On Sunday, governor-elect Andrew Cuomo announced the latest round of members to his transition committee, the advisory panel that will help decide whom Cuomo brings into his administration as he seeks to "clean up" one of the country's most dysfunctional state capitals.
The headline from the weekend's announcement was the inclusion of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., on one of those transition committees. Kennedy is known as much for his work on environmental issues as he is for hailing from one of the most celebrated political families in American history. More importunely, he is also the brother of Cuomo's ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, with whom the Governor-elect has three daughters. In 2003, the couple had a particularly nasty divorce, with accusations of her infidelity splashed across tabloid pages for weeks.
The presence of Kennedy's name on the transition committee, carries a powerful, and unmistakeable message: Cuomo is suppressing whatever old and personal feuds may exist in order to find the most talented personnel.
But transition committees have, in the past, proven ideal opportunities for presenting politically optimal visuals, while not always demonstrating deep or insightful decision-making.
When Eliot Spitzer became governor, he had 318 people on his transition team — so many, in fact, that none really had an outsized role.
So far, Cuomo doesn't have that problem.
In total, he has named 104 people to various transition and advisory committees. But given Cuomo's management style, few doubt that the close cadre of advisors he’s relied on for years are intimately involved in helping shape the staffing decisions.
When Cuomo was transitioning into the Attorney General’s office in 2006, he had 70 people advising him. In press conferences at the time, Cuomo noted with pride that the people he was hiring had no prior relationship with him whatsoever. Often, he said, he met them for the first time during their final job interview.
The message was clear: Cuomo was making hires based solely on who was most qualified, not best connected or loyal the longest.
Without administrative staff positions publicly finalized, it's too early to say whether Cuomo is pursuing a similar path this time. But names like Kennedy on a Cuomo transition team are strong indicators that he wants to send a similar message this time.
None of the four co-chairs of his current transition committee, or even the chairman, are known for having particularly long-held relationships with Cuomo, whose been a mainstay in New York politics for three decades.
The leaders of the transition are also a near-perfect representation of the state's diversity. (Cuomo has repeatedly said his goal is to assemble the most "diverse" administration in the state's history.)
The chairman of the committee is Bob Duffy, the mayor of Rochester who Cuomo selected in June to be his running mate. The four co-chairs are Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress; former State Comptroller Carl McCall, who is African American and in 2002, defeated Cuomo in a gubernatorial Democratic primary; Republican Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, whom Cuomo aides reached out to earlier this year and eventually won her endorsement; and Felix Rohatyn, a financier credited with helping restructure the New York State's financial turnaround in the 1970s.
The 19-member “Council of Economics and Fiscal Advisors” will also “serve in an advisory capacity during the Cuomo administration," according to Cuomo's campaign.
Among the current group of fiscal advisors is Amsterdam News publisher Elinor Tatum, who criticized Cuomo for not appealing earnestly for African American support. Tatum was asked to be on the committee, but only learned she had been selected when she contacted by a reporter seeking her reaction after the committee members were announced by the campaign.
“I really want to have a meaningful say in what is going on,” Tatum said during an television appearance Friday evening. She also said the members of the transition team were meeting next week to learn more about what they would be doing.
“Well, good thing she’s part of a large, unpaid advisory panel,” Politico writer Ben Smith tweeted, underscoring many people’s skepticism about the impact such panels actually play in deciding who enters the incoming administration. That skepticism is heightened among those who have observed Cuomo’s penchant for keeping close counsel among a small, tightly-knit group of long-time friends and confidents.
In October, The New York Times' Nicholas Confessore assessed Cuomo’s role in his own campaign – which, at that point, was already fully staffed with professional operatives from both sides of the aisle – and wrote that Cuomo’s obsessively interfered with every facet of the campaign.
“Those involved with Mr. Cuomo’s campaign say the candidate weighs in on decisions large and small, including when to announce major policy initiatives and whether to respond to a press inquiry, leading to what some of them call ‘paralysis by analysis,’ ” Confessore wrote.
Transition committee members come mostly from the private sector: Home Depot founder Ken Langone, former NASDAQ chairman Frank Zarb, American Express chairman and CEO Ken Chenault, and Pat Barrett, Avis CEO and a former GOP state chairman who crossed party lines to endorse Cuomo, just to name a few.
Labor is represented by the sole appointment of AFL-CIO president Dennis Hughes, who earlier advised Cuomo to tackle issues where this is already a consensus, rather than reach ambitiously for his loftiest promises.
“It’s a matter of spending political capital to get to a certain end,” Hughes told the Buffalo News in late October.
Others include Ken Adams, president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State Inc. When the group endorsed Cuomo last month, Adams said they and the candidate were “almost in lock step” on economic and financial matters.
The larger economic advisory committee is full of people whose presence sends an unmistakable message of inclusion. There’s the legislative leaders whose cooperation Cuomo will need as governor: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Democratic Leader John Sampson, Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos and even Brian Kolb, the Republican Leader of the Assembly (Mr. Kolb’s clout may have elevated in Albany, somewhat, now that his caucus is large enough to block an override of the governor’s veto’s within the Assembly.)
Ruben Diaz Jr., the newly elected Bronx Borough President is also a member. His presence on the economic committee was criticized by the New York Post editorial board who recalled Diaz’s role in killing a development plan slated for Kingsbridge armory after he argued that “the notion that any jobs is better than no jobs no longer applies [in the Bronx].”
There’s also John Johnson, chairman of the Watertown-North County Chamber of Commerce – helping to give voice to the businessman who operate in the state’s smaller, sometimes more-ignored upstate communities.
He’s also a vice president at Johnson Newspaper Corp., which publishes the Watertown Daily Times, an unmistakably influential news outlet in that part of the state.
The smallest committee Cuomo has formed is the 14-member panel that will focus on public safety. Among the more notable names are the legendary former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, current NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly, and Michael Balboni, the former Republican State Senator from Long Island who left office to work for Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer as his Deputy Secretary for Public Safety.
On the committee is also Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island, who is expected to chair the Homeland Security Committee when the GOP takes over the House of Representatives in January. Among his key pieces of legislation is a bill to ban states from issuing drivers licenses to undocumented residents (an issue that the prior governor supported, but ultimately dropped amid heated opposition). King also has legislation to provide "qualified immunity from civil liability" for anyone who reports suspected terrorist activities.
Manhattan Assemblyman Keith Wright is also on the public safety committee. He sponsors legislation aimed at better monitoring of law enforcement officials. For example, Wright has a bill requiring police to be tested for drugs and alcohol within three hours of discharging their firearms. Wright also wants annual reports on the demographics of people stopped and frisked by police officials. And he'd like badges for auxiliary police offers to look "distinct and distinguishable" from "regular police" officers.
Another member of that committee is Rocco Diina, the former Police Commissioner of Buffalo, lending an upstate, law enforcement perspective. His tenure was marked by efforts to reorganize the department amid steep budget cuts. "Diina considers the inability to consolidate more services one of the failures during his tenure," a local television station reported when Dina retired. When asked for his major accomplishment, Diina said instituting "one officer cars." Critics remember Diina as the commissioner who disbanded the murder squad. Three years later, amid criticism of unsolved cases, the unit was reassembled.
Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, is also a member of the public safety committee.
There's also Zachary Carter, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, who is now in private practice. Carter is remembered as the prosecutor who successfully charged police officers with violating the civil rights of Abner Louima, who was sodomized with a plunger in the bathroom of a Brooklyn police station in the 1990s.
Later, during the 2004 debate about who leaked the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity to reporters, Carter publicly came out saying government officials had the right to request the identity of journalists' confidential sources. Speaking on the Charlie Rose Show on November 30, Carter sided with the government, and cast a skeptical view of those who'd pass along information not authorized for distribution.
"[T]he information that's being suppressed is not always information that should be divulged," Carter said, and asked rhetorically, "is the press ultimately, or any individual reporter, going to be the final arbiter of what can be published without threatening the national security?"
"But do you want a judge to be final arbiter?" asked Rose.
"I would prefer that, yes," answered Carter.
Cuomo aides say additional transition committees will be announced in the coming days. And with news of each appointment, there's also talk about who is not appointed.
While Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cuomo's former brother-in-law, is on the environmental transition committee, state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox is not. Four years ago, Cuomo made news by naming Cox to a similar committee, after his failed Republican Senate bid that year.
Last month, Cuomo ran an ad referring to Cox as "Richard Nixon's son-in-law, master of dirty tricks, leading one of the nastiest campaigns in the country."