Meet the Press! Andrew Cuomo Opens the Second Floor, But Can He Win Over a Skeptical Albany Press Corps?

cuomo 2 Meet the Press! Andrew Cuomo Opens the Second Floor, But Can He Win Over a Skeptical Albany Press Corps?On Saturday morning, a dozen reporters stood on the second floor of the Capitol, gazing toward the door of the Executive Chamber, where Andrew Cuomo was holding the first staff meeting of his new administration.

Just after 9 a.m., the door opened, and Mr. Cuomo’s top aides began to trickle down the hall.

“Good meeting, lots of work,” said his chief of staff, Benjamin Lawksy, as he passed by reporters.

The press peered down the hall, but the new governor was nowhere to be seen.

And though it was still early on Jan. 1, among the regular chroniclers of Capitol life, there was little optimism for what the New Year might hold.

“The door is open,” said one reporter, “but there’s still no information coming out.”

“You thought Andrew was going to change?” another laughed.

A few minutes later, his deputy communications director, Josh Vlasto, told reporters the governor was already back at his desk, and offered a quick briefing on the morning meeting.

On the first day of his new administration, Mr. Cuomo didn’t bother with the auditorium address and fancy gala of George Pataki’s first inaugural, nor did he embark on the vigorous morning run and five executive orders of Eliot Spitzer’s infamous Day 1. Instead, he opted for a few symbolic acts, and a single executive order, intended to portray himself as a workmanlike executive, primarily concerned with restoring government to the people.

Outside, on State Street, workers were already removing a concrete barrier that prevented tour buses from unloading in front of the Capitol, and later, there would be a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, too.

The theme was transparency and openness, but for reporters who had spent the past four years trying desperately to extract even the smallest morsels of information from Mr. Cuomo’s attorney general’s office–and who were then forced to cover his coasting campaign to the governor’s mansion–no amount of symbolism would be enough.

The press, after all, is a reflexively grumpy lot.

As one reporter put it: “It’s like we’ve just been given a 4-to-12-year sentence.”

 

For those inclined to optimism, there was, at least, this: the reporters were doing their morning grumbling inside the stately Hall of Governors, between the oil portraits of John Alden Dix and Martin H. Glynn.

The long hallway, which lines the executive offices, had been closed by George Pataki in 1995, much to the consternation of the press corps, which was then left to wait for the governor and his aides in the shadowy, crowded stairwell outside.

Mr. Cuomo’s first executive order moved the security desk a few feet to the right, reopening “Fort Pataki” to the people–and the press.

Some members of the media were happier about this than others.

“I think it’s very gutsy on his part,” said Fred Dicker, the New York Post’s influential state editor, who has long been a champion of public access to the halls of power.

Behind Mr. Dicker’s desk hangs a framed cover–”Post Albany Chief Beaten”–from the day after he forcefully tried to enter a closed Assembly office in 1987.

Next to that is a gag cover from the 1980s that might seem ironic to current political observers: “DICKER QUITS”–reads the 3-inch headline–”Cuomo declares holiday.” (Mr. Dicker had famously cast the elder Cuomo as Captain Queeg on the cover of the Post in 1986.)

The younger Cuomo, who has maintained a mutually beneficial reporter-subject relationship with Mr. Dicker since long before he first ran for public office, made a point of catering to him throughout the campaign, appearing on his radio show a dozen times; the rest of the press corps was mostly denied extended interviews. And, naturally, Mr. Dicker’s column was the most frequent venue in all of newspaperdom for leak-driven scoops from anonymous sources with knowledge of Mr. Cuomo’s thinking.

“I think we’ve all been appalled at the way the New York Post has been basically his delivery vehicle for any message he wanted to put out there for years now,” said Rex Smith, the editor for the Albany Times-Union, who at the same time acknowledged why Mr. Cuomo might need to court Mr. Dicker.

“I think that the way Fred covers things skews reporting in the Capitol in general. Entire episodes in the Capitol occur because of Fred’s decision about the way to handle them,” he said.

Mr. Dicker noted that Mr. Cuomo has made appearances on other shows, and rejected the notion from some of his colleagues that the new governor has been hostile to the press.

“I think he’s tough, and can be prickly, but I think he’s a breath of fresh air in his willingness to engage journalists and discuss his thoughts,” said Mr. Dicker.

“To me, it’s ironic, a lot of journalists who haven’t had any contact with governors for years–Pataki, Spitzer, Paterson more recently–now, all of a sudden, they’re having a chance to speak to the real governor of the State of New York, and I know some of them are complaining. I think they ought to be grateful.”

To some of his colleagues in the Legislative Correspondents Association, opening the Hall of Governors is merely another way of keeping Mr. Dicker happy, after the columnist aggressively promoted both George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer before turning fiercely against them after their elections.

In fact, it has become something of a parlor game around Albany to guess when Mr. Dicker might grow disillusioned with Mr. Cuomo–with even Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wondering about it, according to one source.

(Mr. Dicker has repeatedly stated that Mr. Cuomo’s administration will succeed or fail in the first three to four months, and upped the ante in a column last week, when he suggested he might re-locate if the new governor couldn’t fix the state’s fiscal mess.)

One reporter called the ribbon-cutting on the second floor–which absorbed the Post‘s entire Sunday cover–a “member item” for Mr. Dicker.

“It’s been a theme of mine, a sore point,” said Mr. Dicker, but added that it was not just him. “There were smiles on people’s faces around here. … There seemed to be genuine pleasure at this action.”

“It’s a boon for reporters,” said James T. Madore, the outgoing bureau chief for Newsday, who by Sunday afternoon had already caught a couple administration aides for a story he was writing.

But the access to Mr. Cuomo’s offices is only as valuable as the administration decides to make it.

Early in Mario Cuomo’s first term, reporters wandered freely on the second floor, frequently dropping into the office of his communications director, the future host of Meet the Press, Tim Russert.

“Tim Russert was a very embracing guy with the media, he loved the news media,” said Marc Humbert, who covered state government for more than 25 years.

“If [Communications Director] Rich Bamberger and Josh Vlasto invite reporters to come in all the time, to come down the hall, and come into the press office and talk–well, we’ll see,” Mr. Humbert said. “Let’s hope it happens. For your sake.”

 

It’s not yet clear that Mr. Cuomo’s communications team will have quite the same affinity for the press corps.

Mr. Bamberger, the communications director, left Inside Edition in 2008–after nearly 17 years in television–to serve as communications director for Mr. Cuomo’s attorney general’s office. He’s generally a behind-the-scenes man, serving an executive well known for taking an unusually involved role in the oversight of every aspect of his press operations.

Mr. Vlasto never served as a journalist, but he spent six years in the demanding employ of Senator Charles Schumer, and his father, James Vlasto, served as press secretary to the 51st governor, Hugh Carey (whose biography Mr. Cuomo recently sent to labor leaders). To his credit, or not, Mr. Vlasto seems to embrace the task of absorbing reporters’ frustration; the young face of what was generally regarded as an unhelpful communications outfit during the campaign.

The challenge for Mr. Cuomo and his press shop now–after four years of being the resident good-guy, and a few months campaigning, with its policy positions close to the vest–is to meaningfully re-engage with the press, or at least to prevail upon the press to do two things: consistently pick up on and drive Mr. Cuomo’s message of fiscal austerity, and to keep him cast as the protagonist in process stories about his struggles with the Legislature to bring light and goodness to the fetid capital.

“Here, in order to build that consensus, you’re supposed to be constantly framing the issues,” said a communications consultant who has worked with Mr. Cuomo in the past. “He’s certainly capable of doing it. It’s just that he and his people just haven’t engaged in that way at all.”

On Saturday, after a speech about reconnecting the public to politics, Mr. Cuomo took the unusual step of convening a press gaggle, something previous administrations have avoided on the grounds that it might muddle the inaugural message.

There were a couple of hiccups.

As reporters trudged back up from State Street–where the new governor stood for photos as workers removed the concrete barriers–reporters without a Capitol ID were shunted by guards back into the security line.

“Do we really have to go through this?” one pleaded.

As they emptied their pockets and unpacked their gear, Mr. Cuomo was already beginning the day’s only Q&A down the hall.

“Jesus Christ,” said one radio reporter as he tried to arch his microphone over the crowd of reporters already gathered around the governor.

“This is crazy,” muttered one television reporter to her cameraman, who fetched a folding chair to stand on.

After the scrum, reporters descended on Mr. Vlasto to find out what they’d missed. He promised to circulate a transcript, and he swung by the LCA press room later to apologize.

But some reporters are willing to give them credit for trying.

“Cuomo and his people are making a really good effort to try to at least appear open–and I don’t mean that to be cynical–they’re trying to make sure our needs are being taken care of,” said Lawrence Levy, a former reporter and columnist for Newsday, whose first day covering the Capitol was Mario Cuomo’s inauguration.

Mr. Levy said that if you closed your eyes, the two Cuomos could be mistaken for each other.

Other longtime observers doubted whether the younger Cuomo could ever quite enjoy the press in the same way his father once did.

“Mario loved the repartee,” said one journalist who covered the Capitol in the 1980s. “He would challenge the philosophical premise of the question, as a sort of intellectual engagement.”

To wit: Last week, James Estrin, a New York Times photographer, posted his recollections of a photo shoot with Mario Cuomo, during which the two had a searching discussion of theodicy, the theological discipline that tries to reconcile God with the existence of evil.

On the same day, another Times’ story described the son’s preference for the art of cajoling with interminable, surprise phone calls–a follow-up of sorts to an earlier Times story that chronicled his late night, off-the-record calls to reporters.

Mr. Cuomo would seem to have a more deep-seated distrust of the press than his father did.

Back in June of 1992, when Mr. Cuomo was asked why such an obviously ambitious, well-connected son of a governor had evinced no interest in running for office, he cited the press.

“When you are in elected office, it is different,” Mr. Cuomo said. “You are open to the public. You are open to reporters, and you have to respond to their questions no matter how inane, no matter how personal, no matter how off-base the question—and you have to do it with a smile. That is the price you pay when you’re in elected office.”

Now, Mr. Cuomo has little choice but to be out front.

“He likes to be a source for what the administration is thinking,” said Mr. Humbert, the former AP bureau chief. “Will he change that? As governor, he probably will. He’ll probably be just naturally more accessible, because he’s talked about more openness in government, and that has to start at the top. So I expect he’ll be fairly accessible to the media–certainly, initially. If it backfires on him, that might change.”

On Monday, Mr. Cuomo hastily summoned the press corps to the second floor for an impromptu press conference, to talk about his self-imposed pay cut and the need for unions to be “reasonable” in the upcoming negotiations with the state. And Mr. Vlasto said the decision to move Wednesday’s State of the State address from the Assembly chamber to the more expansive Empire State Plaza would accommodate hundreds of journalists and editorial board members from across the state.

Mr. Cuomo has even begun to banter.

“I’m not going to respond to any questions from you about my accent. That’s how Christopher Walken pronounces it,” he told The New York Times’ Nick Confessore during Saturday’s scrum, after Mr. Confessore had compared the governor’s Queens-ish accent to that of the Deer Hunter star.

Later, in a lull during his receiving line at the mansion, Mr. Cuomo sipped from a coffee mug on the mantel and turned to the cameras clustered behind a rope a few feet away.

“You scared all the people away, see what happened?” he said. “Nobody wants to deal with the press these days.”

Mr. Cuomo smiled and appeared to be mostly joking.

“You’re thwarting democracy,” he said.

The two-hour receiving line had been billed on the public schedule as “OPEN PRESS,” but after 10 minutes, the press was shuttled outside.

“I thought this was supposed to be open press, Josh?” asked one reporter. Mr. Vlasto explained that he had taken a vote among reporters, who decided on the 10-minute window.

“We have done a Q&A, the [lieutenant governor] did radio interviews. We have been open and transparent today,” said Mr. Vlasto. “So, we have done our bit. I appreciate your–”

He was interrupted by a New York 1 reporter who asked if she might be able to get some quick B-roll from other rooms in the mansion.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” said Mr. Vlasto.

Later that evening, he made one last run through the Capitol press rooms, asking reporters if they had everything they needed.

rpillifant@observer.com