Republicans Routed from Legislature, but Keep One Last Stronghold: Governor Cuomo’s Office

“Are you going to hire every single able-bodied Republican political operative?” Cuomo’s senior staff filled with top Republicans, to Democrats’ frustration

Akash Mehta   ·   November 25, 2020
Robert Mujica, right, was Senate Republicans' top aide before Governor Cuomo hired him as the state budget director | Don Pollard / Governor's Office

When Democrats announced this week that they had achieved a Senate supermajority in addition to winning every statewide elected office and preserving their Assembly supermajority, New York Republicans seemed consigned to marginality.

But Republicans hold powerful positions in one remaining area of state government: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office.

Many of Cuomo’s most senior advisors previously worked as top aides to the Senate Republican Majority Conference. As a result, Democratic legislators negotiating policy with the governor now find themselves dealing with the same staffers who had once blocked their agenda in the Senate.

“Governor Cuomo would always say, ‘Hey, I can’t really go that far, because there’s a Republican majority,’” said Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera, discussing the seven years Cuomo governed alongside a Republican-controlled Senate.

“Well, the folks who were part of the Republican majority and would ‘never go that far’ are exactly the same people who are now negotiating with us as a majority.”

Like other Democrats New York Focus interviewed for this article, Rivera pointed in particular to the influence of three former Senate Republican top aides now in Cuomo’s inner circle: Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director; Kelly Cummings, his director of state operations; and Elizabeth Garvey, his special counsel and senior advisor.

“These are incredibly smart, capable people,” Rivera said. “But they are incredibly influential in what is supposed to be a Democratic administration, when the job they had before was to actually stop Democratic policy from becoming a reality. That’s what they did for their entire professional careers. The idea that they’d go to work for a quote-unquote ‘Democratic’ governor? That is insanity!”

Elizabeth Garvey worked for over a decade as counsel to the Senate Republican conference. The governor hired her last year as special counsel and tasked her with overseeing a raft of negotiations with the legislature. Two sources familiar with policy negotiations said that Garvey’s appointment had noticeably moved the executive branch’s positions in negotiations to the right.

Garvey replaced Cuomo’s previous chief counsel, Alphonso David. “Alphonso was not as left as we might have wanted,” said a Democratic staffer familiar with negotiations on health policy, “but he was a regular Democrat. What does it mean that he was replaced with a Republican? Well, it does seem like having more Republicans in those positions makes them less friendly to progressive bills, and you definitely find them less communicative.”

A Democratic legislator who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Garvey and Mujica’s conservative orientations have slowed negotiations on marijuana legalization.

“It’s very clear that the governor has had different staff try to influence him in different directions,” the legislator said, discussing the possibility of legalizing marijuana in the upcoming session. “While I’d still say publicly I’m optimistic, I don’t see myself having an insider backing me up the way I did when Alphonso David was the lead counsel and policy person for the governor.”

“Alphonso clearly wanted to legalize marijuana,” they said. “We would get closer and closer to a three-way deal. Mujica clearly didn’t want it and ultimately was successful in killing it, in the very last days or weeks of negotiations each time. And when Alphonso left and Beth Garvey took over, it was very clear that her job was to not let this go anywhere.”

Less senior staff can also play an important role. Megan Baldwin, Cuomo’s assistant secretary for health who formerly worked as an analyst for the Republican Senate Finance Committee, was influential in negotiations over criminal justice reform, the legislator said, and “far more conservative than we expected to see from the governor’s shop on all of the criminal justice reform we were pushing very hard in 2019.”

Baldwin left the executive chamber in October. Alison Birzon, the governor’s assistant counsel who had worked as the policy director of the Republican Senate health committee for seven years, filled her role in health negotiations. “He replaced one Senate Republican staffer with another Senate Republican staffer,” the staffer said. “The more people like this that get hired in the health area, the less friendly they become to progressives.”

Robert Mujica “manages the state finances almost single-handedly,” Cuomo wrote in his recent book on handling the coronavirus pandemic, American Crisis. Mujica’s authority grew after the coronavirus hit, he said.

“I trust his judgment and it took a major burden off my shoulders,” Cuomo wrote of the former Republican staffer's role in shaping the state budget while the governor focused on responding to the pandemic. The budget ended up giving Mujica the unilateral authority to make rolling cuts throughout the year.

Mujica was previously the top Senate Republican aide, serving as chief of staff to two majority leaders, John Flanagan and Dean Skelos, and working for the Republican conference for nearly twenty years. “Mujica had been for years the top staffer, budget guy and political operative for the Senate Republicans,” said the Democratic legislator. “So you get a three in one with Rob.”

In the Republican-controlled Senate, progressive budget advocate and former chief policy advisor to the Democratic Senate conference Michael Kink said, “the marching orders were ‘cut benefits for poor people and communities of color, and shift a lot of money to big corporations and tax cuts for the rich.’ When Rob Mujica sits down to work on a budget, that’s his mindset. And the voters rejected it wholeheartedly this election.”

Mujica was instrumental in the 2009 Senate coup that restored Republican control of the chamber. “The meetings to plot the coup were at a bar directly across the street from the Governor’s Mansion—and at Rob Mujica’s apartment,” the legislator said. “Mujica was in on every discussion. And everyone knew that. When the governor hired Mujica, he knew Mujica had designed a coup and pulled it off.”

Three years later, Mujica again helped the Republicans keep control of the chamber by joining a coalition with the Independent Democratic Conference or IDC, a group of breakaway Democrats. Mujica's role, Politico reported, was to help arrange the coalition in conversations with Governor Cuomo.

Kelly Cummings joined the Cuomo administration as director of state operations after working as the Senate Republicans’ communications director for six years. She was succeeded in that role by Scott Reif, who went on to criticize Cuomo for trying to “create one-man, one-party rule and implement his radical, leftist agenda.” Reif joined the Cuomo administration earlier this year.

In addition to his Republican hires, Cuomo has stocked his staff with former IDC aides, including his deputy secretary for legislative affairs, Dana Carotenuto Rico, formerly the IDC’s chief of staff; and spokesman Rich Azzopardi, who was the IDC’s communications director.

“This is stupid,” Azzopardi told New York Focus in a statement. “The governor sets the policy and he recruits the most qualified people to implement it. ‎We've hired from the Assembly, from the Senate Democrats, from organized labor, from the Obama administration, and from the private sector. Take a look at our record—anyone saying we have become a less progressive administration over the years is disingenuous, and anyone blindly taking them at their word is naive.”

In a follow-up phone call, Azzopardi declined to make other executive staff mentioned in this article available for comment and argued against interrogating staffers’ employment histories.

"You look at somebody's resume and you see into their soul—that's what you're saying. That we’re not pure enough,” Azzoppardi said. "You really want government to be just a progressive purity test? Is that really what you think the best way to run things is?”

Azzopardi emphasized that staffers’ role is not to set policy but to implement it. “Do you think Andrew Cuomo's gonna do anything Andrew Cuomo doesn't wanna do?” he asked. “Yeah, the answer's no.”

“The governor sets the agenda,” Rivera said. “And the people that carry out that agenda are the folks who take the ball down the last 10 or 15 yards. It matters who those people they are.”

Rivera recalled his reaction when he heard that Cuomo had hired Cummings. 

“Are you serious, dude? Are you going to hire every single able-bodied Republican political operative?”

Correction: an earlier version of this article conflated Robert Mujica's roles in the 2009 Senate coup and in the 2012 Senate IDC-GOP coalition, both of which he was involved in.

Akash Mehta co-founded New York Focus and is the organization’s editor-in-chief. He grew up in New York City, and in another life he was a member of his local community board and a policy fellow at the City Council.
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