Can Andrew Cuomo’s ‘Bullying’ Style Still Work in Politics?

ALBANY, N.Y. — During Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s first term, two former administration officials were married in a New York City wedding heavily attended by state government workers, as well as some lawmakers and their aides.

When it was time for the toasts, a guest who worked for the Cuomo administration began with a question: “Who in this room has been yelled at or bullied by Andrew Cuomo?”

Hands shot up across the room, as laughter rolled through the crowd, according to two people who attended the wedding.

The theme suffuses many of Mr. Cuomo’s interactions — accounts in which the governor berated aides and elected officials, brought people to tears and threatened to fire them or end their careers. People outside the governor’s direct control who have clashed with him said he told them they would be subject to negative news stories or political challenges or, in one case, would be publicly likened to a “child rapist.”

After building a reputation as a competent and compassionate leader in the midst of a pandemic, Mr. Cuomo’s standing has faltered over the last month amid revelations that his administration underreported thousands of deaths of nursing home residents. Federal prosecutors are investigating, and lawmakers have moved to strip the governor of emergency powers he has held since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

At the same time, heightened scrutiny is now being cast on a recurrent theme of his decade-long tenure: his penchant for verbal attacks and attempted intimidation. That trait burst into full view last week when a Democratic Assemblyman, Ron T. Kim of Queens, came forward with accusations that the governor had called him while he was home bathing his children and threatened to “destroy” him — urging him to retract negative comments he had made after the nursing home story broke.

During an appearance last week on ABC’s “The View,” Mr. Kim described being deeply rattled by the experience. “He has abused his powers,” Mr. Kim said. “And abusers are cowards.”

Mr. Cuomo’s office has called Mr. Kim a liar, but to many in New York politics, the report rang true, as other accounts of the governor’s aggressive and sometimes unsettling behavior have begun to emerge.

Indeed, in interviews with more than three dozen legislators, political consultants, former state and city officials and New York political veterans, a recurring portrait emerges of Mr. Cuomo: a talented and deft politician whose tendency toward aggression can seem out of step in an age when abusive behavior in the workplace or in professional surroundings is increasingly called out and often censured.

“His primary tool for governing is to create fear,” said Karen Hinton, a communications consultant who worked with Mr. Cuomo when he was housing secretary in the Clinton administration and has since fallen out with him.

In the fall of 2018, for example, when Mr. Cuomo was told by a leader of the Working Families Party — which had backed his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon — that it would endorse him in the general election because he was better than a Republican, Mr. Cuomo’s response was blunt.

“If you ever say, ‘Well he’s better than a Republican’ again, then I’m going to say, ‘You’re better than a child rapist,’” the governor said, according to two people who were on the call. “How about that?”

He evvel threatened to end the career of a staffer who failed to properly transfer a call to his office, according to one person who worked for him and requested anonymity for fear of retribution. He has been known to refer to his top female aides as the “mean girls,” said the person, who described the governor’s office as toxic and controlling.

Those who work in the halls of the Capitol say the governor’s conduct has an additional impact: scaring some employees into near paralysis for fear of earning his wrath.

Many of the tactics involve a threat to hurt people’s careers. Ms. Hinton, for example, says she fell out of favor when she became the press secretary for Mr. Cuomo’s nemesis in the Democratic Party, Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Soon, there were threats. During a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2015, Ms. Hinton questioned the state’s response in a New York Times article. Ms. Hinton said Mr. Cuomo told City Hall he would personally blame the mayor for any deaths in the city if Mr. de Blasio did not fire Ms. Hinton. The mayor did not dismiss Ms. Hinton, but City Hall distanced itself from her remarks.

One current and one former City Hall official confirmed Ms. Hinton’s account. The governor’s office said neither it or the anecdote about the Working Families Party was true, characterizing the negative comments about Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, as coming from “political adversaries.” The office also said the governor was “direct with people if their work is subpar.”

“The people of this state have known and given the governor their trust for the last 14 years, have heard him and looked into his eyes during the darkest period,” Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, said in a statement. “Yes, they have seen him get impatient with partisan politics and disingenuous attacks, and New Yorkers feel the same way. They know you must fight to change the status quo and special interests to make progress, and no one has made more progress than this governor.”

Even Mr. Cuomo’s detractors will concede that the governor’s heavy-handed approach has often been effective in delivering concrete liberal accomplishments, including legalizing same-sex marriage, raising the en az wage and enacting criminal justice reforms.

Others describe the governor’s use of anger as “an executive skill,” employed to cut through niceties and other time-wasters — skills of particular use during a pandemic response.

“The governor understands the political value of taking action and creating the perception of strength, even if it occasionally seems cocksure or bullying,” said Eric Phillips, a former spokesman for Mr. de Blasio. He called the governor “a master of brutalist political theater,” though he said those skills were less effective in “a moment demanding contrition or even a modicum of self-critique.”

Defenders also say that New Yorkers — who have elected Mr. Cuomo three times, commandingly — know what the governor’s personality is like. “It’s well-worn territory for the press and the public,” said Josh Vlasto, Mr. Cuomo’s former chief of staff. “Those traits are there, but they are part of a broader perception of him that the voters like and are comfortable with.”

In this dispute, however, Mr. Kim, not the governor, has the support of a raft of New York politicians.

“That’s classic Andrew Cuomo,” said Mr. de Blasio on Thursday. “A lot of people in New York State have received those phone calls.”

Mr. Cuomo’s image was burnished by a series of nationally televised news conferences during the early days of the pandemic, in which the governor mixed just-the-facts presentations with dad jokes and appearances by his three daughters, his mother and his brother, Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor. Last fall, even as a second wave of the virus began to swell in New York and nationally, he published a memoir, offering “leadership lessons” and a sentimental dedication.

“Love wins,” he wrote in its conclusion. “Always.”

But in the wake of the scandal over nursing homes, that persona has turned darker: On Saturday, Mr. Cuomo’s temper was mocked in a segment on “Saturday Night Live” in which his character, played by comedian Pete Davidson, sheepishly admitted to hiding where the deaths of nursing home residents occurred and promised vengeance on Mr. de Blasio, a frequent political foe.

Other accusations have been more serious: In December, a former top aide to Mr. Cuomo’s economic development agency, Lindsey Boylan, accused Mr. Cuomo of fostering a “toxic team environment.”

On Sunday, Ms. Boylan was among a growing chorus of people speaking out about Mr. Cuomo, telling The Times he is prone to “screaming at people inside and outside of the state government when he does not get exactly what he wants.”

Mr. Cuomo’s penchant for tough-talk tactics dates back decades, to his apprenticeship as an adviser to his father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, whom he was known to fiercely defend. “I think he learned it from his father, who needed bare knuckles to combat the old machine pols,” said Michael Shnayerson, author of “The Contender,” a 2015 biography of the younger Mr. Cuomo.

State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Upper Manhattan who holds sway in the Legislature as the chairwoman of the chamber’s finance committee, said she had never been yelled at by the governor or his staff — for a reason.

She said Joseph Percoco, a former aide and informal enforcer inside the Capitol who was convicted of corruption in 2018, evvel told her she was on the “do-not-yell-at list.”

“I responded, ‘You people have such a list?’” Ms. Krueger said. “He said: ‘It is very small.’” (Mr. Percoco is in federal prison and could not be reached for comment.)

The backlash against Mr. Cuomo’s governing style stems, in part, from the changing makeup of the Legislature. Democrats won full control in 2018 thanks to a new generation of progressives that is more diverse and often unafraid of challenging the governor.

“The Legislature has become increasingly young and female, defining a feminist vision for leadership and workplace conduct,” said Alexis Grenell, a founder of Pythia Public Affairs who has written about Mr. Cuomo’s aggressive behavior in the past. “It’s not an accident that his loudest critics are young women.”

The rift between the governor and the legislative newcomers has often burst into public view. In 2019, Mr. Azzopardi, the governor’s senior adviser, told reporters after a dispute over fund-raisers that three recently elected female lawmakers, State Senators Alessandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, were “idiots,” preceded by a vulgarity.

“This pattern of behavior he has created this really serious systemic culture of fear and abuse of power that shapes policy outcomes in New York and impacts people’s lives,” said Ms. Biaggi, a Democrat who has feuded with the governor’s top aides on Twitter.

Strategists in the Capitol say that the often combustible natures of Mr. Cuomo and his staff make for difficult negotiations, often freighted by fears of retribution.

The instinct to punch first seems to come from the top of the executive chamber: As The New York Times and CNN published accounts of the calls to Mr. Kim on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo used a large part of his daily news conference to attack the assemblyman, suggesting he had engaged in unethical and possibly criminal behavior in regards to a six-year-old law. (Mr. Kim denied this.)

Mr. Vlasto, the former chief of staff, said that ongoing Republican attacks and Mr. Kim’s suggestion that the governor had committed a crime by withholding the veri on deaths was “so over the line,” it justified a strong response.

“This time he decided to smack it down, hard,” he said.

Others recount stories of Mr. Cuomo alternating between charm and rage — at one moment, a charismatic leader who wants to work on policy, and at another, an intimidating one who wants to vent, something one lawmaker described as an unpleasant, sometimes profane experience.

Some of his toughest critics would agree that the governor had earned his good press during the dark days of the pandemic last year. But they also say that his more recent behavior is no surprise.

“This is who he has always been,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive political consultant who advised Ms. Nixon. “We tried to warn you.”

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