Alphonso David: Black, Gay, and the Third Most Powerful Man in New York
Photo by Charlie Samuels
Alphonso David knows something about political instability, popular upheavals and the fear that comes after. David has served as Governor Andrew Cuomo's chief counsel since 2015 and has worked under the man in various capacities for almost a decade. But he was raised in Liberia; his wealthy family, targeted for belonging to the doomed political establishment, fled the African nation when he was ten during a violent military coup. David has lived freedom — and had it taken away.
"I've lived in a country that was democratically elected and went basically to a dictatorship," he told the Voice. "I don't take our democracy for granted."
Donald Trump's presidency has much of the country unnerved, David included. He is a Democrat, after all, a black and openly gay man negotiating a new reality of triumphant white nationalism. But as the man tasked with turning Cuomo's ideas into law, David projects calm. New York — now a deep blue island in a sea of red — will be leaning on its local leaders to guard against the most savage incursions of a Trump administration, and it will be partially up to the governor's cerebral fixer to get the job done.
"He brings a combination of intellectual firepower and political smarts which is not always common among lawyers in Albany," said State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who has worked closely with David.
David, 46, doesn't resemble your average Cuomo lifer — a burly, tough-talking, outer-borough operator like former executive deputy secretary Joe Percoco, who was likened to a member of the family before he was hit with federal corruption charges earlier this year. Close Cuomo aides are often brawlers, happy to berate lawmakers and reporters alike. David is every bit the bulldog Percoco was, but the resemblance stops there (one former aide described David, a yoga practitioner and fitness freak, as "ripped"). He comes with a law degree from Temple University, a clerkship with a federal judge, and experience as a staff attorney at Lambda Legal and running his own anti-addiction company in California. And unlike Percoco — and Cuomo — he's not going to scream at you over the phone. "He's very congenial," said Dr. Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference, "whether you agree with him or not."
In 2008, after his stint at Lambda, David joined Attorney General Cuomo's office as a special deputy AG for civil rights. At the time, Cuomo was waiting in a line for the governorship that had just gotten one shorter in the wake of Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal. With Spitzer gone and an ineffectual David Paterson in his place, it was only a matter of time before it was Cuomo's turn at the service window. After his boss's election in 2010, David joined the administration as its principal adviser on civil rights; after Cuomo's second win, in 2014, David ascended to his current official posting as Cuomo's chief in-house lawyer — arguably the third most powerful position in Albany.
Over the past six years, Governor Cuomo has simultaneously thrilled and disgusted progressives. In 2011, the governor battled a Republican-controlled Senate to pass a bill legalizing gay marriage, an accomplishment that sent Cuomo's approval ratings soaring and increased chatter that he'd run for president someday. Still, there remained a segment of the left that was deeply distrustful of the governor: A Clintonian triangulator through much of his first term, Cuomo mocked the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy, bullied public-sector unions, and, far from continuing to provide a check against them, went on to empower Republicans in the Senate.
Photo by Lynn Savarese
David hews more or less to the administration's overriding and often ruthless pragmatism, viewing himself as less an enforcer and more the man who takes the governor's will and makes it a reality — sometimes provoking the left's ire in the process. He was the brains behind an executive order that divested the state from all companies aligned with the BDS movement, a decision that drew heavy fire from Palestine activists. And on other issues, like granting clemency for prisoners, David has been Cuomo's steely ambassador, disappointing advocates who expected more from him. "He lacks empathy, and he's robotic," said Allen Roskoff, a clemency activist and president of the New York City–based Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a major fundraising organ for LGBTQ and other progressive causes.
But don't tell David that Cuomo isn't sufficiently progressive. "It's unfair," he said of the criticism. "If you look at the governor's record and compare it to anyone else's, not only the actual policies but the impact they have, there's no comparison."
That record has much to do with David himself: During the gay-marriage fight, he crafted legislation that helped tamp down the infighting between rival gay-rights groups that had plagued past efforts. And if a Cuomo initiative faces opposition from the left, he's the guy the governor calls in to "neutralize" it, according to one progressive insider. For instance, when activists pressured Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate instances of police-involved killings of civilians, David was the go-between. And when tenants'-rights activists accused Cuomo of not doing enough to protect them as rent laws came up for renewal in Albany, they met David. "If you're an advocate or a progressive leader — if you've done well or you've created a campaign seen as a threat to Cuomo — then you'll get a call from Alphonso," said the insider.
Whether Cuomo makes the decision to run in 2020 is uncertain. Just after the election, however, he claimed to stand in defiance of President-elect Trump's coming regime, anointing New York as a refuge for those who could come under attack. It could have been one of his occasional paroxysms of progressivism, or merely a play for position with the kingmakers of the Democratic Party — in a quote to the Daily News, the state's GOP chairman, Ed Cox, told "Andrew" to "give it a break." Whatever the ends of the governor's maneuvers, one thing is clear: David's role as the dogged right hand on the left's mobilizing issues under a hostile presidency. "We have a responsibility as public servants to ensure that our laws and our policies are fairly and evenly applied in this new world order," said David. "We have an even greater responsibility to make sure New Yorkers are not marginalized or targeted."
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