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Cuomo’s office terrorized me for doing my job as a journalist

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Cuomo’s office terrorized me for doing my job as a journalist

It was 4:30 a.m., so I pulled the bathroom door shut in my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment to answer the phone without waking my then-5-year-old. On the line was Melissa DeRosa, Gov. Cuomo’s then-communications director, now his second-in-command. She was threatening to destroy me.

By now, thanks to Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim blowing the whistle on the threats he received in a call from Cuomo, the public has a glimpse of the bullying practiced by the governor and his top brass.

Many Americans are shocked, having bought into the compassionate persona Cuomo conveyed in his pandemic briefings. But Kim’s revelations came as no surprise to anyone who has dealt with the governor. As one Albany insider texted me last week, “everyone has an Andrew Cuomo story.”

While the April 2014 call I received from DeRosa didn’t come directly from the governor, I knew it bore the full weight of his power. City & State, the New York politics magazine I edited at the time, was about to publish a story exposing Cuomo’s machinations to distort the final report issued by the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.

The manipulation we documented put the lie to the governor’s public proclamation that it would be a fully independent body with the authority to probe graft in Albany wherever it found it. In reality, as soon as the commission touched the governor’s own office, he hastily shut it down.

I started getting pushback from the governor’s office as soon as we called requesting comment. In a barrage of calls, his media handlers pushed me to spike the article, alternately approaching me with carrot (a hot exclusive to be named later) and stick. By 4:30 a.m. — our piece was scheduled to publish at 5 — I was only getting the stick.

Seven years later, I don’t recall precisely everything DeRosa hurled at me, though I’m positive she vowed to “destroy” my career and take revenge on my publication. I remember vividly how I felt: scared.

I had no reason to think these were idle threats. I was fully aware of the governor’s volcanic temper and track record of vindictiveness. If he wanted to crush me, he could and likely would.

This was a serious gut check for me. I worried about losing my livelihood, damaging my future, letting down my wife and daughter. But fortunately, I had bosses and colleagues who stood by the quality of our work. So we published the piece, like the press is supposed to do in the face of intimidation.

I’m no hero. The members of the Albany press corps regularly endure abusive calls like I received. And sometimes those calls come from the governor himself.

Shrewdly, the governor rings up reporters out of the blue to praise them when he likes what they write. This personal touch wins him goodwill. Receiving such a call is something of a rite of passage for Albany reporters. Unfortunately, so too is getting a call from the governor when he’s breathing fire.

Cuomo doesn’t dispute that talking tough is what he does. He thinks it’s a virtue. But the abuse he privately metes out amounts to a systematic campaign to chill negative coverage of his administration. And it works.

Editors kill legitimate stories because of his threats; reporters shy away from promising tips; sources stay silent.

There are many reasons the media don’t expose the governor’s bullying. Albany reporters fear that if the governor freezes them out, they won’t be able to do their jobs effectively. Some journalists see speaking up as a violation of the unwritten code of “off-the-record” conversations. Others just assume that “everyone knows” how Cuomo operates, so it isn’t worth reporting.

For years, entertainment reporters justified their silence about the #MeToo monsters in the industry by telling themselves that “everyone knows.” But the public didn’t know. Many of the perpetrators’ future victims didn’t know. And so these thugs went on operating with impunity.

Until last week, most New Yorkers didn’t know about Cuomo’s despicable ways. But they should have. Journalists are agents of accountability. It’s time for New York’s reporters to step up and tell their own Cuomo stories.

Morgan Pehme, a documentary filmmaker, served as editor-in-chief of City & State from 2012 to 2014.

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Opinion

NY should give restaurants and retailers a tax holiday

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NY should give restaurants and retailers a tax holiday

Good news: After the horror of the past year, New York’s budget crisis isn’t as bad as it could be. Now, Team Biden is sending even more billions our way. Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and lawmakers should use part of this money to support restaurants and retailers through the most direct way possible: a sales-tax holiday. 

A recent report by city Comptroller Scott Stringer found that Gotham likely will end this fiscal year in June with a surprise surplus, nearly $400 million. It isn’t because de Blasio has cut spending. Overtime has continued to soar, and Hizzoner never achieved the labor savings he promised. Spending is actually $500 million higher than the mayor said it would be. 

Rather, tax revenues are coming in better than expected. Personal-income and business taxes will be $900 million higher than the mayor estimated in January. 

When the pandemic set in last year, the city projected a double-digit decline in personal-income taxes, but these revenues are looking to fall by just 2.3 percent in the year that’s just ending. This one tax source, at $13.7 billion annually, made up about one-fifth of the city’s $64.4 billion in taxes, pre-COVID. 

It has held up remarkably well, considering that, as of December, 560,000 New Yorkers, or 14 percent of the pre-COVID workforce, were still unemployed. For the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in July, the city faces a $1.4 billion deficit, one that will be easily closed by the largesse Washington is showering on states and cities, including $5.6 billion to Gotham. 

Similar dynamics are playing out with the state budget, which is even more dependent on income taxes than is the city budget. 

Why the disconnect? Income taxes are already highly progressive. In 2018, the top 1 percent of New Yorkers — 38,714 households — paid 42.5 percent of city taxes. This group hardly makes up the city’s restaurant, entertainment and retail workers, who have suffered the brunt of lockdowns.

As of December, “only” 6 percent of finance workers had lost their jobs, which isn’t nothing. But half of leisure and hospitality employees, including restaurant workers, were still out of work. 

For all of the local governing class’ talk about massive tax hikes on the rich to redistribute some of this money, there is a pragmatic way to redistribute some of that money now, without driving (more of) the rich away: Cuomo and de Blasio should use some of the expected federal relief funds coming New York’s way for a sales tax holiday for restaurants and retailers, via state legislation (the state controls the city’s sales tax). 

Consider: In a normal year, restaurants in the five boroughs would do about $27 billion in ­annual business, according to a ­report by the state comptroller. The tax take of that is about $2.4 billion, roughly split between state and city. But this is nothing like a normal year: Much of that business is gone, anyway, no matter what the tax rate is. 

The city and state simply wouldn’t “lose” very much money, then, by declaring a summerlong restaurant sales-tax holiday on meals under, say, $200, starting in May, when it’s warm enough for people to eat outside again. 

Effectively giving people a near-10 percent discount on their meals is a good way to get them eating out again. 

And it won’t take away from ­future business. Eating a meal you wouldn’t have eaten otherwise in May doesn’t mean you will forego eating out in December, if the mood strikes you. 

In fact, a sales-tax break now may bring in more revenue to the state and city, in the long term, by keeping some restauranteurs afloat. Other localities are free to ask Albany to do the same for them, as well.

Plus, a tax holiday would get more restaurant workers back to work, meaning they would once again pay income tax. 

The state and city should also consider a smaller sales-tax break for struggling retailers, as well. 

Gotham and the Empire State still have long-term budget problems, sure. The city’s biggest long-term problem is that its property-tax revenues are still falling, creating deficits in future years. 

But property taxes are falling ­because the value of the property is falling — and that’s partly because of so many vacant restaurant and retail spots. A closed restaurant or store brings in no sales taxes — and less property and income taxes over time. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. 

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas

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Opinion

Elites see my black baby as nothing more than a carbon-emitter

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Elites see my black baby as nothing more than a carbon-emitter

An hour after my daughter was born, I found myself racing back and forth between my wife’s hospital room and my newborn’s crib in a neonatal intensive-care unit. Both faced dire health challenges. It was the worst experience of my life, but in the end, mother and baby recovered. 

The ordeal taught me something: Nothing on this earth is more fulfilling than being a husband and father.

Driving home from the hospital, I received a call: I’d been ­accepted to Yale Law School. After overcoming one obstacle, I would soon face another as a young dad and a law student. 

A year later, I’ve had the privilege of telling my classmates about the joys of marriage and parenthood — but not everyone has been receptive. One student told me it might be “unethical” to have children in today’s America. 

That view is distressingly common among our elites. Many ­climate activists, including AOC, fret that children increase our carbon emissions over their lifetime, hastening an ecological crisis. Apparently, human life loses intrinsic value in a ­crisis.

Well, there is another crisis plaguing our country: At 1.7 births per woman, the US fertility rate is at its lowest level in modern American history. Recent research shows that we haven’t experienced replacement-rate fertility since 2008. In other words, 13 years have passed since we last produced enough children to even maintain current population levels.

It turns out that our downward population trajectory comes with consequences. As elderly people live longer, there are fewer working-age citizens to pay into Social Security and Medicare programs — adding more stress to an already-strained system.

As a former US Army officer, I’m also concerned about long-lasting national-defense ramifications. A decline in young Americans means our military could find it difficult to maintain readiness as an all-volunteer force. In South Korea, another country experiencing population decline, the military is expected to shed 100,000 troops in the next four years. We could easily find ourselves on the same path if trends continue.

Fewer babies breed major cultural worries, too, like rising loneliness and less societal happiness. Our sense of isolation and alienation long predated the lockdowns. Compounding the unhappiness, there is a significant gap between how many children people say they would like to have versus how many children our society births. 

So, what’s the holdup? 

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise children in today’s America. It boils down to two things: cost and culture.

Day care is astronomically ­expensive for young parents like me. Many working-age men are unable to find employment. Housing costs continue to skyrocket. Student debt cripples nearly my entire generation — delaying family formation for some and leaving others with little impetus to marry and start a family at all.

Then there’s the growing anti-family sentiment, especially among elites. Babies are seen as obstacles in the fight against climate change and the quest for personal “fulfillment.” Life in the womb is no longer considered a gift but an inconvenience to be discarded at will.

Even before my daughter was born, our doctor assumed that my wife and I — a young black couple — wouldn’t want to keep our child. The doctor kept insisting that there were “other options” if we chose not to follow through with the pregnancy. 

Since blacks account for over 36 percent of abortions (despite only comprising 14 percent of the childbearing population), I suppose a young married black couple just didn’t look like parents to a pro-abortion physician.

Like many issues, the population crisis has no easy solution. There are, however, public-policy options that can help. Congress could pass pro-family legislation such as enhanced child tax credits that lessen the financial strain on those who serve society by raising kids. 

It’s not all top-down, though: Everyday Americans could help by promoting marriage and family life as the foundation of a flourishing society. Cheer on the newlywed couple; babysit for the exhausted parents; volunteer at a nearby ­orphanage. 

Children are both financially and emotionally expensive. Sure, my daughter will cost me a number of headaches and heartaches (and yes, increased carbon emissions) over the course of her life. But given the incomparable joy that she brings into our home, our neighborhood and our country every day, she has already paid her bill in full. 

Jeremy C. Hunt is a US Army veteran and a student at Yale Law School. 

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Opinion

Texas shows the way on COVID rationality

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Texas shows the way on COVID rationality

Last week, a US state decided to throw off the shackles of prolonged pandemic restrictions that have done very little good and much harm. That state will reopen libraries, museums, houses of worship and most businesses at full capacity.

No uproar ensued. The state in question was, of course, deep-blue Connecticut. A day earlier, however, when the governors of Texas and Mississippi announced their states were reopening, they got a very different reception. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also noted he will be lifting the statewide mask mandate, the liberal establishment reacted as if had vowed to personally inject the novel coronavirus into the bodies of Lone Star residents.

President Biden slammed the move as “Neanderthal thinking.” NBC’s Lester Holt declared the country at “an unsettling crossroad tonight.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention boss ­Rochelle Walensky warned against a “premature lifting of these prevention measures.” Federal coronavirus guru Anthony Fauci called the news “inexplicable” and said “now is not the time to pull back.”

Actually, the time to pull back was months ago, but better late than never. A year into the pandemic, we easily forget that the lockdowns and other draconian restrictions were imposed as a temporary measure to “flatten the curves” and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. We did that successfully. Months ago. 

No one signed up for living in lockdown indefinitely.

Red Mississippi, Florida and Texas are getting slammed in the prestige press, even as hard-line blue states like New York and California have done a far worse job mitigating COVID-19. 

As for mask mandates, if these are going to become a semi-permanent feature of life in our societies, then we need to have a ­rational, open discussion about that. My two cents: No. Hell no. 

Meanwhile, their high-handed imposition has decimated common sense, empowered busybodies and promoted irrational ­behaviors like widespread outdoor masking.

How useless is outdoor masking? In late November, right before New York’s winter spike, Gov. Cuo­mo bragged that mask compliance in the state was 98 percent. Seven out of 10 states with the highest number of COVID deaths per capita have mask mandates; New York and New Jersey “win” that awful contest. Why continue something that hasn’t worked?

When my middle son was a baby, he was a poor sleeper. Other parents of bad sleepers would try to give me advice. But why would I want advice from such parents? If their advice worked, they would see results. I wanted advice from parents who had gotten their kids to sleep. Advice, even if it sounds reasonable, is only helpful if it produces a desired outcome. 

The same principle applies here. States with far higher death rates per capita than Texas tried ­a ­restrictive technique for fighting COVID-19. Their people have suffered immeasurably because of their failed, for-show-only policies — and they have failed to contain the virus.

Even Cuomo, who clearly ­enjoyed his stint of unchecked power, has realized this nonsense has to eventually end. In January, he registered that yes, we do need to reopen at some point. “We will have nothing left to open,” he warned, sounding like he was lecturing the guy in charge who wasn’t him. “We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely,” he added. 

Appending the word “safely” to calls for reopening doesn’t actually make the opening safer. It’s akin to people who would post pictures of themselves in large groups throughout the pandemic but hashtag the pictures #SocialDistancing!

What works, rather, are vaccinations, coupled with bolstered health facilities and treatments and a rational ­approach to risk. We have the first two things: Vaccines are working remarkably well to prevent serious illness, and our health systems are ready. 

It’s the third — rationality — that is most needed. People won’t get back to their normal lives at the flick of a switch. They have to be eased into it, and that easing should have begun long ago. It’s long past the time to face reality, reopen our states and get on with our lives. Reopened states like Texas should be lauded, not ridiculed.

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