Andrew Cuomo, admittedly, is a difficult boss. But over the last several weeks, episodes have been thrust into the public view that has illustrated what, in modern parlance, would be considered a deeply toxic work environment.
The governor's office and Cuomo himself have defended the hard-charging style as effective and necessary in the hothouse world of New York politics.
Over the last 11 months, Cuomo has appeared in news conferences to update New Yorkers are essential information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the state's response, turning him into a national figure with the image of a stern, but loving dad.
In the last month, a different character has emerged: Cuomo the bully.
Assemblyman Ron Kim this month accused Cuomo of threatening him in a heated phone call over his criticism of the governor's handling of nursing homes and data disclosure during the pandemic. Cuomo's office has said Kim is lying.
Lindsey Boylan, a former economic development official in his administration and now a candidate for Manhattan borough president, accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, alleging he kissed her on the mouth in his New York City office, suggested they play "strip poker" and presided over a workplace where harassment was pervasive and stifling. Cuomo's office has issued a blanket denial of the claims, and released a joint statement from ex-aides who would have been present at the time saying the strip poker comment was never made.
Sen. Alessandra Biagg, who previously worked in the governor's office, on Twitter responded to Boylan's claims, writing: "I have no doubt that this is true. I’ve witnessed similar behavior, and it’s unacceptable." A senior advisor to Cuomo responded to Biaggi, writing "the gov did not interact with you during your brief stint" in the administration.
Cuomo himself has written he's like an "aggressive CEO" and fosters "constructive impatience" as he holds up his own management during the pandemic.
"Thay's why I called these meetings 'peeling the onion.' They are to strip away issues to get at the essence of the matter, and someone usually cries in the end," Cuomo wrote in his book "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic" released last year.
But Albany has changed over the decade Cuomo has been in office. A Legislature of graybeards has given way to lawmakers in their 20s and 30s who were not in office for Cuomo's signature accomplishments. For some, the style lacks resonance.
“Being ‘bare-knuckled’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘a bulldog’ is coded as a positive form of leadership, and productive," Alexis Grenell, a New York political consultant who worked in Cuomo's office when he was attorney general, told my colleague Susan Arbetter on Capital Tonight. "And the governor links those two ideas very clearly together."
Cuomo has been re-elected twice and has signaled he will run for a fourth term in 2022. His staff has acknowledged Cuomo can be difficult, but it's a difficulty that is nevertheless effective to manage and govern in a politically complicated state.
"I will say this: He demands excellence," said Steve Cohen, a former top aide to the governor and a longtime advisor now serving as the top official at the Empire State Development Corp. "He requires that those around him perform. It is an operation and has always been an operation that wants to serve the people and do it appropriately and to the best of our abilities."
This style is "not for everyone," Cohen said.
"Strive for perfection, accept excellence is essentially his motto," he said. "But to get that out of people means you push, you demand, and you are blunt at times and it can be bruising for some people."
Cohen has known Cuomo for the balance of his adult life, has worked in the late Gov. Mario Cuomo's administration. He held a conference call on Thursday morning to set the table for Health Commissioner Howard Zucker's testimony to lawmakers, where he is to be grilled by lawmakers on nursing home policy.
Cohen has long been considered a level head for Team Cuomo, a calming presence who can tell the governor "no." Cohen also was the originator of the term "get along or kill" when describing the administration's outward posture.
Cohen declined to discuss whether Boylan's allegations should be reviewed by Attorney General Letitia James's office. But he insisted the claims she made this week do not track with the Cuomo he knows.
"I can tell you never in my time working with the governor, the former attorney general, private citizen Andrew Cuomo, I have never seen anything of the like of what Ms. Boylan has described," he said. "His conduct has always been in my presence with the members of other staff, appropriate — not that it is always fun-loving and a good time — but it is always appropriate and he pushes to get results. Those results are obvious to everyone."