When Joe Percoco was charged with corruption, Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t just lose a political ally he had once referred to as “my father’s third son, who I sometimes think he loved the most.” Percoco, a former aide whose trial began in federal court this week, had also been Cuomo’s chief enforcer, the loyalist who would lay down the law when legislators or journalists refused to fall in line.
Even after he left the administration in early 2016 to become senior vice president at Madison Square Garden, Percoco still acted on Cuomo’s behalf. During the 2016 budget negotiations, he reportedly contacted lawmakers to persuade them to support the budget.
But with Percoco out of the governor’s inner circle and on trial – where prosecutors are portraying him as the governor’s former “right-hand man” – political insiders suggest that no member of Cuomo’s staff has been able to fill the role he once held as confidant and hammer.
“Nobody has been able to fill the shoes of Joe Percoco,” said a longtime political journalist who has covered the Cuomo administration, and requested anonymity to be able to speak in greater detail. (None of the sources City & State reached out to were willing to talk about Percoco and Cuomo on the record.) The source explained that the relationship was based on a deep trust forged when Percoco was an aide to Cuomo’s father, Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Percoco’s role in the younger Cuomo’s administration was to solve problems, finding the solutions to concerns that had come to the attention of the governor each day.
“He was the enforcer, okay, but also putting out fires and avoiding fires,” the journalist said. His loyalty to the governor resulted in him having “no life.”
Percoco’s bond with Cuomo allowed him to act on the governor’s behalf.
“Everybody knew when Joe told you something, it was the governor telling it to you,” said a longtime Albany political insider, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly about Percoco’s role in the administration. This aspect of Cuomo and Percoco’s relationship was also noted by a federal prosecutor during opening arguments in the trial on Tuesday, who said “getting a call from Percoco was like getting a call from the governor himself.”
A former Cuomo administration official, speaking anonymously in order to provide specific details, recalled how Percoco would call a lawmaker in response to any perceived slight to the administration.
“Joe liked to say, ‘We don’t reward bad behavior,’” the former official said, describing how Percoco would call recalcitrant legislators to get them to fall in line. After Percoco’s departure, the source said, no one has been able to become Cuomo's “alter ego” in the same way.
Percoco wasn’t simply a hatchet man for Cuomo, but was one of the few people on staff who would openly disagree with him. Without Percoco, the journalist said, Cuomo is now surrounded by yes-men.
Due to the complex nature of their relationship, several sources agreed that no one in Cuomo’s staff has been able to fill the void of enforcer, friend and occasional challenger.
“There’s nobody who replaced Joe flat-out,” said the political insider. “I think those duties have been divided to a certain extent.”
Sources mentioned Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, Chief of Staff Linda Lacewell and Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi as staff members who will go to the mat for the governor. Azzopardi, for example, is known for responding through social media with snarky missives aimed at the governor’s detractors.
When asked for a comment for this article, Azzopardi responded, “If that’s your story, then City & State clearly doesn’t understand how this administration works.”
The longtime political journalist said that David was “in over his head” if he were to serve as a replacement for Percoco. DeRosa, the first woman to be named to the position of secretary to the governor, is considered to be one of Cuomo’s closest aides, although her position and her style are very different from that of Percoco.
“She goes after people,” said another Albany journalist, who requested anonymity since the source did not have permission to speak on the topic. The source noted that DeRosa is very loyal to and protective of the governor, and fills the role of “someone who holds grudges for him.”
However, sources noted that DeRosa does not have the same style as Percoco, or the same duties or basic job description.
The former administration official said that while DeRosa occasionally follows up with legislators or reporters, and is a “mouthpiece” for the governor, she is not a replacement for Percoco.
“She's completely loyal to the governor and she does what he wants to do and defends his honor at every chance she gets, but I don't think people live in fear of her as much as they did with Joe,” the former official said, adding that ultimately the governor serves as his own enforcer.
Cuomo has been known to contact reporters with whom he disagrees, and to give quotes to journalists anonymously for articles.
“People know the governor pays attention to what’s going on, he’s very involved,” the former official said. “The governor's good at making people wary about criticizing where he doesn't think it's appropriate.”
Or as the source summed it up: “People are scared shitless of the governor, because he’s tough.”