When Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro needed New York state’s help to get a service road built that would keep a Lowe’s hardware store from closing, he knew whom to call: Joe Percoco.
A 43-year-old aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Percoco has amassed power in Albany that belies his official title of executive deputy secretary. Now, after more than 10 years of asking the state for help with no success, Molinaro said the service road plan is moving ahead.
“I went to him and told him there was a major problem,” said Molinaro, who ran on the Conservative Party ticket and endorsed Cuomo, a Democrat. “He called the right people with orders to get it done.”
Percoco’s clout comes from his almost unparalleled access to the governor. In his first 15 months in office, Cuomo met with Percoco more times than anyone in his administration except Larry Schwartz, his chief of staff, according to an analysis of the governor’s public schedules. While Schwartz speaks publicly and negotiates with legislative leaders, Percoco maneuvers behind the scenes.
Lawmakers know he’s a conduit to Cuomo, said Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, a Cohoes Democrat.
“He knows when to speak and when not to,” Canestrari said. “We all know that, so we have confidence in him.”
Percoco, a former high-school football linebacker with a reputation for pugnacity, played a key role in getting a divided Legislature to approve a law legalizing same-sex marriage, a pension overhaul that raised the retirement age to 63 from 62, and the first consecutive on-time budgets since 2006, said Howard Glaser, Cuomo’s director of state operations.
“He stands at the nexus of politics, policy and relationships,” Glaser said in a telephone interview. “Joe has built a lot of trust. He knows the policies and has grown up in New York state government. He is a critical player in moving the agenda forward.”
Percoco, who declined to be interviewed through Cuomo’s spokesman, Josh Vlasto, is a native New Yorker. He grew up in the Bronx and moved to Rockland County with his family at age 6. He graduated from Wagner College on Staten Island and received a law degree from St. John’s University in Queens.
His working relationship with Cuomo, 54, dates to 1999, when the governor was U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton. Percoco was brought in to arrange public events by Glaser and Todd Howe. The two officials had overseen Percoco’s work in the early 1990s when he had a similar position with Mario Cuomo, a three-term New York governor and Andrew’s father.
In his two previous roles, Percoco showed the same singular focus that he’s brought to Andrew Cuomo’s administration, said Harry Giannoulis, a former statewide ombudsman for Mario Cuomo who is now president of the Parkside Group, a New York-based public relations firm.
“With Joe, there’s not a lot of seduction,” Giannoulis said. “He’ll say why he’s calling you and gets right to the point. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll call back.”
During Cuomo’s negotiations over same-sex marriage, Percoco and Steve Cohen, who led the effort for the governor, met with Hasidic Jews who opposed the measure, said Cohen, who left the administration in July 2011 and is now a partner in the New York office of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, a law firm.
As Cohen and the Hasidim engaged in a robust debate, Percoco quietly listened, Cohen recalled in a telephone interview. When it was clear Cohen wouldn’t be able to change their opinion, Percoco stepped in.
“He looked across the table and said, ‘I love you all, you’re my friends and you’ve done a lot for us,’” Cohen said. “‘But under this issue, you’re simply wrong. That may be hard for you, and I appreciate that, but this is going forward in the way that we proposed.’”
That forthrightness can sometimes come off as brusque, leaving those that don’t know him well with the impression that he’s tougher than he actually is, Glaser said.
In an April 2010 profile, the New York Times described Percoco as a “pugnacious aide” who had been “unleashed” by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to “undercut his rivals and clear a path for him to become the prohibitive favorite in the race for governor of New York.”
Senator Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, who worked with Percoco on Mario Cuomo’s last campaign said, “he’s tough when he needs to be, but it’s a tough business.”
Inside the administration, he’s known as the “anchor man,” who provides a calming center for staff working in a fast-paced environment, Glaser said.
“He is the funniest guy in the administration,” Glaser said. “He’s a mean impressionist. He can do Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Al D’Amato in the room together and have you on the floor.”
Since their days at HUD, Percoco hasn’t left Cuomo’s side.
“He has stuck with Andrew Cuomo through thick and thin,” said Senator Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn.
The thin came after Cuomo pulled out of the governor’s race in 2002 a week before the Democratic primary. Percoco, who had been organizing public events for the campaign, took a job in New York as the managing attorney at KPMG LLP, the international consulting firm, though was always there for Cuomo.
“When Andrew Cuomo was out there in the political wilderness after he lost the bid for governor, he had to rebuild his whole identity in New York state,” Glaser said. “Joe was at his side professionally and personally, and helped him reconnect and listen to people around the state about what they wanted to see him do.”
Percoco managed both of Cuomo’s successful campaigns that followed, first for attorney general in 2006, and then for governor in 2010. In the interim, he was Cuomo’s special counsel. Through it all, he’s built a relationship with Cuomo that resonates from the second floor of the Capitol, where the governor has his office.
“One gets the impression if there’s one person on the second floor who understands the governor’s psyche, that it’s Joe,” Gianaris said. “He’s his most trusted confidant. Emphasis on trusted.”