If “Choppergate” has illuminated anything, it’s the developing political alliance between Andrew Cuomo and Joe Bruno.
Like father, like son—Andrew’s dad, Mario Cuomo, in the 1980s and 1990s was in bed with both Ralph Marino, the Bruno of his day, and Alphonse D’Amato, the U.S. Senator who was the most powerful Republican in New York. Pat Moynihan, the Democrat in the U.S. Senate, declared derisively that Mario Cuomo and Al D’Amato had “a nonaggression pact.” Andrew became Exhibit A of that pact when D’Amato walked him onto the floor of a Senate hearing and introduced him during Andrew’s confirmation proceedings for a top position at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Indeed, D’Amato, who is now a lobbyist deeply enmeshed in state politics, has reportedly visited Andrew’s office during the Bruno/Spitzer flap. The ex-senator is also quite chummy with Bruno’s counsel Mike Avella, who coordinated all of his office’s interactions with Cuomo and dated one of Andrew’s sisters while they were in law school together.
The embodiment, however, of the new bipartisan alliance is 44-year-old Judi DeMarco, a $110,000-a-year deputy counsel to Andrew Cuomo. Until Cuomo hired her shortly after he took office in January, DeMarco was on the state senate payroll, at a peak of $77,000, working for at least two different senators over eight years and establishing what many in Albany have described as a “close and personal” friendship with Joe Bruno. His spokesman, John McArdle, would say only: “Bruno knew her and knew she did some great work.” McArdle also acknowledged that it was Bruno who recommended her for the Cuomo job, adding that she was one of several names submitted to Cuomo by the senator. Cuomo had asked the senator to recommend staffers, McArdle further acknowledged—a request that Spitzer’s press office says the former attorney general never extended to senate Republicans. Indeed, DeMarco’s job didn’t even exist while Spitzer was attorney general: She was hired, believe it or not, to lobby Joe Bruno. She is called the legislative liaison to the Senate, but none of a half-dozen Democratic or Republican senators contacted by the Voice knew that Cuomo had a liaison to lobby them. When Spitzer was attorney general, he had a director of legislative affairs (whose job included efforts to get support for his legislative program from the assembly, senate and governor), not a pal for a pol.
DeMarco was given a $10,000 raise by Cuomo on May 3, four months after she started, and spokesman Lerner says that raise was a reflection of her successful efforts on behalf of Cuomo’s student-loan reform bill, which was such a heavy lobbying load that it passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. (Lerner actually attributes the unanimous senate passage to DeMarco, rather than seeing it as the sort of non-controversial legislation that needs no lobbyist.) Securing senate support for Project Sunlight, a good-government public-access program, was a tougher challenge, but spearheading that effort was Sunlight director Blair Horner, who was a registered and highly effective lobbyist himself in Albany for years, and Cuomo himself. The fact is, as the prior structuring of the office under Spitzer makes clear, the attorney general has such a limited legislative agenda that he hardly needs a highly paid liaison just to talk to the senate leader. In fact, DeMarco has so little to do and is so tied to Bruno personally that she has actually been sighted at one of the press conferences he routinely hosts to belittle the governor—hardly an official part of her job duties.
Asked if DeMarco was given a background check by the attorney general, Lerner declined to answer. It’s unusual that so high-ranking a staffer in a law-enforcement agency would have her kind of personal history, including a 1997 personal bankruptcy, the suspension of her driver’s license in 2005 and 2006 for allowing her insurance to lapse, and three pending judgments against her, including two from a student-loan company.
If young Andrew engaged in contract hits, as Bill Stern alleges, Judi DeMarco is a contract hire.
Jennifer Cunningham is another embodiment, as it were, of the Cuomo/Bruno alliance. She ran Cuomo’s campaign for attorney general in 2006, when she was still the political director of SEIU 1199, the powerful health and hospital workers’ union. When Cuomo won the state party’s nomination for attorney general last year, he and Cunningham launched into a tirade at a Spitzer aide who informed them that Spitzer would still not endorse him in the primary against Mark Green. Indeed, even when Cuomo opened a giant lead in the polls against Green, Spitzer resolutely sat it out, a diss that Cuomo will never forget.
SEIU 1199 isn’t only Andrew’s most important political life-support system; it’s Joe Bruno’s as well. The union has given $868,000 to Bruno’s three senate committees in 2006 and 2007, to say nothing of what it has donated to other members of Bruno’s GOP conference. Since Bruno has no troops to flood the streets in hard-fought races, 1199 is literally his only field operation. He has long been personally close to Cunningham and Cunningham’s boss, Dennis Rivera.
Cunningham left the union’s staff this year and became its outside Albany lobbyist. She initially joined the firm headed by a legendary insider, James Featherstonehaugh, whose multiple business ties to Bruno— including owning the land his son’s home was built on—have been mentioned in news stories about the FBI probe. “Feathers,” as he is called in Albany, was also so close to the Cuomos that he represented the family in the lawsuit over their private use of state aircraft. But Cunningham says she is already leaving Featherstonehaugh and creating a new lobbying firm with John Cordo, a former Bruno staffer who’s been a partner at the “Feathers” firm for years. The union and its giant checkbook are going to the new firm with Cunningham and Cordo.
Incredibly, 1199’s new and fancy headquarters near the Capitol has hosted, Cunningham concedes, recent meetings of the state Republican committee. It was also the location for a secret July meeting of Bruno and the senate Republican conference, according to The New York Sun. The guest was none other than Roger Stone, the prime-time national GOP dirty-tricks operative who was hired as a senate consultant to orchestrate the attacks on Spitzer. Bruno recently dumped Stone when it was revealed that a caller who sounded just like him and used his phone had berated Spitzer’s ailing 83-year-old father in a threatening and vile dead-of-night call. Stone’s denials have become the joke of state politics. McArdle attributes Stone’s hiring to Ed Lurie, the Bruno operative whose presence on Bruno trips indicates just how political they are.
Cunningham denies that she played any role in the Cuomo attack on Spitzer, and there’s no indication she did. But 1199 is the glue tying Bruno and Cuomo together, and the union has been engaged in full-scale war with Spitzer since he took office. Indeed, Bruno was the union’s top champion in this year’s budget negotiations with the governor, restoring hundreds of millions in proposed cuts. This is the constellation of political relationships now gathered in Cuomo’s office, and it is a coalition of mutual interests that has the governor in its sights—if not to defeat him, then to weaken him. That’s why the senate has already proposed four or five bills to strengthen Cuomo’s investigative powers and heighten his ability to probe the Spitzer regime. And that’s why McArdle points to four joint press events that Bruno’s office and Cuomo have done together in recent months—more than he’s done with Democratic legislators.
“He wants to work with us as partners,” said the spokesman.