Cuomo’s Top Aide Defends Her Boss and Herself: ‘I’m a Human Being’
(Bloomberg) -- On a ranking of New York power brokers last year, the most influential person after Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo wasn’t the Assembly speaker or state Senate majority leader. It was Melissa DeRosa, one of the few people to pierce the governor’s fiercely guarded inner circle.
DeRosa’s unassuming title of secretary to the governor belies her clout as the three-term Democrat’s highest-ranking aide. With Cuomo facing calls to resign over claims of sexual harassment and accusations that his administration undercounted coronavirus deaths data, she has emerged as one of his chief defenders.
The ascent of the daughter of a powerful Albany lobbyist to the role of Cuomo’s enforcer -- like him, known for expletive-filled phone calls -- highlights how the governor surrounds himself with people, many of them women, who defend his well-documented aggressive demeanor. And they do so while helping him burnish his image of a governor who champions women’s rights.
In an interview, DeRosa, 38, described the emotional cost of her job during the pandemic.
“Media accounts have reduced me to a caricature, but I’m a human being who truly believes in and cares deeply about government and public service,” she said. “I’ve worked incredibly hard throughout my career and especially during the pandemic. I didn’t sleep. The last thing I would do in my day is call family members of health-care workers who died and tell them I’m sorry for their pain, and then close the door, lay on the floor and cry. I am not the one-dimensional person that has been portrayed in the press.”
And for that work, DeRosa is paid more than even Cuomo by New York taxpayers, earning the second-highest salary in the governor’s office behind his special counsel in 2019.
“It’s DeRosa’s job to be Cuomo’s on-staff fixer and make things work for him,” said John Kaehny, executive director of government watchdog group Reinvent Albany. “For Cuomo, everything is about consolidating power and controlling the political narrative, whether that’s showing his control over Covid or otherwise, and DeRosa is effective at channeling the governor and implementing his every desire and will.”
DeRosa is cited in accounts by at least two of his accusers. She’s also accused of asking state health officials to alter a public report that outlined the true extent of the number of nursing-home residents who died, claims the administration has denied.
Cuomo has denied the sexual-harassment claims and urged the public to wait for an investigation conducted under the auspices of New York Attorney General Letitia James, as well as an impeachment probe underway by the Assembly judiciary committee. DeRosa has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Her rise in state politics began in political organizing. In 2011, she took a job with another powerful New York official, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. She left Schneiderman’s office for Cuomo in 2013, five years before Schneiderman resigned in 2018 over allegations he physically abused four women.
In her role as communications director, she controlled the political narrative for Cuomo, a self-described micromanager known for his obsession with press coverage, and for reviewing everything from photos of himself to internal leaks.
DeRosa staunchly defended him against all comers. Reporters, lawmakers, or politicians who publicly criticized Cuomo could expect a colorful phone call from her, according to interviews with government officials, former staffers, politicians and other people who worked with her.
Cuomo’s first three secretaries before DeRosa -- all men -- stepped down between 2011 and 2017, when DeRosa got the job, although they remain informal advisers. Separately, during the same period, top aide Joseph Percoco, Cuomo’s former executive deputy secretary, was convicted and sentenced to prison on federal charges including bribery and extortion.
As other aides left their official capacities, DeRosa’s effectiveness at getting legislation passed and her loyalty to the governor let her move closer and closer until she became known as the most influential staffer, according to lawmakers and staff interviewed for this article.
Cuomo faced major primary challenges from female candidates in 2014 and 2018. He responded by forming the Women’s Equality Party in 2014 -- really an arm of his own campaign. In 2017, DeRosa successfully courted women’s rights activists for the launch of a council on women and girls, creating a group of influential female supporters of Cuomo.
“Is she a tough person? Yes, but politics is a tough business,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic consultant who worked for Cuomo’s 2018 re-election campaign and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential run. “Is she demanding? Yes, but politics requires demanding commitment.”
Smith said DeRosa was loyal, smart and supportive and that she rose quickly in communications because of her “uncanny ability to assess the life-cycle of a news story.”
Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to the governor, described Cuomo’s office as a “hard-charging environment that’s not for everyone” and said he wouldn’t let DeRosa be maligned by critics who are “looking to settle scores.”
DeRosa is “the exact same person behind the scenes as she is on camera -- tough, hardworking, brilliant, meticulously prepared, and always fighting to improve the lives of New Yorkers. She’s the one who spearheaded our successful campaigns for a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, the Child Victims Act, surrogacy, IVF coverage, and free college tuition and this state is better off for it,” he said.
On March 3 of this year, after three sexual-harassment accusations were reported against the governor -- all of which he denies -- DeRosa said that during his administration “we’ve seen more women rise to the highest levels,” she said. “I don’t think that this diminishes any of that.”
Former staffers, politicians and experts said DeRosa has steadily been rewarded for her loyalty and hard work with an increase in responsibility, power, job title, and money. She made $207,323 in annual salary in 2019, more than Cuomo’s $198,765.
“I would just ask that everyone refrain from judgment until the attorney general is allowed to do her work,” she said of the sexual-harassment investigation in early March, echoing Cuomo’s words.
DeRosa now features in the accounts of at least two of the governor’s multiple accusers: Former aides Charlotte Bennett, 25, and Lindsey Boylan, 36.
Boylan named DeRosa specifically in her Feb. 24 blog post in which she accused Cuomo of kissing her and inviting her to play strip poker on a government-funded plane trip, claims Cuomo denies.
“It was all so normalized — particularly by Melissa DeRosa and other top women around him — that only now do I realize how insidious his abuse was,” Boylan wrote. Boylan did not say DeRosa was present during the trip or kiss.
Debra Katz, Bennett’s attorney, said descriptions of DeRosa and the high-ranking women in the office from her client fit a pattern among the sexual-harassment cases she has worked on.
“When you have high-profile powerful people who engage in repetitive sexual harassment, they always have enablers,” said Katz, who represented Christine Blasey Ford in her allegations that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.
In a previously unreported episode, Bennett told investigators that in May 2019, Cuomo called her into his office to “get to know her and assess whether he could trust her,” said Katz, who said she was present for Bennett’s statements to investigators.
Bennett told investigators that he asked if she had a boyfriend, the length of past intimate relationships, and whether she would “honor her commitments” to the governor, Katz said. Then, Cuomo handed Bennett a copy of the lyrics to the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” and told her to memorize it.
Later that day, Cuomo ordered Bennett to perform “Danny Boy” in front of DeRosa and the director of the governor’s offices, Stephanie Benton, Katz said. She added that Bennett told investigators that she believed DeRosa saw how humiliated Bennett was, but dismissed the episode as “hazing” and continued to watch “with a mix of horror and amusement.”
A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment.
“We will not comment on leaks by those who have chosen to take a tack so clearly at odds with the attorney general’s mission of completing a fair, thorough and unbiased review of the facts,” Azzopardi said.
DeRosa’s path from ardent, young press aide to shrewd political operative is an indicator of the grit it takes for anyone to enter Cuomo’s inner sanctum.
Her 2017 appointment to secretary was criticized by good government groups for potential conflicts of interest. Her father, Giorgio DeRosa, was a fixture in Albany politics for decades and his firm worked on many of Cuomo’s signature legislative pieces. DeRosa is married to Matt Wing, who does communications for Uber Technologies Inc. They dated while she was his boss in the governor’s office. Wing’s mother, Audrey Strauss, is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Cuomo called sexist any such accusations of conflict of interest. Azzopardi said DeRosa took “all necessary and required legal steps to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.”
DeRosa has said that she recuses herself on any issues that family members are working on and that her family ties shouldn’t diminish her accomplishments.
“When my appointment as secretary to the governor was announced back in April, I was “the daughter of” or the “wife of.” Never mind the fact that when I did work with my husband, I was his boss,” she said in a 2017 speech at Berkeley College in Manhattan.
In that same speech, DeRosa recounted her own encounters with sexual harassment in Albany politics but said she was “grateful to work in an administration that so highly values its female employees.”
Longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said DeRosa was typical of other top advisers in that she adopted Cuomo’s tough-guy persona. She gave the governor what he demanded, he said: “Absolute loyalty, and don’t expect anything in return.”
She does not keep a low profile. In a “New York Tough” poster Cuomo commissioned to commemorate the flattening of the Covid curve, DeRosa was featured shoulder-to-shoulder with the governor under the moniker “Magnificent Melissa.”
During the height of her pandemic-era fame, she was profiled in magazines like Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, as well the New York Times.
DeRosa sits on New York’s Covid task force and features prominently in charges the Cuomo administration concealed the extent of deaths at nursing homes to avoid political repercussions. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that she was among a group of top advisers who pushed state health officials to alter a public report released in July that showed more nursing-home residents died of the coronavirus than Cuomo’s office originally acknowledged.
“Covid task force members, including Melissa DeRosa, were involved in reviewing the draft report -- none of them changed any of the fatality numbers or ‘altered’ the fatality data,” said Cuomo special counsel Beth Garvey.
During a Feb. 10 Zoom meeting between the governor’s staff and Democratic state legislators, DeRosa said the Cuomo administration feared the data “was going to be used against us,” according to a leaked transcript that was later shared by the governor’s office. In the call, she said the office cooperated with a Department of Justice inquiry but couldn’t immediately provide the information requested by lawmakers. “Basically, we froze.”
Later in the meeting, she expressed her frustrations to a state senator who asked why some department of health officials had left the agency.
“I understand that people are frustrated at DOH. I am frustrated,” she said in the meeting. “There are days that I don’t want to get out of bed. There are days when I don’t speak to my husband, I am frustrated because the press is attacking us, you guys are attacking us, every decision we are making is being second guessed.”
While DeRosa’s loyalties to Cuomo are unquestioned, New York political operatives are asking whether the governor will be as loyal to DeRosa. Her supporters say she is there for the long run.
“It doesn’t ring true to me that she would see misconduct and would look away,” said Neal Kwatra, who was DeRosa’s boss in Schneiderman’s office and worked on Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign. “She is not someone who would allow her morals to become flexible in the face of power.”
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