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Cuomo’s Albany dominance takes backseat to political survival

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Cuomo’s Albany dominance takes backseat to political survival

The governor who once muscled his biggest priorities through the Capitol annually, rarely failing to come out on top, is now taking a decidedly lighter tread in negotiations with Senate Majority Leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, according to half a dozen people familiar with the budget talks. Both Democratic leaders have taken a hard line against Cuomo over the past month, with Stewart-Cousins being among the first to call for his resignation and Heastie authorizing an impeachment investigation that commenced late last month.

Nearly a month after he vowed to not let his then-burgeoning sexual harassment scandal deter him from doing his job, Cuomo is now spending his days trying to reframe the now-tarnished narrative of his tenure as he faces the single greatest threat to his decades-long political career. He appears to be putting political survival ahead of his own policy priorities, playing nice with lawmakers as he zips around the state to tout progress on vaccines and announce steps to open up the state’s economy.

On Monday, Cuomo appeared deferential to legislators as he called the budget “the most complicated, the most ambitious and the hardest budget that we have done,” and applauded both chambers for working through pandemic restrictions.

“They’ve been working very hard, under very difficult circumstances,” Cuomo said. “So it’s been a complicated process on top of a complicated product. … But this budget will set the trajectory for the state for the next 10 years.”

He went on to tout the recent legalization of marijuana in New York and local police reform plans that are nearly in place across the state, neither of which were initiated through the budget. He made no mention of the deals he had cut to sign off on progressive priorities, including the agreement to temporarily raise taxes on those making more than $1 million a year, a move that will give New York City’s top earners the highest combined city and state tax rate in the country.

Cuomo‘s January budget proposal did include a similar tax hike on high earners that was worth about $1.5 billion, but he called it his “worst-case-scenario” budget. His administration backed away from the concept after the most recent federal relief package authorized about $12.5 billion in aid for New York.

The state Senate and Assembly both proposed raising more than $6.5 billion through tax increases even after they saw the federal dollars coming in, in part due to pushes from progressive members and advocates warning that a one-time influx of federal stimulus wouldn’t be enough to fix existing imbalances in the state’s financial planning.

Cuomo on Monday also made no mention of an influx of more than $4 billion in school funding that the final deal is expected to phase-in over three years through a system that progressives have long sought. Cuomo has resisted their demands, calling them political and labeling a years-old lawsuit over the issue “ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.”

Legislative leaders have said publicly that Cuomo’s scandals — both over his sexual harassment allegations and his administration’s attempt to hide the number of Covid-19 deaths tied to nursing homes — has had little effect on the budget process, which is largely driven by staff and their constitutional duty to pass a spending plan on time. But legislative sources and former Cuomo aides say it’s clear Democratic lawmakers are steering the budget negotiations this year, in contrast to the past.

“With that federal revenue and with state revenues shoring up pretty nicely, you have a budget that should not have been so hard to get done on time,“ said a former Cuomo aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to so as not to anger the governor. “So it seems pretty clear to me the lawmakers are saying, ‘we’re going to do it this way.’”

In years past, Cuomo has been able to wield considerable power in the Legislature by reaching out to rank-and-file members and their political power brokers. But that’s harder than ever with huge portions of Democrats in both chambers calling for his resignation last month.



Typically what you’d be doing is in order to get to the lawmakers you’d be working their constituency groups and their advocacy groups and that would influence the lawmakers,” the former official said. “But the progressive groups, every single one of them, wants to see them gone.”

But some say the governor — or his office at least — has been pushing hard in certain areas, such as enhanced spending authority for federal funds and stricter checks on how unemployment might be distributed to undocumented immigrants.

“I know a lot of people speculated as to whether he would be weaker this time around, but I haven’t seen any sign of that,” said Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried, the chamber’s longest-serving member.

Still, Cuomo has in past weeks fled to friendlier waters when he shows his face in public, fully engaged in the craft of narrative revision. Earlier Monday, he was in his native Queens to announce public service campaign to encourage vaccinations, part of a downstate tour visiting pop-up vaccination sites in communities of color he had promised months ago to prioritize in the state’s distribution program. Those events, more often than not closed to reporters, have given him the ability to solicit public praise — specifically from his supporters in the Black community who have thanked him for his follow-through.

On Monday, he received compliments from Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who last month said Cuomo should resign if it was shown he couldn’t effectively lead the state. And Queens Assemblymember Vivian Cook, who worked on Cuomo’s father’s campaigns and has known the governor since he was young, told the borough and state to “thank this son of Queens for making sure that we are taken care of.”

“We are proud and we are proud of him. So, no matter what you say or what you do, we’re going to stick by this man — he’s staying with us,” she said.

Cuomo’s mood during these kinds of public appearances have been almost buoyant, with bits like challenging former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia to arm wrestle during a jovial event to announce the Yankees and Mets could start their seasons with fans.

And when his chief counsel and budget czar joined a recent question-and-answer session by web cam, he teased them publicly for appearing glum.

“He’s looking very stern faced because he’s coming down to it — he only has a few days left to work on the budget,” Cuomo said of budget director Robert Mujica, who neither smiled nor responded. “You can see the stress on his face.“

“Business as usual” is an ancient ploy that has occasionally worked for embattled politicians patient enough to see a news cycle through.

“I think what you see the governor doing is trying to focus on the things that he knows the public likes and trying to ignore, to the extent possible, all the things that he doesn’t like,” said Steve Greenberg, the spokesperson for Siena College Research Institute.

Though the most recent polling from Siena found dips in his overall favorability and reelection prospects, 60 percent of voters still approved of his handling of the pandemic and a 48 percent plurality say he should continue to do his job despite the allegations.

But as the budget process wraps up in Albany, it’s likely eyes will again turn to the investigations into sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo’s handling of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and new reports that Cuomo recruited several members of his staff to produce his book about leadership during the pandemic.

The lawmakers and attorneys heading up the Assembly Judiciary’s impeachment probe have said it could take “months, rather than weeks” to compile any findings that would initiate the next steps. There is no timeline for the state Attorney General Tish James’ report, though Cuomo has asked the public to wait for its completion before drawing any conclusions about his behavior.

“I think the goal here is to run out the clock to the extent possible and hope that the Tish James report comes out in the middle of the summer when everyone is vaccinated and there’s all this stimulus money coming in,” said another former Cuomo aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He has in his back pocket [the] I’m-not-going-to-run-for-a-fourth-term card, and the closer we get to June [2022] primary, the more effective that is,” the official said. “But I would not underestimate his desire and intention for running for a fourth term.”

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

From the history of these spats, it makes sense that Republicans are still kneeling to an out-of-power president.

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Blinken names State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer

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Blinken names State Department's chief diversity and inclusion officer

“It’s perpetuated by policies, practices and people to this day,” Blinken said.

Abercrombie-Winstanley was the former ambassador to Malta during President Barack Obama’s second term, served as a senior career diplomat for more than three decades, and was the first woman to lead a foreign diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia.

“We have the talent to become a model in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce,” she said after being introduced by Blinken. “We will ensure the Department of State is the organization that deserves the devotion, sacrifice and the dedication that so many of us have freely given.”

The department has long struggled to reflect the diversity of the United States, and the problem has gotten more pronounced in recent years by several measures. For instance, Black employees make up a smaller share of its workforce than in 2002, according to 2020 Government Accountability Office data.

State has also faced internal pressure, particularly among younger staff, to meaningfully address the issue.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has previously spoken about her experience working in the department amid colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male.

“In many ways, it was very lonely. It was very lonely,” she said during a 2019 POLITICO podcast. “Walking down those long halls of the Department of State, you didn’t see a lot of people who looked like you. You certainly had to deal with impostor syndrome.”

Diplomats of color have also raised concern to POLITICO and others about the unwritten rules they feel the need to abide by in order to advance their careers in the State Department.

Abercrombie-Winstanley will report directly to the secretary of State, Blinken said.

President Joe Biden has promised diversity will be a key facet of his administration, though outside groups have at times had to lobby for representation in the cabinet and for other high-ranking positions throughout the federal government.

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

Greenberg also said he was paying the legal fees for the woman, who is now 21 years old.

The WhatsApp messages shed light on key aspects of the scandal consuming the Florida Republican congressman and close ally of President Donald Trump — and on the state of mind of the man Gaetz once called his “wingman” as he sought to manage the fallout.

Greenberg went so far as to push Gaetz to use his influence with Trump for a pardon, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, including one who heard Greenberg say it repeatedly.

Asked about the request from Greenberg, Gaetz previously declined to confirm or deny that it occurred. But the congressman said he did not ask Trump to pardon Greenberg. Gaetz couldn’t be reached this weekend to discuss the WhatsApp messages that are the subject of this story.

Gaetz’s allies now fear that Greenberg is preparing to strike a deal with prosecutors to deliver Gaetz, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The congressman has not been charged and so far no evidence has surfaced against him beyond anonymous allegations he had sex with a minor or paid for prostitutes. But the scandal has seriously hobbled Gaetz, who built a national reputation as one of the staunchest defenders of Trump and has relentlessly attacked the very Department of Justice that’s now investigating him.

Greenberg faces decades of prison time from a total of 33 different charges, including identity theft, a host of financial crimes and stalking a political opponent he falsely smeared as a pedophile. But the alleged sex-trafficking of the former 17-year-old is the most serious charge and carries a 10-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence.

In the Aug. 14 WhatsApp chat with a politically influential Republican mutual friend of Gaetz and Greenberg, Greenberg initially referred to the young woman as “Vintage 99” — a fine-wine reference to her birth year that she used as her online name on SeekingArrangement, a dating website that connects women with so-called sugar daddies.

“I’m having to pay for vintage 99 to retain [a] lawyer,” Greenberg wrote in the WhatsApp chat to the friend, who discussed the messages with POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “They [federal agents] contacted her and are wanting her to talk. She doesn’t want to talk to them.”

Nor does she want to talk to the press. She blocked a POLITICO reporter on social media and her iPhone after she was called and texted to discuss the case Monday. Her attorney couldn’t be reached. POLITICO is withholding her name because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.

Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, said his client is not paying anyone else’s legal bills that he’s aware of, and noted he couldn’t speak to Greenberg’s arrangements before Scheller began to represent the defendant in December.

Scheller suggested his client might cut a deal.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said after a hearing last Thursday.

It’s not illegal for a suspect to pay the legal bills of a potential witness against him, but attorneys say the arrangement could raise questions about the case against him.

“Imagine if this was a drug case and the drug lord was paying the lawyer of a prosecution witness. What would people say?” said an attorney representing an individual who spoke to prosecutors in the case, and who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“Any time you get something of value, it’s a potential problem and you’re subject to impeachment. It can make a witness less credible,” the attorney said. “At the same time, to make this case [against Gaetz] work, the evidence just needs to be piled on … They’re interviewing everyone.”

In the WhatsApp chat obtained by POLITICO, Greenberg told the friend that his attorney at the time informed him that “everyone is going to need a lawyer.” But the friend then called Greenberg’s attorney — and determined that Greenberg wasn’t telling him the truth.

“I have nothing to do with any of this and think it is incredibly uncool you are trying to lawyer me up to be a part of it, Joel,” he wrote back via WhatsApp. “Not. F—ing. Cool.”

The friend told POLITICO that Greenberg’s message “felt like a setup.”

“It’s the same playbook he used against the teacher he falsely smeared as a pedophile,” the friend said, referring to a separate charge against Greenberg. “And he’ll do the same thing to Gaetz if he can get less prison time.”

Greenberg and Gaetz shared girlfriends, according to interviews with friends and associates who know the two men, and Greenberg introduced him to young women he met on SeekingArrangement. One friend who spent time in the company of both men said he was of the impression that the two engaged with women in more of a “sugar daddy relationship” where money changed hands, though it wasn’t explicitly prostitution.

“I know Joel and Matt paid some of their bills, rent, tuition, things like that,” the friend said. “This is a thing that happens when you’re successful and you have these relationships: ‘Are we not supposed to help these women who mean something to us and that we care about?’ Is that prostitution? Maybe if you’re a Puritan.”

Since many of the transactions in question took place on Venmo, Greenberg speculated in his WhatsApp messages that those mobile payment records were the likely evidentiary link to the woman who was allegedly sex-trafficked as a minor.

“I’m trying to let everyone know who came into contact with any of these girls that the feds are going through my Venmo history and don’t want anyone to be caught off guard,” Greenberg wrote to his friend, who promptly replied that he wasn’t on Venmo, had no such history with any of these women and begged him to “absolutely positively leave my name the f— out of any of this. I’m serious about this Joel.”

“Understood,” Greenberg replied. “My only concern is I don’t know what could possibly come out of their mouths, and if any of them mentioned places where we met etc. I would think you would want to at least have a heads up if some chick says she partied at your house or something. That’s all. I’m trying to cover every possible angle I can think of. I wouldn’t want anyone to be blindsided.”

The friend insisted that he had nothing to do with what Greenberg was describing and was not involved in his schemes.

“I know you aren’t. I didn’t mean to alarm you. You’ve done nothing wrong,” Greenberg replied.

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