Andrew Cuomo’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign was an epic disaster. He swooped in from Washington and went to war with the state Democratic Party, weakening the eventual nominee and tearfully withdrawing before votes were cast; more than a few people predicted that he had permanently ruined the family’s name.
Almost no one from the 2002 campaign stuck around for his 2006 attorney general campaign, but Joseph Percoco did.
Mr. Percoco, now 40, has been a part of the Cuomo organization—such as it is—for nearly two decades. Todd Howe, who was in charge of scheduling for Governor Cuomo, hired Mr. Percoco right out of college, in 1991, to work for the elder Mr. Cuomo. He stayed on to work with the younger Mr. Cuomo when he was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, then managed Mr. Cuomo’s successful attorney general campaign, in 2006. He has, all that time, remained something like Mr. Cuomo’s shadow.
It goes without saying that Mr. Percoco will play a large, if quiet, role in Mr. Cuomo’s all-but-certain campaign for governor.
“Fiercely loyal,” said Jennifer Cunningham, the former political director for 1199 SEIU, when asked about Mr. Percoco’s relationship to Mr. Cuomo.
“He would do anything for Andrew,” said another Democratic operative. “He would jump on a grenade for him.”
Mr. Percoco is a background man. He doesn’t do interviews (he politely declined to speak for this article), and for a career public-sector guy, he’s hard to research. For example, a search of the New York Post online archives turns up only two stories that mention him, one of which is from 2001 and no longer accessible.
He did, however, provide some personal information through a spokeswoman. Mr. Percoco attended Wagner College on Staten Island, and then St. John’s Law School. In 2005, he was admitted to the bar, and between Mr. Cuomo’s 2002 and 2006 campaigns, he practiced law at KPMG, LLC.
He grew up in Rockland County, played catcher in the New City Babe Ruth League (where he batted over .400 and was voted MVP). In his senior year of high school, he was an outside linebacker, and won the “Coach’s Award” for team leadership.
He married his college sweetheart and has two daughters. He declined to discuss his siblings or his parents.
In the field, Mr. Percoco is an imposing figure. He’s over 6 feet tall, works out regularly and still has the linebacker’s physique. His short black hair is now beginning to thin a little, and is combed back. He’s clean-shaven and always in a tie.
When Mr. Cuomo campaigned with Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson in the Bronx last year, Mr. Percoco was among the first to arrive. The ensuing event was a media circus, with Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Thompson followed by a throng of photographers, cameramen and reporters blocking nearly the entire sidewalk and part of the street.
Through it all, Mr. Percoco managed to stay out of the spotlight. When Mr. Cuomo left, Mr. Percoco slapped hands with a Thompson aide and, before leaving, asked repeatedly if the aide was happy with the event. The answer he received: absolutely. Mr. Percoco smiled, then departed.
Harry Giannoulis, a political consultant who was a statewide ombudsman to the governor in the early 1990s, said Mr. Percoco is a skillful problem solver and “a combination of Michael Clayton and James Baker.”
When asked to elaborate, Mr. Giannoulis said, “Part of being James Baker and Michael Clayton is nobody knows about the problems you actually solve.”
It’s widely agreed that Mr. Percoco speaks for Mr. Cuomo. “When people hear from Joe, they know what Andrew thinks,” said Stuart Applebaum, a labor leader and Cuomo supporter. “I never heard anyone say, ‘I just spoke to Joe, now I have to check with Andrew.’”
When Mr. Cuomo became the secretary of HUD, a small cadre of Mario Cuomo’s closest aides went to work for his son, including Mr. Howe, who immediately called his favorite staffer.
“We all agreed: ‘Look, we need Percoco down here,’” said Mr. Howe, who said he brought Mr. Percoco down to Washington for an interview. Then he corrected himself.
“I shouldn’t say interviewed. We brought him down, sat him down and basically said, ‘Hey Joe, here’s what we need done,’ and Joe again stepped into the fray.”
“Even though it might have been the most difficult task he’d ever been assigned, he figured out a way to do it,” recalled Mr. Howe. “He did it well, didn’t have to worry about bodies being cast aside on the side of the road because he did it diplomatically, he did it smartly.”
When Mr. Cuomo, as H.U.D. secretary, visited an Indian reservation in South Dakota with President Clinton, Mr. Percoco was dispatched to handle the event. In 2002, Mr. Percoco helped orchestrate Mr. Cuomo’s victory at the Rural Democratic Conference, one of the few bright spots in that campaign.
Mr. Percoco holds enough power in the Cuomo circle to make local politicians and operatives somewhat terrified of him—several people interviewed refused to give even anonymous quotes for fear of a phone call from Mr. Percoco.
One Democratic lawmaker said that if a person is quoted publicly saying anything unflattering, or even questionable, about Mr. Cuomo, they can expect to get that call.
There’s a reason, of course, why several people declined to discuss Mr. Percoco at all, for fear of antagonizing the attorney general. Mr. Cuomo is widely expected to announce his candidacy for governor, and widely expected to win, whether David Paterson decides to seek reelection or not. Slighting Mr. Percoco, they said, could make them unwelcome on the second floor of the Capitol.
In 2007, Mr. Cuomo investigated and issued a scathing report on how aides to Governor Eliot Spitzer improperly used the state police to document travels of a political rival—the scandal popularly referred to as “Troopergate.”
Sean Patrick Maloney, the former Eliot Spitzer aide who ran against Mr. Cuomo in the 2006 primary for attorney general, said of Mr. Percoco: “Look, I like Joe. [That] might sound odd since he was a big part of Andrew clobbering me, but the guy always treated me with respect and was good at what he did.”
Sometimes, though, Mr. Percoco does leave bodies in plain sight.
Last year, following Senator Hillary Clinton’s resignation to become secretary of state, Mr. Percoco encouraged Democratic officials to express disapproval of Caroline Kennedy’s candidacy for the Senate seat many believed Mr. Cuomo also wanted. The story of Mr. Percoco’s conversations were detailed in a front-page New York Times story that relied on unnamed sources, and was vociferously denied by a Cuomo spokesman at the time.
But Mr. Percoco doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, and he’ll unquestionably be around for a long time, no matter what Mr. Cuomo does next. Josh Isay, who consulted on Mr. Cuomo’s 2002 campaign, said Mr. Percoco “has the strength to tell Andrew what he thinks.” That’s pretty unique.
Reflecting on the relationship between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Percoco, Mr. Howe said, “I don’t think you become this loyal, I don’t think you become this close to a principal, unless you truly believe that you are connected to someone that is truly special.”