With Andrew Cuomo set to take office as New York’s 56th governor on Jan. 1, a Saturday, his aides contacted the New York Board of Rabbis last week to assess whether the Sabbath inauguration would cause any offense.
“They called us to express their concern about offending any Jewish sensitivities,” said the president of the 800-member interdenominational board, Rabbi Yakov Kermaier, who is also leader of the Orthodox Fifth Avenue Synagogue.
In a conversation with Cuomo press spokesman John Milgrom, Rabbi Kermaier said he responded that the board was appreciative of the concern, but understood that the date was not scheduled on Saturday deliberately.
“The Jewish community is not being excluded from the democratic process in any substantial way as a result, and committed Jews could always stay in a hotel nearby or else express their good wishes to the governor in other ways,” the rabbi said Tuesday.
In a later conversation with Steven M. Cohen, chief of staff to the attorney general who will serve as secretary to the governor, Cohen told Rabbi Kermaier said he was similarly grateful for the board’s understanding and decision not to make an issue of the matter, the rabbi said.
The exchange was a cordial first step in the relationship between the new administration and a Jewish community that, across denominational lines, is deeply concerned about provision of social services and other community grants that have already felt the budget axe and face even more uncertainty as Cuomo and the Legislature face a budget deficit that could soar as high as $10 billion.
“Their genuine concern on this issue gives us confidence that on real issues the governor will be equally sensitive and responsive,” said Rabbi Kermaier.
State law requires that the governor take office on the first of the year, although this year there will not be the same level of festivity seen at previous inaugurations.
The schedule for his first two days in office show that despite the holiday weekend the new governor wants to be seen as hitting the ground running, with an executive staff meeting following a private swearing-in.
“It is the time to return dignity, integrity, and performance to state government. … That means we go to work on the very first day,” Cuomo said in a statement.
At a noon ceremony at the Capitol, Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy will take their oaths along with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Cuomo and Duffy will then preside at a ticket-only public receiving line. Attendees must register at nyinaugural.com, and registrants beyond an initial, undisclosed number will be chosen by lottery.
On Sunday Cuomo and Duffy will attend Mass and then spend the day working in the Capitol.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is Orthodox, will stay home for the weekend. He said the matter came up in a recent discussion with the governor-elect. “I told him I recognized that the Constitution requires that somebody be in control immediately,” said Silver, a key backer of Cuomo who became speaker during the tenure of his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1994.
Silver said he has missed swearings-in of governors before, during the tenure of Republican George Pataki, with whom he shared an icy relationship.
There has been much speculation in Albany about the working relationship ahead for Cuomo and Silver, who has the ability to streamline or roadblock a governor’s agenda.
Cuomo has consistently blasted the political culture in Albany but has never attacked Silver. While some speculate that Cuomo might want to cultivate a new partner when the Assembly elects its leader Jan. 5th, one Jewish Albany insider, who spoke anonymously to protect his relationship with both men, said that “if he was going to try a coup he would have done it by now. Once you have an election for two years it’s much harder to have a coup.”
The change in Senate leadership to Republican control, which became official this week with the concession of Long Island Democrat Sen. Craig Johnson to the GOP’s Jack Martins in a tight race, may make it more important for Cuomo to have a seasoned ally as one of the three men in the room at budget negotiations.
“There is no reason to believe we would not work well together,” Silver told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “We have a good relationship, I have known him for many years, we worked together through the campaign and have spoken to him just about every day.”
One topic Silver said he has already discussed with Cuomo is the future of the state’s division of kosher law enforcement, which will have no inspectors on staff at the start of the year due to layoffs.
“The governor-elect and I have spoken about reorganizing that division and making sure as we go forward in the budget that we have something that would be concerned about enforcement, but doing it in an appropriate fashion within the limits of what the federal court decisions allow us to do,” Silver said. A federal court ruled in 2000 that the sate could not require businesses to adhere to Orthodox kosher standards and a more recent challenge seeks to ensure that the state does not second-guess the work of any private kosher certifiers.
Silver said it’s unlikely anything will be decided until the end of the next budget process in April.
Cuomo, who is currently the state attorney general, recently announced his inner circle of advisers, including Chief of Staff Benjamin Lawsky, formerly deputy counselor and special assistant to the attorney general; Cohen, who was counselor and chief of staff to Cuomo in the attorney general’s office and formerly an assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district; Counsel Mylan Denerstein, formerly the deputy attorney general for social justice; Andrew Zambelli, counselor to the governor and former secretary to Gov. Mario Cuomo and Adam S. Cohen, a special policy adviser and former journalist and lawyer. Judge Leslie G. Leach, Cuomo’s former executive deputy attorney general, will serve as appointments secretary to the governor and Jeremy M. Creelan will serve as special counsel for public integrity and ethics reform. Creelan is a former deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brenner Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
Howard B. Glaser, a former aide to Cuomo in the Department of Housing and Urban development during the Clinton administration, will serve as director of state operations and a senior policy adviser and Yrtha A. Dinzey-Flores, a former manger of philanthropy programs for Toyota, will serve as the chief diversity officer.
Cuomo has also tapped Sabrina Ty, a top lawyer in Silver’s office, to be his chief legislative liaison, and Seth Agata, counsel to the Assembly’s Codes Committee, to work in the governor’s counsel’s office.
“These are very smart, very capable, people who will be very forceful in moving the governor’s agenda forward,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said that Zambelli had a history of being “very sympathetic and sensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community” and was chief of staff to the first governor Cuomo when he ordered the director of criminal justice to investigate the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
Rapfogel said he had also worked with Denerstein, whose job in the attorney general’s office included oversight of charities enforcement. He said Zambelli and Denerstein “have a good understanding of the good things that we do.” But he noted that positions that will have the biggest impact on social services, on the agency commissioner level, have yet to be announced.
Ron Soloway, UJA-Federation of New York’s lobbyist for its programs in Albany, said Cuomo’s appointees so far, particularly Ty and Zambelli, “have an understanding of the UJA-Federation human services.” In the case of Ty, he added “we are looking forward to having her carry some of our issues back to the legislature and negotiate outcomes that will continue to allow us to serve people to the best extent possible.”