‘Worst in America’: Inside the very public feud between Cuomo and Stefanik

ALBANY — She calls him the “worst governor in America.” His right-hand man calls her “the worst member of Congress in America.” It didn’t used to be this way.

The vitriol between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, and their staffers, began escalating after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, with Cuomo and his staff criticizing Stefanik for her support of then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

The incendiary rhetoric surged again last week as the details were leaked of a closed-door meeting in which the secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, admitted stonewalling the release of data on Cuomo’s nursing home policies in the face of a U.S. Justice Department investigation. Many believe those policy decisions increased fatalities in the facilities. Stefanik seized on DeRosa’s startling revelation and, along with many other lawmakers, demanded a federal investigation of the governor’s administration.

For Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and DeRosa, a longtime confidante of Cuomo’s, the politically charged discourse is a dramatic departure from the friendly rapport the pair had enjoyed as classmates at the esteemed Albany Academy for Girls.

“We may not agree on everything, but I will never stop being in awe of my little sister and middle school student council running-mate,” DeRosa said in January 2019 of Stefanik. She has also frequently told a story of how the two worked together as kids to bring a vending machine to their school.

But the view of them from others was not always as adoring; or as one former classmate described them both, “overly ambitious and ruthless … not well-liked.”

Now, the language used by the political adversaries is spiked with insults, including: “toxic and rightfully despised throughout the North Country,” “emperor with no clothes,” “QAnon Trump puppet,” and member of the “treason caucus.”

The Times Union interviewed more than a dozen individuals — Republicans and Democrats — all familiar with Cuomo, Stefanik and New York politics. Many requested anonymity to share candid observations that could otherwise jeopardize their jobs.

The battle of words stands out even in an era when heated insults have become more common in politics. It also contrasts sharply with the moderate, bipartisan-focused image cultivated by Stefanik when she first came up in politics.

In Cuomo’s office, a former staffer once said: “We operate at two speeds here: Get along and kill.” Richard Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo, used to advertise himself on Twitter as the governor’s “hatchetman.”

Alex DeGrasse, a Republican strategist and Stefanik’s campaign advisor, regularly blasts Cuomo’s team as “sycophant hacks” in statements.

Pragmatically, Stefanik’s diction toward Cuomo is striking considering her Adirondack district is heavily reliant on state and federal funding for everything from community health centers to wastewater infrastructure. Cuomo also wields enormous power over how the state’s money is spent and where.

Still, the bitter exchanges also distinguish Stefanik from most other Republican members of the New York congressional delegation, who have largely declined to engage in the same level of venom.

Stefanik’s heightened national profile and her acrimonious exchanges with Cuomo have fueled a growing suspicion among some Republicans that she is contemplating a run against Cuomo for governor next year — although others dismiss that notion because the state GOP is struggling with its ground game and running low on funds, especially in comparison to Cuomo’s enormous campaign war chest.

Yet Stefanik pledged during her inaugural 2014 congressional campaign that she would serve no more than five terms; she’s now in her fourth. Meanwhile, Cuomo will be running for his fourth term in 2022, during a presidential midterm election with a first-term Democrat on the ballot, typically an equation that is challenging for Democrats at the polls.

Stefanik and Cuomo — and their staff members — declined to respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story; nor did they provide answers to specific questions that were emailed to them.

Some of those sources who believe Stefanik is considering challenging Cuomo also doubt she could win a statewide office, due to her allegiance to Trump as well as the strength of the state’s Democratic Party.

“I think Elise Stefanik is likely giving good consideration for statewide office,” said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the 2018 Republican nominee for governor, who is also considering running for the office again in 2022.

“I know people who know her family pretty well, and a couple of them have told me that she wants to run for governor,” said another longtime Republican political operative from Stefanik’s district. Stefanik has gone out of her way throughout her career to help down ballot candidates both in and outside of her district, the person added, which is consistent with someone who wants to build a statewide political base. Her wide fundraising base also gives her a more solid platform to launch a gubernatorial campaign than other state Republicans.

Stefanik was included in a speculative poll last week of popular political figures in the state who could theoretically run against Cuomo in 2022, garnering 37% support to his 49%. She fared better than Democratic figures, including state Attorney General Letitia James and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who were buried in the poll with Cuomo outpacing them by more than 40 points.

Another source, a Republican who has known Stefanik for years, noted that, as a minority House member, “punching up” to challenge Cuomo is good for her brand. When Cuomo pushes back, “it elevates her.”

“I think she read the tea leaves and looked at where the district was and it caused her pivot,” said another New York Republican. “She looked at polling and Trump was most popular and Cuomo was least popular. It’s easy political math to do here. That guy’s bad and this guy’s good.”

That person said that he expect Stefanik to run for reelection to her House seat, as its so safely in her hands and she may want to ascend to a leadership position. But the person added: “In the minds of a lot of Republican voters in this state, they’re salivating, saying, ‘Oh great, she’s going to run for governor.'”

Several Republicans said Stefanik’s attacks are likely designed to maintain her fundraising base and political profile now that Trump does not occupy the center of the political stage. In a co-dependent dynamic, that can be politically useful for Cuomo, too — as knocking Stefanik’s Trumpism scores points with the left and could neutralize a budding rival.

Their back and forth has escalated over the past year as Cuomo led the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and Stefanik firmly supported Trump throughout his campaign, including efforts to challenge the 2020 election results.

Cuomo called on the New York congressional delegation to ask Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Congresswoman Stefanik, you believe he should resign?” Cuomo said to reporters. “And if they say they don’t think he should resign, then yeah, you are complicit, you’re part of it, you’ve condoned it. You’re part of the mob.”

Stefanik’s press release issued in response claimed that Cuomo personally called for her resignation, so she called for his.

“Gov. Cuomo is responsible for the deaths of thousands of seniors in nursing homes, the crippling of our small business economy in New York, the state’s population mass exodus, and the abysmal vaccination rollout disaster,” Stefanik said. “He is the Emperor with No Clothes and he should resign and end his disgraceful reign of corruption and failed leadership.”

Stefanik’s lambasting again heated up after a report from the state attorney general’s office concluded that Cuomo and his state health commissioner had for months underreported the number of nursing home resident deaths from COVID-19 by as much as 50 %.

That same day, Stefanik blasted a fundraising call-out to her supporters, asking them to text “WorstGovernor” to contribute to her. (For many in the North Country, it’s a familiar turn of phrase from Stefanik: She also called her 2018 and 2020 congressional challenger Democrat Tedra Cobb, the “worst candidate in America.”) Stefanik and other New York Republican representatives demanded a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the attorney general’s findings.

Then, late last week, a report from the New York Post showed DeRosa told a group of Democratic New York lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that she could not provide data on nursing home deaths to them immediately last year because the administration wasn’t sure it would be used against them by federal investigators.

“Gov. Cuomo, the secretary to the governor and his senior team must be prosecuted immediately,” Stefanik said in a statement in response to that revelation. “I have said from the beginning this is more than a nursing home scandal, this is a massive corruption and coverup scandal at the highest level of New York state government.”

Stefanik is paying for a website Cuomocorruption.com, collecting signatures on a petition stating Cuomo should be prosecuted for corruption.

Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, also called for Cuomo’s immediate resignation on Twitter.

The Times Union asked other New York Republican members of the House if they agreed with Stefanik’s dismal estimation of Cuomo’s skill as governor.

John Katko of Syracuse, Andrew Garbarino of Sayville, and Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island, declined to label Cuomo worst in America.

“I’m not going to get into that,” Katko said. “I’ll let history be the judge of that.”

“I think his handling on the nursing home issue, he mishandled that. I don’t think he did it maliciously,” Garbarino said. “But I work with his office on other issues and his office did help me with unemployment when I was still in the state Legislature. When I needed him, they did help when they could.”

“I don’t know if there are any worse, but I know there are better,” Malliotakis said.

Staffers for New York congressional members, who have worked with both Cuomo and Stefanik’s offices, described Cuomo’s team as “bullying,” “mean” and “vindictive.” Another, in turn, complained that Stefanik took legitimate policy criticisms of Cuomo and delivered them with partisan, belligerent and “out of line” rhetoric.

Stefanik has touted that her self-described bipartisan approach and close relationships across the aisle have allowed her to deliver results for the Adirondack Region, which is heavily reliant on state and federal funds. Yet it’s unclear whether the escalating tensions between the two power poles steering funding to the district will disrupt or otherwise jeopardize that track record.

Several economic development agencies serving the Adirondack Park, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and North Country Chamber of Commerce, declined to share their perspective for this story.

“I don’t comment on politics,” said Garry Douglas, head of the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

Yet politics has already bled into the ordinarily apolitical firmament of the clubby chamber crowd where local officials and business leaders lobbying state and federal representatives at legislative breakfasts is an annual ritual.

The Glens Falls-based Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce found itself in the spotlight last month, when a petition circulated by a member who urged the organization to disinvite Stefanik from addressing their annual legislative forum had garnered over 1,900 signatures. The non-profit’s president and CEO, Michael Bittel, didn’t respond for comment.

Albany and Washington also work closely on environmental issues, from efforts to combat invasive species and ensuring funding for agencies like the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a joint effort between New York, Vermont and Quebec which coordinates watershed protection efforts.

The public would best be served if politicians “speak truth, support the rule of law, including laws that protect the people and wilderness of the Adirondack Park, and work with their perceived adversaries to serve higher purposes than politics,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, which has both praised and criticized the congresswoman’s environmental record, as well as Cuomo’s. “We can all succeed in addressing the threats that face the Adirondack Park and its people, when our leaders embrace truth, compromise and common ground. Those who won’t move us backwards.”

Protect the Adirondacks slammed the fourth-term congresswoman and wondered if her increasingly bellicose tone would jeopardize her ability to work with Democrats in Albany or Washington.

Executive Director Peter Bauer said Stefanik started her career in Congress as an “exciting new voice who preached moderation and working across the aisle.”

“In the last year, she has shifted to where she is now one of the most dishonest and partisan hacks in Congress — and that’s saying something,” Bauer said. “Given that she is now in the political minority, where she’s likely to remain for some time, the Adirondacks and North Country will be short-changed as far as major federal programming.”

Bauer was quick to point out he also believes that Cuomo has been the worst governor for the Adirondack Park in the past century, a tenure he characterized as “repeated squandered opportunities and poor long-term investments,” but added he doesn’t agree that Cuomo’s the worst in the nation.

And he has been watching the back-and-forth tweets between the Cuomo and Stefanik camps, noting DeRosa and Stefanik are part of those exchanges.

“I understand they went to a private high school together but their tweets are straight out of the movie ‘Mean Girls,'” Bauer said. “Then again, much of the Cuomo administration and Elise Stefanik’s campaigns, with her rabid campaign staffers, are straight out of ‘Mean Girls,’ too.”


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