Stories

Cuomo’s counselor reveals secrets behind his boss’ success

A former top aide to the governor speaks from behind the scenes

Steve Cohen

Former Secretary to the Governor Steven M. Cohen, back in private law practice. Photo: Pei Shan Hoe/The New York World

 

 

Steve Cohen

Secretary to Governor Andrew Cuomo; previously Counselor and Chief of Staff to Cuomo in Office of the Attorney General

Arrived: January 2007

Departed: June 2011

This is the Steve Cohen who, for the past four years and more, was Andrew Cuomo’s number-one honcho, his go-to guy, right-hand man, closest political confidant, and holder of many official titles, most recently secretary to the governor of New York. (Not to be confused with the other Steve Cohens around.) He was also the man behind the Marriage Equality Act (for more on that, read this City & State interview) allowing same-sex couples to wed, and the prosecutor who fought for the exoneration of two men wrongly accused of murder in what is now known as the Palladium case.

Cohen left government service this summer half a year after Cuomo assumed his governor’s post, citing personal reasons and prior plans. Cohen went back into private law practice as a partner with Washington D.C.–based firm Zuckerman Spaeder, and has been working out of the firm’s spiffy Times Square New York office for almost two months now. As described by American Lawyer, he is now handling “white-collar criminal defense, crisis management, government investigations, and complex commercial and regulatory matters.”

The New York World caught up with Cohen for an exclusive post-departure interview which he talked about how he ended up working for both Mario and Andrew Cuomo – it was all thanks to Larry King, it turns out – provided insights into what goes on in the attorney general and governor’s offices, and hinted at a possible return to Cuomo’s side.

How did you get into government?

I went to NYU and got an internship in junior year with Governor Mario Cuomo. It started off with me basically doing various tasks in his office, but quickly I started working on press projects. This was early spring of 1984 — Governor [Mario] Cuomo was elected in 1983 so it was very early on in a new administration, so at the time, he had a special assistant who was Andrew Cuomo. I didn’t work directly with Andrew, but I got to know him.

I worked with a lot of people who were very close and friendly with Andrew. I knew him, but day-to-day I didn’t interact with him. I was a 21-year-old, glorified intern, a little bit on the rise but had no real future.

 

Your father knew the Cuomos. What was that relationship like and how did you join the fray?

My father wrote a book called You Can Negotiate Anything, and at various points gave advice to Governor Mario Cuomo. I actually met Governor [Mario] Cuomo through Larry King — Larry King is a family friend, and Governor [Mario] Cuomo was Larry’s first guest on his national talk show. Larry gets invited to visit the governor’s mansion, and Larry has a habit or bringing people with him “because I think you’d like them.” My father gets invited, and so do I. Larry has a way of dominating conversation, so finally Governor [Mario] Cuomo turns to me and says “Let’s get away from him, he’s driving me crazy – take a walk with me.” He asked what I was doing over the summer, I was delivering office furniture at the time, asked if he wanted a real job. That’s really how it all started, and it was all Larry King.

 

You’re pretty close to Mario Cuomo – what’s the story there?

I applied to law school after that internship and Governor Mario Cuomo wrote my recommendation letter; got into Penn law, and after my first year, came back and worked for Governor [Mario] Cuomo again. It was the summer of ‘86, he was running for reelection, and I was just 23. I was the person who accompanied Governor [Mario] Cuomo on the road for a few weeks. I was traveling with him carrying the briefing book, responsible for all the morning briefings. It was incredibly stressful job. But it was just an extraordinary experience, and as a result of that, I’ve always felt this special connection with Governor [Mario] Cuomo, I’ve always used him as a mentor. When I had important decisions to make about my career, he would always take my phone call, always listen to me, always hear me out, always give me great advice.

I was involved in a foolhardy effort to get these two men who were wrongly convicted of murder out of jail, and it became a very, very difficult struggle. One of these cases where you start to feel like the whole world’s against you. I remember one of those darkest moments, I called Governor [Mario] Cuomo because I wanted his take on how I should handle it. He adjusted my head in a way — that was the nature of the relationship.

 

You bounced around public service and private practice before going back to the Cuomos.

I knew I wanted to go to the U.S. attorney’s office. I got there and stayed for almost seven years, loved it. I was the chief of mob gangs unit at the time when there were a lot of murders in the city and I prosecuted gang murders; that was a phenomenal experience. Then I was married, had my first child, figured it was time to leave, moved on to private law firm. And now the whole Cuomo experience had fallen off my resumé, it wasn’t part of my professional profile at all.

After another seven years at the firm, I was itching for something different. I missed public service, so I toyed around with idea of going to different public sector jobs. And then one day, I get these calls about working for Andrew Cuomo in his transition team for the AG’s office, and it was from people who didn’t know my history with the Cuomos.

It was just a funny thing, one of these crazy coincidences that I happened to be the exact kind of person they were looking for — someone in law enforcement — in terms of my background, the jobs I’d had. And at the same time, Andrew actually knew me. I end up becoming chief of staff and counselor. I was supposed to hire a chief of staff but we never got around to it so I held both positions. It happened so quickly, and suddenly I’m working for the AG, running his office.

 

Describe serving in the AG’s office.

It was an intense four years. I had signed up for two. Spitzer at the time was viewed as the greatest AG in the history of humanity, there could be no greater AG, and so, part of the issue for Andrew was, how would you, in the wake of what Eliot had accomplished, how do you establish yourself as a legit AG? And so that was the main project: we’ve got to create an office that compares favorably to what Eliot did, we have to find our own kind of cases, we have to do things differently, find a way to be successful and credible. I’d thought that after two years I’d go back to private practice. But in the summer of 2007, things began to rapidly change. There was the whole Troopergate incident. After Spitzer left office, there was a sense of instability in the state, so I spoke to the AG and we figured it really wasn’t the time to leave right now and create even more instability. So stayed another year, then it became obvious that Andrew would be running for governor, and it became hard to leave. He needed someone who knew how to run the office and knew his way around, so suddenly my two-year adventure became a four-year adventure. After Andrew got elected, everyone knew internally that I was leaving. But with so many things happening, I decided to stay on as secretary for a while.

 

What’s Andrew like as a governor?

There’s probably no one as equipped as he is to be governor. He’s probably the only person in the last century that came in with the kind of understanding of how Albany works. On the other hand, I’m a lawyer by training, I was a prosecutor, I ran the AG’s office, I dealt with Albany, but I hadn’t lived, breathed and eaten Albany. And I ended up getting a crash course on Albany. It’s a complicated environment and if not properly handled, becomes rapidly dysfunctional. It is a place that is transactional in nature in a way people don’t understand. It is a kind of leadership-driven legislature that is unlike what most people experience. And so, when you go into that kind of environment, especially without a deep understanding of it, you really almost have to take a deep breath to try and figure out how the heck this place operates, what it all means, how do you get something done. And I was working for a governor who really does believe in results. His view is, we made certain promises during the campaign, and our obligation is to do those things we said we were going to do in the campaign. It may be difficult to accomplish, but it’s simple to articulate. The part that made it easier, was that he had a tremendous understanding of Albany.

 

What’s a typical day in Albany like?

I tend to try to get to the office early. The day would typically begin — I mean, technically, the day would begin the night before where we try to see things that are being posted online for the next day. So I would try before I went to bed, to see what was popping up online. It was just sort of a constant stream of issues and decisions and I always viewed my role as, there were a lot of big issues on the governor’s plate and on the AG’s plate, but then there were also a lot of issues that were very important to a lot of people but they may not be on that shorter list of things. But decisions have to be made, so as much as I could, I was trying to get rid of all that other stuff and keep it moving, while at the same time, keep an eye on the world at 30,000 feet and make sure that overall, things were heading where the governor wanted them to head, and at the same time serving as an advisor to the governor. So it was a constant flurry of activity. The notion was always get things done, get things done, get things done.

Most of the time we tended to be in the same office. It felt like one non-stop conversation with him for 4.5 years. We were just like a family. There is a danger to that, you lose a little perspective.

 

What are Andrew Cuomo’s weaknesses?

I never understood his obsession with fishing, just didn’t get it. Fishing and boating. But seriously speaking, Governor [Andrew] Cuomo can be extremely intense. It is borne of a desire to get things done. Takes his responsibilities very, very seriously. And I think that some people misread that intensity. I sat next to the guy, literally, for four years. If I didn’t believe in him and what he could accomplish, and if I didn’t believe that he was fundamentally good guy, I wouldn’t have stuck around. That said, there’s a kind of intensity and directness that you need to be successful, especially in the world of public service and elected office, that not a lot of people have.

 

Much has been said about you helping to get the Marriage Equality Act passed. What are some of the behind-the-scenes stuff we don’t already know?

Right after it was passed, Andrew said to me: “Mario and Herb never would have imagined that we could have done something this big.” There was also this one senator – I’m not going to name him – who wanted in the bill an exclusion that would prevent gay couples from adopting, and I pointed out to him that under current New York law, you cannot discriminate adoptions based either upon whether someone’s married or single, or based upon somebody’s sexual orientation, so if we put in the exclusion he wanted, if you were single and gay you could adopt a child, but if you were married and gay, you could not. And he said, “Yeah, I understand and I would still like to see that exclusion.” And I walked away baffled.

 

Are you still in touch with Andrew Cuomo?

Of course, he’s a friend, he really is. He’s a close friend; we talk from time to time. Andrew’s a fascinating guy. I think he may be one of the most, if not, the most, successful elected official certainly of his generation that I know. And being able to succeed in that environment is a unique thing. And I’m very interested in doing anything and everything I can to make sure his success continues.