuses. He takes the trouble to understand the nuances. And in the end he's batting a thousand.”

Mr. Cuomo's grip could get tighter still. The governor's proposed budget would allow him to move money among agencies—a move that critics say would usurp the Legislature's authority to approve spending. The administration says it's needed to consolidate agency functions. This follows an attempt last year by Mr. Cuomo to win power for his newly founded Department of Financial Services to investigate crimes under the Martin Act, a signature tool of the attorney general's office. The effort was abandoned in the face of opposition organized by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

 Managing the message

 

Mr. Cuomo's desire to shape public perception sometimes means injecting his staff into otherwise mundane departmental actions.

A former chief engineer in the Transportation Department said the agency had to run press releases on highway-lane closures through the second floor. An administration spokesman said that order was specific to the floods caused by Tropical Storm Irene. “We wanted to announce them in a forceful and coordinated way,” the spokesman said.

Last fall, the Department of Financial Services bought three $2,000 tables at an insurance industry event where Commissioner Benjamin Lawsky was speaking. The agency expected to bring 30 employees, but a call came in from the governor's office, which was worried about the appearance of a conflict of interest. Mr. Lawsky ultimately brought just three staff members.

Yet another example came last month, when an angry pizzeria owner outside Albany complained to the media that the Department of Labor ordered him to reimburse employees $5,500 for not providing them with enough uniforms. After a scathing newspaper editorial questioned Mr. Cuomo's claim that New York is “open for business,” the administration swung into action.

Officials turned to Rachel Demarest Gold, a former Bronx prosecutor who worked for Mr. Cuomo in the attorney general's office and is now the Labor Department's special counsel.

Handpicked by the administration, she effectively calls the shots at the agency, which is nominally run by Paterson administration holdover Colleen Gardner, four sources said. Ms. Gold called the pizzeria owner, Christian King, who felt employers should be warned before being fined.

“She said, 'I can't agree more. Stop sending money,' ” said Mr. King, president of KNC Holdings, which owns businesses in the Albany area. “She said they're trying to change the culture over there.”

Mr. King, who had already made two of his three required payments, added: “She said they got killed with this in the media.”

The Labor Department might have been following the letter of the law, but as Steven Cohen, the governor's former secretary, put it, “I don't care if you've done stupid for 20 years. We don't do stupid.”

A Labor Department spokesman said the agency “has not reversed any decision or made any final determination” in the pizzeria case. He said Mr. King was contacted and an investigation is ongoing, but would not comment further on the conversation. Ms. Gardner was not available for an interview, he said.

As a result of the negative publicity, the second floor ordered that all Labor Department announcements of fines or settlements go through a higher-level review, a union official familiar with the department said. A senior administration official said the extra reviews are done within the department and are intended to bring order and accountability to the agency.

The union official had a different take. “They neutered the DOL,” the official said. “It's only a matter of time before cases get backed up.”

A workplace safety expert told Crain's that citations issued by the agency's bureau overseeing workplace safety and health for public employees statewide must first be reviewed by Mr. Cuomo's top advisers. A department spokesman denied that.

A senior Cuomo administration official said enforcement remains a cornerstone of the Labor Department. “We are a state that is trying to show we're not implementing regulations in a knee-jerk fashion,” the official said.

Business leaders have been pleased with Mr. Cuomo's approach. “We have a reputation for being a state with a lot of hoops, a lot of red tape,” said Heather Briccetti, president of the Business Council of New York State. “This is a culture change.”

 A top-down approach

 

In a role reversal, it's now regulators who must jump through hoops. Some bristle at needing approval from the second floor to pursue their ideas because, with the governor focused on his own agenda, their suggestions are often ignored or brushed aside.”To some extent, this is a bandwidth issue,” said David Gahl, deputy director of Environmental Advocates and a longtime Albany observer. “In a centralized decision-making structure, there's only so much that can rise to the level of executive attention. Some things get elevated and some things don't.”

When crisis hits, that bandwidth is tested even further. During last year's flooding upstate, some agency heads were hamstrung because Cuomo confidants with the power to make decisions were preoccupied with the disaster response.

But the administration considers its response to the tropical storm a highlight of its first year, and the public seemed to agree, boosting Mr. Cuomo's approval rating to 72% a month later. Ms. Briccetti marveled at how quickly a collapsed road and bridge near her home were repaired. When she called with a question, a commissioner phoned her back. “We're getting that responsiveness because it's coming from the top,” she said.

But some elected officials complain that agency heads are not empowered. Despite misgivings, members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus signed on to Mr. Cuomo's deal last year to extend rent regulations because the governor promised he would strengthen tenant protections administratively. When the changes were slow in coming, state Housing Commissioner Darryl Towns—who was appointed despite his lack of housing expertise—confessed to housing advocates and elected officials last fall that he was not authorized to handle the issue.

“My response is, 'What the hell are you here for?' ” one lawmaker said.

 Staff departures

 

The governor has little incentive to change if he continues to enjoy victories and high ratings. But the defections that one agency head predicted may be materializing. The Labor Department has lost five top administrators, including a leading health and safety official. Others, such as a former top employee of an elected official and a well-known lobbyist, are in talks about working for Mr. Cuomo but are hesitant because of concerns that they won't have autonomy.

“You can't run a government like New York and not have good, talented people around you,” the insider said. “That's where micromanagement is going to come back to bite him.”

 

 

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