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Opinion | In book excerpt, Lis Smith trashes Andrew Cuomo. In testimony, she called him a ‘pretty good boss’

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Politico has always had a nose for the provocative, so it’s no wonder that it recently published a book excerpt from Democratic operative Lis Smith with this comment about the political death of a certain former New York governor: “Say what you will about Andrew Cuomo, but he died as he lived: with zero regard for the people around him and the impact his actions would have on them.”

Considerably more tipid is the evaluation that Smith provided a year ago to investigators working for the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James regarding sexual harassment charges against Cuomo: “He’s been a pretty good boss,” Smith testified.

The gulf between Smith’s assessment of Cuomo in her book, “Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story,” and her assessment to the attorney general investigators shows what happens when a spinmeister gets control of the printing press. With the help of a nifty narrative or two, Smith manages to eviscerate the politician she once assisted and attempts to take a place among his most vocal #MeToo critics — all without having to indicate whether she believes his accusers.

It’s a brilliantly fashioned escape from a dubious career decision, one that gets an assist from Politico, which allowed the story to unfurl without much editorial intervention.

By her own account, Smith has emerged as “one of the top communications aids in the Democratic Party.” Over 17 years and 20 campaigns, she has injected spunk, edge and media savvy into political messaging — a run that included a high-profile role as senior adviser for the 2020 presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg. She’d also assisted Cuomo on his 2018 reelection campaign. One of her peers called her an “extraordinary rapid response practitioner.”

Rapid-response skills roared into demand last year as Cuomo faced a series of sexual harassment claims. The timeline is central to Smith’s excerpt in Politico: Allegations emerged in December 2020, when former aid Lindsey Boylan first accused the governor of sexual harassment. More claims surfaced in February, March and April of 2021, with reports of inappropriate office banter, unwanted touching and kissing as well as groping: A former executive assistant, Brittany Commisso, accused the governor of fondling her breasts. The Times Union of Albania broke that story on March 9, 2021though it didn’t name Commisso at that time.

As those claims mounted, so did Smith’s disenchantment, she writes in the book, as excerpted by Politico. Her central gripe is that Cuomo failed to level with his advisers. In late February 2021, after Boylan published on Medium an essay containing details about the alleged sexual harassment, “Cuomo swore to the crowd advising him that nothing, nothing else would come out. It didn’t take long for us to see that he wasn’t being completely truthful,” Smith writes.

Within days, an allegation from former aid Charlotte Bennett appeared in the New York Times. “Fool me once, shame on you,” Smith writes in italics.

Except the investigative record tells a competing story. After Boylan came forward with her sexual-harassment allegation in December, the Cuomo executive suite was awash in discussions that Bennett might take her story public. Judith Mogul, special counsel to Cuomo, testified to AG investigators that she’d discussed Bennett and other possible accusers with fellow aides in December 2020. Josh Vlasto, a member of the Cuomo pushback squad, provided a similar account. Whereas Smith’s book suggests that the Cuomo team was blindsided by Bennett’s claims, it was actually bracing for them.

The same fool-me rigmarole repeated itself shortly thereafter, Smith writes. Cuomo again said no other women would come forward. Then came the groping claim on March 9. As Smith tells it, the women who were advising the governor felt burned: “It started to feel like we were being manipulated — used because of our gender to cover and lie for Cuomo,” she writes.

In a moment of professional introspection, Smith notes that others asked her why she kept advising Cuomo after these experiences. “I wanted to believe Cuomo, I had to,” she writes. “To me, the other option was unfathomable: that so much of what I’d done in politics, everything I’d done for Cuomo, was in vain.” She writes that she should have “ruminated” more on whether she should have defended Cuomo, as opposed to thinking about how to defend him.

On July 5, 2021 — months after the plume of claims against Cuomo billowed — Smith spoke under oath with controversies working for the New York AG. When asked about Commisso’s breast-groping claim, Smith said that it “would have been extremely out of character for the governor.” When asked about one of Bennett’s claims, she also said it would “not be in character” for the governor. When asked whether it mattered if Bennett’s claims were true, she responses, “What matters to me is whether I believed … the governor acted in an inappropriate manner in the workplace, and I do not believe he did that.” And when asked whether Cuomo had ever treated her harshly, Smith replied with her comment about his being a “pretty good boss,” further specifying that she would “put him on the spectrum of treating me with more respect and someone who’s been supportive of my career as well.”

According to Smith’s book excerpt, more gubernatorial betrayal followed Cuomo’s own session with the AG investigators. He assured his advisers that the investigators had nothing new, yet when the AG’s report dropped on Aug. 3, 2021, it contained a “bombshell” about the governor’s treatment of a female state trooper assigned to his security detail. “For me, the AG’s report was the last in the line of crushing blows,” Smith writes.

Based on that commentary, you might suppose that Smith sided with the AG over Cuomo. Such a posture was nowhere in evidence a few months after the release of the AG report, when an attempt to prosecute Cuomo for the groping claims suffered a setback. Smith taunted James, who had recently announced a run for governor:

Apparently determined to bury her “pretty good boss,” Smith neglects to mention any mitigating considerations relating to Cuomo’s slow-motion demise. For instance, her Politico excerpt properly credits the Times Union for breaking the story of Commisso’s groping allegation. It never mentions, however, that after the AG report, Cuomo lawyer Rita Glavin raised a series of questions about key details of that story.

Like, on what day did it happen? Though Commisso had told the Times Union she didn’t recall the exact date, the AG report indicates that it was Nov. 16; Commisso, however, later told the Times Union it could have been during Thanksgiving week. Electronic records gathered by authorities indicated that she’d been alone with the governor on Dec. 7, according to the Times Union. The Times Union considered the confusion compelling enough to publish a follow-up story in January 2022; it reported that Commisso’s “conflicting statements” helped persuade Albany County prosecutors to drop a misdemeanor charge against Cuomo.

The point here is that Smith eviscerates Cuomo for failing to give his team a heads-up about the Commisso incident. Fairness requires stipulating that the allegation’s fundamentals aren’t as solid now as they appeared in March 2021.

Another wrinkle absent from Smith’s recounting is how incurious the media and the AG were about Bennett’s past as an accusationr.

Nor is there any indication that Smith or Politico sought comment from Cuomo. Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the former governor, confirms to the Erik Wemple Blog that there was no such outreach. That may be just fine for a political operative like Smith, but does Politico have any standards for essays that appear under its banner? Even if it is a book excerpt — that is, not its original reporting? And did Politico examine Smith’s AG transcript as it considered whether to publish the excerpt?

“The Lis Smith book excerpt was an insider account of the fall of one of the best-known politicians in America, whose offenses were the subject of state investigations, massive media coverage, and voter outrage,” responds Politico spokesperson Brad Dayspring. “Readers understand that as a book excerpt, the content represents Lis Smith’s perspective and experience, and that the portrait that it paints of Andrew Cuomo is hers.”

None of this exonerates Cuomo from allegations that he ran a toxic workplace, felt at liberty to touch people inappropriately and engaged in some of the creepiest repartee in modern political history. (Azzopardi responds that the work environment was “demanding and expectations were high.” Cuomo has claimed that hugging and embracing are part of his MO and that some of his conversations with female staffers were misinterpreted.) When the claims against Cuomo were emerging, Smith defended him in clash with the New York press corps, often from the shadows of anonymity: “Any mention of my name would bring scrutiny upon me, and generally I prefer — less scrutiny is better, I think,” she told AG investigators, in a candid remark that reporters should remember when they let their subjects go off the record.

This work she performed with gusto: “Can i take a f—ing run at him,” Smith wrote to her fellow advisers as she requested permission to engage with Matt Flegenheimer, a reporter from the New York Times. After their call, she emailed her colleagues that she’d called Flegenheimer’s story “pathetic and an embarrassment to the times” and that she “especially looked forward to mocking it and him on twitter.”

Sounds as though Smith enjoyed rolling with a political operation known for its bullying ways.

Impressed with Smith’s revisionist bravado, we sent her a number of specific questions about the excerpt. Like a seasoned operative, she replied not with a list of answers but with a statement: “’Any Given Tuesday’ tries to capture how politics can be both extremely rewarding and very challenging and how even some of the most inspiring leaders can elevate you one minute and then frustrate, disappoint, and mislead you the next. In writing the book, I tried to faithfully describe the details of specific events and the full range of my emotions from my political career — feelings which can change and evolve over time. Following the Governor’s resignation, I had a difficult reckoning with myself about everything that had transpired, and I hope that people can benefit from the lessons I shared.”

Perhaps Smith did indeed experience an epiphany between November and her book deadline, though her readers are entitled to doubt its authenticity. It is, after all, a résumé-cleansing epiphany in a world where performing a pit-bull PR work for a #MeToo casualty isn’t a sought-after credential.

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