Larry Schwartz’s calls to county executives are classic Cuomo

The governor’s team prizes loyalty and is quick to turn to intimidation tactics.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 vaccine czar Larry Schwartz.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 vaccine czar Larry Schwartz. Stephen B. Morton/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo still maintains an undeserved reputation as a competent governor who steered New York through the COVID-19 pandemic, even though nearly 50,000 people have died here. Scandal has not weakened this image much – most New Yorkers, especially Democrats, give Cuomo high grades for his pandemic response.

But his vaccine czar, in a classic Cuomo move, has decided to play politics with people’s lives. This week, news broke that Larry Schwartz, a longtime consigliere to Cuomo, was calling up county executives and gauging their loyalty to the scandal-scarred governor. Schwartz called at least two Democratic county executives to see if they were still supporting Cuomo.

Normally, this would be dubious but acceptable – a Cuomo ally mixing politics and business – but Schwartz, who is currently working without pay, is overseeing New York’s vaccine distribution. According to one county executive, Schwartz pivoted directly from a discussion of Cuomo’s imperiled political situation to immunization. One of the executives filed a preliminary complaint with the state attorney general office’s Public Integrity Bureau, about a possible ethics violation by the governor’s office.

Even President Joe Biden, an old Cuomo friend, seemed taken aback. “We work to ensure that (the COVID-19 vaccine) is equitably distributed and that there are not steps that are taken that are concerning,” Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, told reporters. “So we were concerned, of course, about the reports of this inappropriate behavior, but we also have a number of steps in the system to ensure that the people of New York, the people of any state (that) the vaccines are being distributed fairly and equitably.”

Cuomo, who is facing sexual harassment allegations from seven women and an FBI probe into his administration’s handling of nursing homes, is known for keeping a very small circle of advisers around of him. One of them is Schwartz, has spent extended stays in the governor’s mansion and has served a variety of roles in his administration, despite a lack of relevant technical expertise. He’s sat on the MTA board, though he lacks even a vague background in transit policy. Now he’s overseeing a critical vaccination effort, superseding public health experts who should be at the helm.

Were there not so many concurrent scandals swirling around Cuomo, who could still be impeached by the Assembly, this would be his Bridgegate moment: a toxic collision of politics and governing. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie closed traffic lanes to punish politicians he didn’t like. Cuomo even has his own bridge-related challenge these days. The Times-Union recently reported on safety concerns at the new Mario M. Cuomo bridge that the Cuomo administration may have ignored or covered up.

Schwartz denied that his calls implied that a lack of fealty to Cuomo could gum up an opportunity to receive life-saving vaccines, but that was the implication that at least one of the county executives took from it.

On one hand, this is all shocking and terrible. On the other, for anyone who’s watched Cuomo closely, it’s another day at the ballpark. Schwartz was at the center of one of the original scandals to engulf the Cuomo administration: the abrupt shutdown of the Moreland Commission, created to investigate political corruption in New York.

In his first term, Cuomo vowed to clean up corruption in Albany, creating a commission that he promised would be independent of his meddling. The commission, he said, could investigate the executive branch if it chose. Quickly, investigators on the commission learned this was not the case. It was Schwartz himself who placed the calls to tell them to stop doing their work when it became clear they were going to probe campaign finance issues related to Cuomo.

The shutdown prompted the U.S. attorney at the time, Preet Bharara, to investigate Cuomo. Bharara never indicted Cuomo, but apparently used findings from the commission to target other heavyweights in Albany, including Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, the two legislative leaders. Bharara would also secure a corruption conviction of Joe Percoco, who was once Cuomo’s closest aide.

This is the trouble with Cuomoland: loyalty is prized above competence. Rarely does it seem to be asked, by members of the media or the political class, if people like Schwartz are qualified to do what they do. They remain in his orbit because they will always fall on the sword for their dear governor. New York is not a well-run state; the MTA wastes tons of money, the central bureaucracy is inefficient, and the campaign finance system remains laughable.

The argument for Cuomo has been that as nasty and predatory as he may be, he accomplishes much for New York. Any objective analysis would show this isn’t true. The pandemic response was a catastrophic failure, with nearly 50,000 dead. The vaccine rollout, in the early days, was plodding. We are not a national leader. As long as men like Schwartz and Cuomo are in charge, we never will be.

Schwartz is still overseeing vaccination in New York. How can counties across the state trust they will receive adequate supply and be treated fairly when the man in charge of the effort is a political operative with no public health expertise, freely discussing the fate of his boss and making probable threats while planning a vaccine distribution? This is the kind of governance we get with Cuomo in charge.