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‘Bullying, screaming’: In Albany, Cuomo wields phone as a weapon

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‘Bullying, screaming’: In Albany, Cuomo wields phone as a weapon

A few weeks ago, it looked like Andrew Cuomo was on track to break a New York curse and make it past a third term in office. But now, roiled in a Covid scandal, his political future is looking less certain.

Cuomo’s unrestrained polemic Wednesday against state Assembly member Ron Kim, until recently a relatively low-profile rank-and-file Democratic legislator, has put an exclamation point on the hardball politics that New York City lawmakers, as well as political operatives inside and outside the state, have long bristled at — but largely felt it was unproductive to challenge in public.

“That’s classic Andrew Cuomo,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose asymmetric warfare with the governor has landed him on the hot seat countless times, said Thursday on MSNBC. “A lot of people in New York state have received those phone calls. The bullying is nothing new.”

Kim, whose uncle died in a nursing home during the pandemic, has been on a media tour recounting what he said are the governor’s attempts to intimidate him over the phone. The lawmaker said Cuomo called him and threatened to publicly destroy him if he did not change his statements about a Cuomo aide’s admission that the state had deliberately withheld information on the full death toll at nursing homes.

Cuomo responded Wednesday by publicly accusing Kim of engaging in unethical behavior unrelated to the current scandal, claiming the Assembly member “was influenced by campaign money and pay-to-play.” The governor’s aides reinforced the attack, saying Kim has been duplicitous and untruthful in a way that justifies their show of force, though they denied the governor had threatened his fellow Democrat.

“At no time did anyone threaten to ‘destroy’ anyone with their ‘wrath’ nor engage in a ‘cover-up.’ That’s beyond the pale and is unfortunately part of a yearslong pattern of lies by Mr. Kim against this administration,” Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said in a statement released Wednesday.

Such is life on the wrong side of Cuomo, whose credo for those who stand in his path was coined early in his first term by one of their own: “We operate on two speeds here: Get along, and kill,” Steve Cohen, then Cuomo’s top aide, said in an exchange first reported by the Connecticut Post in 2011.

The characterization, which came during a contentious discussion with former Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy’s team, has come to define the Queens native’s modus operandi to the point of becoming a cliché in New York political circles. (POLITICO on Thursday confirmed the 2011 exchange with multiple people around Malloy at the time.)

The proverb has even become something akin to a badge of honor for some Cuomo staffers in the years since, cocksure in their belief of their boss’ singular ability to bend the state government apparatus to fulfill his vision of Democratic politics.

Cuomo’s allies note he’s faced similar criticisms over his instincts nearly his entire time in the public eye — his disastrous first attempt at the governor’s mansion nearly 20 years ago aside — but he nonetheless has handily won the four statewide contests he has entered and proved himself to be a prodigious fundraiser unafraid to use that war chest against less-flush opponents.

“This is a governor who works night and day to move the ball down the field for New Yorkers and they know that, which is why he has been elected and re-elected three times over the last 10 years,” Azzopardi said in a statement to POLITICO Thursday.

Tales of the governor’s bare-knuckle tactics are legion in New York and date back years, all the way to his tutelage under his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, whom the younger Cuomo reveres and has long been fiercely protective of.

The current governor, a diligent news-clip consumer, shares his late father’s penchant for phone calls at odd hours to reporters and others when he comes across something he finds disagreeable. (Mario’s moonlighting as a media ombudsman was extensively documented in a 1986 New York Times article.)

“This is a feature of Andrew Cuomo, this is not a bug,” New York Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy told reporters in Albany on Thursday. “How many times have you in the media received that bullying, screaming phone call from the governor or one of his minions?“

The cajoling can drag on for the better part of an hour and is typically heavily one-sided as the governor expounds on his belief that his position is the correct one, according to people who have been on the receiving end of those calls. Calls from his aides can play out in similar fashion.

Privately, many will recount all manner of vitriol sent their way by people in Cuomoworld that they find unsettling and beyond what they encounter elsewhere in a state redolent with tough-talk.

The aggressive posture extends throughout the governor’s office and top figures across numerous state agencies and the Democratic Party apparatus he effectively controls. Some of the strongest invective from Cuomo’s camp has not come from him, but from aides and outside allies — though they have crossed the line into offensiveness on more than one occasion.

The most recent broadsides against Kim and other legislative critics have riled many members of the Legislature who have recoiled at the governor’s vilification of him.

“We have no interest in name calling — we aim to restore the proper balance of power between the Legislature and Executive,” reads a statement more than a dozen Assembly Democrats signed backing up Kim.

The disproportionate responses to anodyne disagreements and an unrelenting insistence on control have at times drawn unflattering comparisons to former Presidents Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, among others.

Still it’s unclear what, if any, lasting impact the saga will have on Cuomo’s image or political power. Potential challengers of both major parties are studiously gauging whether he’s vulnerable enough to take down if he seeks a fourth term but have yet to officially take the plunge.

There are still plenty of power players who find it fruitful to be on the “get along” side of Cuomo’s ledger.

“While we differ at times, it’s always been a professional, open-door working relationship,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo (D-Queens), who’s previously found himself at odds with Cuomo on sports betting and other issues.

Nevertheless, he said he’s heard plenty of “horror stories.”

“I haven’t been as unfortunate as other colleagues with the wrath,” he said.

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New Virginia PAC forms to diversify state’s political landscape

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New Virginia PAC forms to diversify state's political landscape

As Rathod sees it, these are “the candidates most receptive to diversity in their staffing, not only within the campaign, but if they become governor, how are they going to staff — especially at cabinet and senior level positions — [with aides] that are more reflective of the diversity of the commonwealth,” he said.

Lack of diversity within campaigns has been a longstanding issue in both Democratic and Republican politics. While the 2020 cycle saw a historically diverse number of women and racial minorities pursue public office, those managing their races did not reflect the sea change. People of color represent less than 1 percent of all political consultants. There are also a number of structural barriers to entry — long hours, low pay an exclusive networks — that make it more difficult for potential staffers of color to join campaigns.

It’s part of the reason why both Rathod and Kasey formed the PAC, which also includes a fellowship program they hope will create a corps of young political operatives of color who can quickly join a campaign or governors’ office in a top position.

“Most of the time, on campaigns and in politics in general, these positions go to people who already know people in their organizations, and so it leaves a lot of people out,” Kasey said. “We want to create networks of support.”

The group is launching in the heat of Virginia’s crowded and diverse gubernatorial primary. Three Black Democrats, Jennifer McClellan, Jennifer Carroll Foy and Justin Fairfax all announced plans to run, as has former governor Terry McAuliffe, who is the highest-fundraising candidate in the race thus far.

Their ultimate goal, Kasey said, is for the state’s political landscape to become so diverse that groups like theirs are obsolete.

“There’s sort of two Virginias that are fighting each other right now,” Rathod said, referencing the state’s history of electing the first Black governor in the country juxtaposed against the events of Charlottesville in 2017. “And a lot of the old Virginia still kind of permit permeates the politics in the commonwealth.”

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You Need to Take the Religious Left Seriously This Time

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You Need to Take the Religious Left Seriously This Time

What I know about trauma is that when you’re in the middle of a trauma, it’s much more difficult to process it than it is once even a modicum of safety has been established. I anticipate that as the pressure of the pandemic begins to lessen, the reality of the trauma that we’ve been through [will sink in]. We have some pretty hard days ahead of us as the fact of what’s happened begins to come out of us and come into the public. You think that it can’t get much worse than it has been, but in fact, some of the hardest days with respect to conflict and pain are ahead of us, as we get the space to grieve and mourn and feel the rage of what we’ve been through.

You referenced coming to terms with your grandparents’ participation in a lynching. I can imagine that would be a horrifying, gut-churning revelation — one most people would not be inclined to talk about if they discovered. How did you unearth that bit family history, and why did you decide to go public with it?

In my case, it came quite unexpectedly: I came upon a postcard of a lynching of a young woman named Laura Nelson that happened in 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma — a small town where my family basically comprised half the population. [In the photograph,] many of the people in town were standing on the bridge off of which Laura and her son were lynched.

I was horrified. And I don’t have any direct evidence of who in my family was involved, but it’s impossible to imagine that they weren’t. I grew up knowing that my grandfather was quite a racist. He didn’t try to hide it. And I also know that Woody Guthrie, who grew up next door to my grandfather, has written about this particular lynching extensively, and even wrote a song about his father’s role in leading the lynching mob.

I decided to go public with it because when it comes to looking at white supremacy and the legacy of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, it’s something that far too many white people project into the far past [instead of] part of the reality that you are still living in. That shift is not going to happen until people realize how close — and still in the middle of those legacies — we still are. Until more white people start telling these stories and unearthing them, it’s going to continue to be repressed.

I’m wondering how you reconcile the love that you perhaps feel for your family members with the reality of their participation in a lynching.

That’s a very hard question. In my case, the grandfather who would have been most directly connected to it, there was no love lost between us.

Being tied to those legacies of terror does have a corrupting effect on people’s souls. Even if it’s hidden or never spoken of, it’s not something that you can ever forget with regard to who you conceive yourself to be and the evil that you’ve done.

That said, this is where my faith comes in. I believe that human beings in general are a mixture of the glorious things they’re capable of and the horrible things that they’re capable of. None of us can claim to be pure. And the more honest one can be about one’s brokenness and the sins one has been responsible for, the more freedom one finds from that. I never have a pure understanding of who anybody is — most especially myself, but definitely my family.

In the U.S., the history that we — particularly white people — have told ourselves about our past has been much too pure for it to be real. Reckoning with its horrors is only going to make it more real. And history, as it becomes real, shows us the path to healing.

On the topic of history, I’ve heard you say that you see a massive cultural shift underway around the globe, and have likened it to what happened 500 years ago during the Reformation. First, what specifically do you see? And second, the Reformation happened in part because of the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, and was followed by decades and decades of religious wars throughout Europe. Do you think that what we’re seeing now is a result of the advent of the Internet — the printing press of our era — and if so, should we expect a few hundred years of religious wars in our future?

When the Reformation happened, we had new technology — the printing press allowed anyone who knew how to read to pick up a book and read. We had the emergence of the nation-state, new political alignments. We had the emergence of nascent capitalism, so we had a shift of economics. You could just go on and on.

These types of seismic shifts in how the world is ordered are manifest in profound spiritual shifts. When the world gets reordered, your imagination with respect to the reality of the divine, transcendent and who you are gets recomposed. That’s happening now: The old orders are breaking down, and our imaginations are being forced to think of the transcendent in new ways and to tell new stories about who we are.

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Neera Tanden Got Twitter Right—And That Was her Problem

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Neera Tanden Got Twitter Right—And That Was her Problem

But Twitter has its own way of tempting you into provocative tweets, and then turning on you—especially when you make enough enemies from different points on the political spectrum, and they find a common moment for revenge.

A onetime Boston political boss named Martin Lomasney, who wielded power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had an oft-repeated rule for politicians: “Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink.” Lomasney would surely have run in the other direction from Twitter, which isn’t just public but permanent. Yes, Donald Trump played the platform like a virtuoso; other politicians have used it savvily to bypass gatekeepers and build a base of loyalists. But for a political player, every tweet is fraught with peril: Even if you aren’t overtly insulting someone, there’s a chance some statement from your past will contradict a current political stance, or apply with poetic justice to a compromising situation.

Still, political types are also human beings, and the temptation to pour every thought onto Twitter, in search of a reaction, is ultimately biological. When you put out a tweet, anticipating a “like” or a “share,” your brain gets a hit of a pleasure neurochemical, says psychiatrist David Greenfield, founder and medical director of the Connecticut-based Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. At the same time, he says, the brain cuts off its pathways to the frontal cortex, the area that governs judgment. Once, this shutdown of higher-level thinking was a convenient evolutionary tool, Greenfield says: Prehistoric hunter-gatherers needed to shut out reason to serve the higher directives of mating and eating. Today, though, it has given us an internet that functions like “the world’s largest slot machine,” he says, as users embark on an endless hunt for validation. Tanden’s nakedly partisan tweets could derive her plenty of pleasure; one tweet during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh—“Susan Collins’ terrible treatment of Dr. Ford should haunt Collins for the rest of her days”—drew 3,097 retweets and 8,295 likes.

In the age of the ideological bubble, political tweets pose a specific kind of risk. If you’re sharing like-minded partisan thoughts with like-minded people, you’re likely to forget that you risk a negative reaction, says Whitney Phillips, a communications professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the upcoming book You Are Here: A Field Guide For Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. “You speak in a code that’s appropriate for the audience,” Phillips says. But once your statement lands in front of a less-friendly group, your intentions don’t matter. “It’s impossible to control any of our messages,” she says. “You can only focus on the consequences.”
Phillips cites an internet axiom known as “Poe’s Law”—coined in the early 2000s, on a message board for creationists, when a user who called himself Nathan Poe declared that it was hard to discern the true believers from people who were being sarcastic. On the internet, Poe’s Law holds, you can’t know anybody’s true intentions. A commenter could be sincere or mocking, a real human being or a fake account. Anger could be deeply-felt or cynically overblown. And it’s easy to weaponize the outrage machine. It was a right-wing provocateur—hoping to reveal what he saw as Hollywood hypocrisy—who unearthed incendiary old jokes about rape and pedophilia from “Guardians of the Galaxy” filmmaker James Gunn’s Twitter feed in 2018, Phillips notes. But it was left-wing outrage over those tweets that ultimately got Gunn fired.

Tanden’s tweets, it’s fair to say, weren’t as troublesome as Gunn’s. She was largely pumping out standard-issue political snark, the kind Trump used to post from the White House on nearly an hourly basis. Still, there are rules of political conduct, and—if you’re not Trump—consequences for breaking them. In 2008, Samantha Power, then an advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama, resigned from the campaign after telling a Scottish reporter that Hillary Clinton was a “monster.” Power had violated a norm: voicing the kind of insult that’s usually shared, Lomasney-style, outside the public view. (Post-election, her career recovered quickly.) And, like Gunn, Tanden succeeded in getting both groups—those on the left and the right—on her bad side. If everything you tweet can be used as ammunition in the future, it’s particularly lethal when it’s coming at you from all sides.

Tanden clearly realized that old tweets could cause her trouble in this new career moment, when she had to emerge from her Clinton-Biden bubble and confront her onetime targets in the flesh. Soon after Biden named her to the budget post, she deleted at least 1,000 tweets. But the internet never forgets. And, in keeping with Poe’s Rule, it has been hard to tell who on Capitol Hill is truly horrified, and who merely senses a political opportunity. At her confirmation hearing before the Budget Committee, Sanders chided Tanden for her “vicious attacks made against progressives. People who I have worked with. Me personally.” But he also has a longer-standing beef with Tanden over the 2016 election and her ideological agenda. And he seems not the type to wither in front of an insult.

Tanden did her duty and apologized profusely, hinting that she wanted to distance herself from the cesspool Twitter had become. But the truth is, she was following the rules of her chosen medium all along. There’s no point in tweeting if you aren’t saying something that can rile people up. “Our networks have been designed for this exact outcome,” Phillips says. “The most rancorous stuff becomes the stuff that is most visible, that has the most purchase.”

In other words, the internet did everything in its power to make Tanden act the way she did, rewarded her with nearly 377,000 followers, then punished her in the end. And yet, with every tweet, she had free will. Greenfield counsels his patients who want to change their internet habits to never actually type out a tweet in the “compose” box, in Twitter or any other social media platform. Rather, he says, type your message in the Notes app, think about it for a minute, and cut and paste when you’re good and ready. Martin Lomasney would have considered that decent advice.

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