Ending the "Culture of Fear" in the Empire State

The wheels of karmic justice may spin slowly, but at the moment it seems as if they are turning, inexorably, towards a transformation in New York.

“Lawmakers still fear retribution for speaking out against the governor, who suggested at a press conference on Saturday that if allegations against him get publicly aired, then perhaps the same should be true for them.” That one sentence from David Friedlander’s story in New York magazine about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s effort to hold onto power in the wake of credible allegations of sexual harassment against him, speaks volumes about the toxic status quo in Albany. What His Yuckiness seems to be saying is, “You know and I know that I’m not the only government official guilty of abusing staff, and I’m warning you now: I’ve got dirt on you too.”

If you think that’s idle speculation, remember that after former Cuomo aide Lindsay Boylan first went public with her allegations in December, unflattering details from her personnel file somehow ended up in the hands of the Associated Press. And two days later, Rich Azzopardi, who is a senior adviser and spokesperson for Cuomo, called former Cuomo aide Ana Liss to ask, “I have kind of an awkward question to ask you, has Lindsey Boylan reached out to you, have you spoken to her?” She says she said no and they hung up. Recall that Liss didn’t make her allegations public about the “toxic, retaliatory, hostile” workplace environment around Cuomo until last weekend, when the Wall Street Journal broke its story on her experience. For some reason, Azzopardi knew to call Liss last December to make sure she wasn’t talking out of school. (Azzopardi is himself an intimidating presence in Albany; after three newly elected woman legislators criticized Cuomo for holding a $25,000-a-head fundraiser during the height of budget negotiations in March 2019, he walked through the Capitol press office calling them “fucking idiots” on the record.)

 “There is still just such a culture of fear around here,” one member of the state Assembly who favors Cuomo’s impeachment told Friedlander. “People care about their budget items and their pet projects, and nobody knows what happens when you cross Cuomo.” So it’s not surprising that many Albany lawmakers are hedging about Cuomo’s future (one third of the state senate and one-fifth of the state assembly have called on him to resign). It’s been a decade since he was first elected governor, and his, what shall we call it, governing style (?) has permeated Albany. I’ve lived in New York my whole life, and in the last few years I’ve gotten more involved in local political organizing. Since the 2016 election, I’ve had the opportunity to interact closely the state senators and assembly members representing different parts of the 16th Congressional district, including Albany veteran senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins (now Majority Leader, who on Sunday boldly called on Cuomo to resign), Shelley Mayer, Gustavo Rivera, Jeff Klein (the Cuomo ally who worked with senate Republicans to keep them in power, who we deposed in 2018), and Alessandra Biaggi (who we helped in that victory).

Watching and listening to them as they would come to our local NYCD16-Indivisible meetings to update us on their work in Albany, it became painfully clear how much Cuomo’s intimidating ways shaped their thinking and behavior. Like the Eye of Sauron surveying Mordor, Cuomo’s glare – along with the tremendous power centered in his control of the state budget and his huge campaign warchest – has trained most Albany legislators to keep their heads down if they want to get anything done. Even his well-known practice of waiting until the end of the legislative session to sign relatively innocuous bills is calculated to maximize his leverage.

It’s an unhealthy way to run a nominal democracy, though I will note that New York’s nickname as “The Empire State” may be more apt. Because rule by fear and intimidation is one good way to run an empire. And if we want the empire gone, we’re going to need more than the removal of one emperor—we’re going to also need to unwind how much power is centered in the governor’s office. (Legislation proposed by Senators Biaggi, Rivera, James Skoufis and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried would go a long way to restoring the legislature’s co-equal role in that process.) Painfully, even though it is more than evident that Cuomo’s leadership style is out of date, and in violation of state mandates regarding safe workplaces, his power over the state’s budget, which has to be negotiated in the next few weeks, is also leading many elected officials to murmur about needing to focus on doing the state’s business with a now-exposed abuser.

It may be more than poetic justice then that the two people leading the charge to hold Cuomo accountable are Black women, Attorney General Tish James and Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Both are canny survivors of a system that has never viewed them as equals. And both have long memories. I don’t think Stewart-Cousins has forgotten that Cuomo initially dismissed her as another New York City big government liberal back in 2017. “You look at me, Mr. Governor, but you don’t see me,” she told him in a private meeting when she was asking for his help retaking control of the state senate from Republicans and the Jeff Klein claque of renegade Democrats. He had suggested that Klein had a better understanding of the suburbs, which led to her retort. “You see my black skin and a woman, but you don’t realize I am a suburban legislator.” (Nor did Cuomo personally speak up in her defense after one of his top donors, hedge fund billionaire Daniel Loeb, said that she was worse for minorities than a KKK member.)

Long memory seems to be at work as well in the Attorney General’s office. Tish James has named Joon Kim, a former acting US attorney for the Southern District of New York, to lead the investigation of Cuomo. This does not appear to be a random choice. Kim was chief counsel to then US attorney Preet Bharara when they began investigating Cuomo’s 2014 decision to disband the Moreland Commission, which had been set up to root out state corruption. And Kim was also involved in the prosecution of Joseph Percoco, a former top Cuomo aide and close friend who was convicted of federal corruption charges in 2018. So the wheels of karmic justice may spin slowly, but at the moment it seems as if they are turning, inexorably, towards a transformation in New York. Now is not a time to sit on your hands—if you want this change to happen, let your legislators know!

-Bonus link: I’d forgotten about the role President Barack Obama played in paving the way for Cuomo to attain the governor’s office a decade ago, by having his top aides urge then-Governor David Paterson, struggling in the polls in 2009, to not run for re-election, and going out of his way to express support for Cuomo, who was then attorney general. Thanks, Obama!

Odds and Ends

-As the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion omnibus package, approaches final adoption in Congress this week, it’s worth pausing and considering just how huge a deal it is. The boost to the child tax credit is going to put thousands of dollars into the pockets of most American families, on top of $1400 one-time relief checks and the extension of supplemental unemployment payments of $300 per week through Labor Day. There’s $350 billion for state and municipal governments (click here if you want to see how much is allocated to your town and county); $48 billion for Covid testing; $39 billion for child care programs; $30 billion to transit agencies; $29 billion in grants for the restaurant industry; $25 billion in emergency rental assistance; nearly $20 billion to pay for emergency financial aid to college students in distress; $7 billion in new PPP grants for nonprofits; $200 million to help public libraries re-open; there’s an extension of SNAP benefits to cover hungry children missing school meals; there’s debt relief for Black farmers; and an $86 billion bailout of failing pension plans covering nearly 11 million workers and retirees. Does it provide enough rent relief? No. Does it raise the minimum wage to a living wage? No. But one hopes that Democrats of all stripes will recognize what a sea-change this all represents; in 2009 the Obama team was afraid to ask for even a trillion in emergency stimulus spending. The politics of government spending have shifted substantially.

-Another shift underway is embodied by Biden’s decision to appoint two leading critics of Big Tech and monopoly power to key positions in his administration: Tim Wu (the brains behind the concept of “net neutrality”) and Lina Khan (author of a critical treatise reclaiming anti-trust for the age of Amazon). Wu will be a White House economic adviser, while Khan will be one of three commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission.

-The Lincoln Project took in more than $87 million in donations in support of its hard-edged anti-Trump ads, and as Danny Hakim, Maggie Astor and Jo Becker report for The New York Times, along with the righteous and unlikely anger of some veteran Republican consultants at their party’s flag-bearer was some very familiar and lucrative grifting. About a third of that, $27 million, went to a consulting firm run by one of the project’s founders, Reed Galen, from which he paid co-founders Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson. That foursome apparently were plotting to create and control a much bigger media company until last fall, when the project started to implode over serious allegations involving Weaver’s harassment of younger male colleagues. Two other vendors who were paid huge sums by the Lincoln Project were given seats on its three-member board. One of those was Ron Steslow, whose company Tusk Digital was paid more than $21 million by the Lincoln Project. (Tusk, Tusk, where have I heard that name before?) Jan Baran, a longtime Republican campaign finance lawyer, told the Times that it was “customary and customarily controversial” for campaign consultants to steer business to their own firms, but that, typically, candidates and PACs negotiate those fees down. What makes the Lincoln Project different, he said, is that “the consultants are their own client, so I’m guessing the negotiations wouldn’t have been as rigorous.” No kidding!

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-“The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Awful,” write Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev in a long essay for The Atlantic. All of their arguments and key examples should be familiar to Connector readers, including citing Alexis de Tocqueville on the art of association, noting how Facebook has the power to make itself less toxic to democracy but won’t change its defaults except during crisis; highlighting alternatives to Facebookification like Vermont’s Front Porch Forum and the vTaiwan model of public deliberation; and plugging efforts of activist-scholars like Ethan Zuckerman, Nathan Matias, Talia Stroud and Eli Pariser. It’s great to see all of these concepts and people getting more footing.

-Speaking of Front Porch Forum, they’re looking to hire a full-time director of product to lead their community division.

-End times: The only thing I could bear to read about the Harry, Meghan and Oprah show.

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