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Melissa DeRosa on the Campbell Conversations

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Melissa DeRosa

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Melissa DeRosa. Ms. DeRosa served as secretary to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during the COVID pandemic. That office is the highest non-elected position in state government. She left the office when the governor resigned and has now published a memoir titled, “What's Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics and Crisis”. Ms. DeRosa, welcome to the program.

Melissa DeRosa: Thank you so much for having me. Great to be here.

GR: Well, we appreciate you making the time. So, let me just start with a really basic question about the book. What were you trying to accomplish in the writing of it and the publication of it?

MD: You know, I decided I was going to write the book within 24 hours of me being out of office. And it was because I wasn't going to allow the first draft of history to stand. And the first draft of history is written by reporters in real time based on non-primary sources, people who aren't in the room when it comes to politics and government, the people feeding them information have a whole host of different motivations. And I lived it, I was there, I was on the phone with Jared Kushner, I was on the phone with Donald Trump, I was in the Oval Office, I was in the room with Bill de Blasio, I was in the room with the health professionals, I was there when we shut down the state of New York. And so I felt a responsibility both to the public, because this was a once in a lifetime pandemic to really understand what was going on when the cameras weren't rolling during those famous briefings, to my administration, who I felt was really unfairly treated in that last year of the administration and to myself and my family to tell the truth as I lived it and sort of lift the veil and let everybody else in.

GR: And I wanted to ask you, you kind of segued into that at the end of your answer, but I wanted to ask you also a more personal question about the writing of it. Was it therapeutic to write this? Was it reliving a trauma, was it a mix of both? What was that like?

MD: You know, when I started the writing process after we resigned, I was almost, it was almost like journaling, which for your listeners, you know, who I don't know if they know what that means, but it's almost like a form of you’re writing to process a trauma or get through something, relive it for yourself to understand it. And so it was incredibly therapeutic. It was also incredibly re-traumatizing at some points. You know, I would literally sit there and close my eyes and bring myself back to the moment of calling the families of the health care workers who passed away and remembering those moments and what that emotion was. And I would cry while I was writing. And so it was, you know, it was therapeutic, it was cathartic, it was also traumatizing in a lot of ways.

GR: Well, I did want to ask you some questions about your experiences during the pandemic that are in your book. But I wanted to ask you a broader question about Governor Andrew Cuomo and his sort of his overall political slant. And I was thinking of this as I was reading the book, when Andrew Cuomo first ran for governor, I remember it, he ran more as a centrist. It was someone who recognized the state's spending issues, the outmigration problem, unfriendly business climate, spoke about all those things. But when he was in office, I think it's fair to say he tacked more to the left. And at one point in the later time of his administration, I think he had some famous phrase about like, I am progressivism in New York, or, but he was very, very strongly saying he was a progressive. I wanted to know how you would characterize the overall policy direction, the overall policy goals of Cuomo's governorship.

MD: I think you hit the nail on the head. You know, when he ran for office in 2010 originally, and disclaimer, I was working for President Obama at that time, but obviously I have a unique perspective into all of this. When he was running for office in 2010, the state was in a massive deficit, he inherited I believe it was a $14 billion deficit that he then turned around. And so, you know I remember when he was running and he would say I'm a progressive who's broke. And he was all about trying to retain and attract businesses. You know, he came in and he brought in a bunch of a bipartisan coalition on a tax committee that included people like George Pataki, who was his predecessor and some other big name Republicans. And, you know, he took a whack at the tax code. We did things like, we lowered the estate tax, which traditionally Democrats don't really go near, we lowered corporate taxes, we lowered small business taxes. And then I think as the administration went on and the party shifted left, he did, you know, wrap his arms around and sort of lead the way on a number of really big progressive issues, like the $15 minimum wage, paid family leave. But, you know, I think his progressive bonafides were always there, he's Mario Cuomo’s son. You know, he did marriage equality in his first year in office and famously, you know, was able to wrangle the entire Democratic conference, as well as four Republicans to vote for that bill and was really ahead of its time. So socially, I think it's fair to say he was always progressive. I think fiscally he was always very moderate. And then as time went on, I think that he did tack more to the left on certain fiscal issues.

GR: Okay. And you alluded to this when you talked about first draft of history that you wanted to counter. But obviously, Andrew Cuomo and his administration, you know, and you have been subject to a lot of criticisms since he stepped down and resigned. Very briefly, because I know you could speak for a very long time on it, but very briefly, why do you think those criticisms are misguided?

MD: Well, it depends on the criticism, right? But I do think that particularly in politics of today, where everything has become so weaponized and the selective outrage is so real, you know, where you can see on what you can, and I write this in the book, you can almost draw a straight line from someone's call for resignation, not to their principles, but to their political interests. And Andrew Cuomo had been in power for so long, by the time he resigned, he had been there for nearly 11 years. He had been attorney general for four years, before that, he had served as HUD secretary in the Clinton administration. He ran his father's first campaign when he was 20 years old. And there were a lot of people with pitchforks that wanted him out. And I think that when there's an opening, you know, sometimes people take it. And in that instance, people took it.

GR: And so to flip that around, though, what do you think are the legitimate criticisms of his tenure in your view? What were the biggest mistakes that the administration made along the way?

MD: You know, and I write about this in the book too sort of at the end where I look back and reflect on everything that happened. You know, when you're a hammer, everything's a nail. And I think that one of the biggest things that, you know, in looking back, we really became so accustomed to fighting all the time, fighting the legislature, fighting the left, fighting Trump, fighting, you know, this one, fighting that one, that we almost lost calibration. And sometimes you catch more flies with honey. And I think that, you know, we had really thrown our weight around. And the governor would say, Governor Cuomo would say it's because the goals that we were after were so worthy and so important and it was about the people and that was first and foremost. Which I do agree in some instances, but it doesn't have to be that way in all instances. And so I think at the end of the day, we had alienated a base of political support that would have been necessary to get through that period. And had we not always looked at everything as a fight, I don't think that necessarily would have been the case in the spring of 2021.

GR: As an outside observer, that sounds like a good insight to me. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and we're speaking with former secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa. She's the recent author of, “What's Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics and Crisis”. So let's talk about the COVID pandemic a little bit. And if you, again, it's similar to the question I just asked you, but if you could do the state's response to COVID again, would you make a different decision along the way? I mean, one big one that comes to my mind is a different decision about putting COVID patients into nursing homes, for example.

MD: You know, I got asked this question on Bill Maher and I said, you know, people ask me, would you do anything differently? I would do everything differently, I would do everything differently. I mean, this was the definition of building the plane while you're flying it. And I get into this in the book and really try to bring people behind the scenes because even though COVID wasn't that long ago, I think almost as sort of a trauma response, we all have collectively really put it away from our minds and it feels much longer ago than it was. And I think it's really easy to forget what it was that we were going through. But, you know, why was it that they closed travel down from Asia but not from Europe? You know, they closed the back door to the country because COVID existed in China, we knew it existed in China. They didn't close the airports to Asia, and that was why New York and New Jersey in the tristate area got hit so hard out of the gate. But in hindsight, how stupid is that? And I mean, these are the smartest people in the world in government, right? Dr. Fauci was helping to make these calls, they had this whole COVID task force at the federal level. Some of this stuff I blame President Trump for, but some of it I don't. You know, they didn't advise him to shut down travel to Europe. But how is it, given that we live in such a global economy, that we didn't think that, of course, a pandemic somewhere is a pandemic everywhere? And those critical weeks between when we knew that COVID existed in China and leaving the door open to Europe and not thinking that it wasn't already in New York and with a subway system like New York’s subway system and the interconnected way in which the tristate area works and lives, that it wasn't everywhere. You know, we wasted so much time that in hindsight, if we had taken steps to shut down earlier and we could have gotten, you know, brought the curve down and, you know, so many decisions were made around trying to keep the hospitals from collapsing which segues into your question on the nursing homes. I mean, people sort of fundamentally misunderstand what happened there, but that was a call that was made at a time when every major, you know, consultant, academic institution was projecting that New York State’s hospital system was going to collapse, that we were getting 120, 130, 140,000 beds, even though the entire system collectively only has 40,000 beds. And that decision was made by health professionals based on health guidance given from Washington to try to say if people are in hospitals that no longer need to be there because they're medically stable and believed not to be contagious, as long as certain steps are taken, they can go back to where they were living. And so, you know, when I look back on all of that there's the scientific and medical hindsight of 2020 of the things I would do differently. And then there are the political things that I would have done differently, looking back in 2020. And whether or not that March 25th health guidance, you know, impacted is still a cause for debate. Some people say yes other reports say no. But if I had known it was going to cause that political firestorm and that it was going to create an opportunity to weaponize real pain of nursing home families to get caught up in the middle of those politics, I would have said do anything but that, you know, whatever we have to do to do anything but that, avoid that of course, because you want to avoid controversy. But, you know, again, and that was part of the reason I wrote the book, because so much of this has gotten lost in the politics and so much of it got lost in the moment that I thought it was important to sort of bring people back into the room as we were living it to understand how and why decisions were being made. You know, both chronologically and also the thought that was going into it.

GR: And one quick follow up on that. You know, you alluded to this, but one of the big political storms that came out of all this had to do with the reporting of COVID deaths in the nursing homes.

MD: Yep.

GR: And I think the general impression is that, you know, those were underreported in some way. Explain that, I know that's a complicated one, but if you could explain it briefly.

MD: I’ll try to do it quickly, and I write about it in the book. When we originally started reporting deaths in March of 2020 it was done for one reason, for simplicity. Anyone, you know, every day, at the end of the day, every hospital in the state reported into state government the number of number of COVID deaths and every nursing home reported in the number of nursing home deaths. And they did it based on their patient population where they were. So the nursing home said, three people in my nursing home died today. The hospital said we had five people in the hospital that died today. And then in the middle of April, end of April of 2020, the press started asking a different question, which was, what if you were a nursing home patient who left the nursing home, went to the hospital and died in the hospital? That person like, how many of those people died? And so then I write in the book, we went back and did this retrospective, we issued up to a dozen surveys to the nursing homes who, by the way, at the time were dealing with COVID and were completely overwhelmed and asked them all these retrospective questions. And then they start reporting in all of these numbers that were clearly wrong. Some nursing homes were reporting deaths going back to December of 2019 before COVID was even here. Some nursing homes were reporting anticipated death dates in the future. Some nursing homes said every single patient that left here, we believe died of COVID, whether we know it or not. And so it was a forensic nightmare, which then and fast forward to August of 2020 we underwent this audit and then ended up releasing the numbers in January. But that was where the controversy came from. And that's another thing we're looking back on it, had we known that that number was going to become a political football, in March of 2020 when we were standing in the war room we would have just said, have nursing homes report the people that leave there and confirm with the hospitals that they died and we can report that subset earlier. But that was another one of those, it almost felt like manufactured controversies, but it took real life pain and sort of weaponized it and it turned into the scandal that spiraled out of control.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Melissa DeRosa, former Secretary to Governor Andrew Cuomo. She recently published a memoir titled, “What's Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics and Crisis” and we've been discussing her book. So I've got a kind of a retrospective hypothetical political question for you about your boss. In 2020, Andrew Cuomo was arguably at his political peak, and certainly the Biden people didn't want him to be running for president, you talked about that in your book. He ultimately cooperated with them, stayed out of the race. Do you think, looking back on it now, he should have run for president then, that was the moment he should have run for president, 2020?

MD: You know, if he had run for president in 2020, I have no doubt in my mind he would have been the Democratic nominee and beaten Biden. But the problem is, Andrew Cuomo was exactly where he needed to be for the state of New York in 2020 and if he were running for president back then in the midst of that pandemic, every decision he made would have been viewed from the onset as a political one. And we only successfully brought down the curve, crushed the curve in New York, beat back COVID because the people of the state of New York I think honestly, watched those press conferences every day he gave them the facts as he knew them, he made an emotional appeal to stay home and everyone sort of fell in line. And not just in New York, but nationwide he stepped into that leadership role. And so I think on the one hand, was that his moment? Yeah, I think politically that was his moment, he would have been the nominee. On the other hand, I think that it was a much higher calling that he be governor of the state of New York during that once in a lifetime pandemic and not be viewed through a political lens, because I think if that had been the case, COVID would have spiraled further out of control here and it would have resulted in many more deaths.

GR: So I asked you earlier about things you might, you wish the administration might have done differently. And if I were making a list of those things, this would be on top of mine, so I wanted to get your sense of it. Did the governor make a mistake putting out that book about COVID?

MD: Yes. Yes, and you know, it was one of those things that, again, I think had we had the foresight to know that it was going to spiral out of control the way that it did, I wish I would have thrown my body in front of it. And there are some things that as staff, you know, you look back and say, oh, I should have done that differently because I had the ear of the principal. And that was one of those things where I should have thrown my body in front of it because it just turned out to be such a political headache, and to what end?

GR: And on that point, I don't mean to be too harsh with you here, but I mean, you're obviously (an) extremely politically intelligent person and you've got a team of people around you that were that way. How did you get that one wrong? Because it seems like the optics to me were just begging...

MD: Obvious? Yeah. (laughter)

GR: (laughter)

MD: No, I mean, and I write about this in the book, it was the end of June of 2020, and we just finished the briefings, the daily briefings which obviously we picked up late. But the 111 day briefings had just finished and we had brought the positivity down below 1% in New York sort of consistently, and it stayed there for three months. And it was like the way Andrew Cuomo's brain works is always like, what's next, what's next, what's next? And it was like the minute we ended those briefings, he sort of was like, we should do this and I'm going to write this book and I'm going to tell the story of what happened and we're going to get it published immediately so that the rest of the country can learn from what we lived through in the first wave, because they're all going to get it in the second wave. And it was really a crash project. You know, it was done over the summer in like a six week time period, and it was published in October. And so, you know, it's interesting to me because some people have tried to, the assembly in their impeachment report said, you know, oh, they were doing this during this critical time, and it was like, well, it was actually during the summer of 2020 when the positivity was below 1% and we were taking sort of a collective breather. And there was no point during that process where his attention was being taken away from COVID. It was like he wrote that book so quickly, a lot of it was done based on voice notes he took in real time. And the, I understood the goal of let's tell the story as it happens to the rest of the country can learn from it. But the, you know, making the money from it in the middle of all of that, you know, obviously was a huge political headache that he, you know, we never should have gone near. And just the timing of it, because I think it would have been different if COVID hadn't come back in the fall and then we were in the middle of a second wave. I think if we just beaten back COVID and that was that, I think it would have been a different proposition. But no, you're right. And I don't know if that was like, COVID brain, I was too tired, I wasn’t seeing straight, but no, I mean, I definitely hold myself responsible for not speaking up more on that one.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is Melissa DeRosa. So here's my, I guess my $64,000 question and it may seem like a dumb one, but I am still mystified a little bit by this. Why did the governor decide to resign, given the circumstances? I mean, there are other political figures who have weathered arguably much worse, #MeToo types of accusations. No criminal charges have come from any of these and the criticism that the attorney general's report had some political motivation behind it does seem to have some plausibility to it. Why not just stick it out and force the legislatures’ hand? Make them vote?

MD: You know, I write about this in the book extensively. It was such an emotional time and this is the other thing that people sort of forget, I mean, there were a couple of factors. Number one, the legislature said they were going to impeach, they had the votes. Say what you will about Andrew Cuomo, he can count votes better than literally anyone I've ever seen in my life. And there's no due process guaranteed in the New York State Constitution. There's no, you know, high crimes and misdemeanors like there is at a federal level. It is purely in New York, a political process, the impeachment process. And I believed, he believed they were going to do it and they had the votes to do it. So it would have just been a kangaroo court. But secondly, you know, when that report came out and Joe Biden came out and called for the governor's resignation based on pure politics, by the way, and I write this in the book and you know, it was Biden who I, it hurt me so much because I respected the president so much. We had a long relationship with him. I worked for him and Obama, the governor went back with his son, the governor went back with him, Mario Cuomo went back with him. He had been accused of sexual assault far worse than any accusation ever leveled at Andrew Cuomo. And he came out and said, I didn't read the report, but I saw the attorney general's press conference and he has to go. And when that firestorm kicked off and when the President of the United States of your own party goes out and says that, it created this avalanche that it was just impossible to stop, and every single member of Congress came out and the governors in the surrounding states came out. And, you know, the legislature and then on top of it, the press storm was so vicious. And you have to remember, this is after two years of dealing with COVID where essentially nobody slept, we were all processing in real time emotional trauma that I think we didn't even realize we were living through at the time of making life and death decisions and the weight of all of that, and the sleepless nights and the stress and, you know, the isolation of being away from our family, the pressures of being in the national spotlight, all of that sort of combined. And then the press was not just going after him, the press was going after me, the press was going after his brother, the press was going after some of our longtime advisers, every day, relentlessly. And I write in the book about one moment, Maureen Dowd wrote a column where she essentially compared me to Hitler's enabler, and she compared a number of our top advisers to Hitler's enabler. Now, when you look back on it, it's like everyone had lost their collective minds. Andrew Cuomo was accused of, you know, everyone throws a number 11 around. What people don't realize in that number 11 is that, it's a kiss on the cheek, a hand on the waist for a photograph. You know, calling someone sweetheart, saying, “ciao bella” when you walk out of the room, you know, these are not allegations of assault. This is not Harvey Weinstein type behavior. But the media frenzy and the political insanity of sort of #MeToo and the politics of the moment met, and I couldn't take it anymore. And I write about in the book when I went to the governor's mansion to tell him like, I couldn't put my family through it anymore. You know, they were watching me be pilloried in the press, it was killing them. It was killing me. It was hurting his children, it was hurting his brother. And so there was this very human moment where I think he understood the only way it was going to stop for the people around him even more than himself, was to step down. And, you know, looking back on that hindsight 20-20, could he have stayed and fought? I mean, I still go back to the answer of the legislature was going to impeach him. And, you know, you look at recent things the legislature has done, and this is a little weedsy for your listenership, but there was a Justice LaSalle that they put up for the Court of Appeals last year and this is a totally different type of scenario, but completely tarred and feathered the guy, completely distorted his judicial record. This was a public servant for years and years, made him out to be anti-woman, anti-labor, because he was basically making legal calls as a judge. They then gave him the hearing, they all announced their votes before they went into the hearing and it was a kangaroo court. And that's what it would have been, but Andrew Cuomo on steroids, and in the midst of it, we were fighting COVID, we were trying to get vaccines in arms were trying to get the economy back up and running and the emotional toll was too great. So that's a long answer, but it's a hard question.

GR: But it's an important issue and it's an interesting answer. We got about a minute and a half left. I want to try to squeeze two questions in, if I can. So we're going to go into sort of semi-lightning round here. But at the end of your book, you reflect on the value of government and the good things that government can do for people, especially during a crisis like COVID. I just wanted to hear you say a few words about that, about your view about the proper role of government.

MD: You know, look, government, I write that in the book, during COVID, you saw the best and the worst of government. And in that moment in New York State, the government came together. We built field hospitals, we stood up drive through testing sites. We hardened our hospital system, we brought in PPE, we came together and we saved lives. And very rarely can you point to a time in history other than war where you can say we saved lives. And in COVID, I think you saw that great moment.

GR: Yeah. And the final question is, I read an account of a public discussion of this book that you did recently in Albany. And according to that report, you indicated, I'll say, in very strong fashion, that you were interested in planning on going back into politics. Just a couple of seconds left. What form might that new activity take?

MD: You know, we'll see. But what I've learned in the last, you know, year since everything happened is I'm not done yet. I have more left to give and I shoot from the sidelines. And I'm a big believer that if you're going to do that, you better be prepared to get in the ring. So, we'll see, but stay tuned.

GR: Okay, we will. That was Melissa DeRosa. And again, her new book is titled, “What's Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics and Crisis”. Whether you love Andrew Cuomo or you hate Andrew Cuomo, this book is a very interesting read. Ms. DeRosa, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

MD: Thanks so much for having me.

GR: You’ve been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.



Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.