ALBANY — The New York State Capitol looks like the setting of an old-time horror movie, with blood red turrets, an ink-black roof and enough stone for an emperor’s tomb. Vampires would feel at home here, it seems, as do ghosts, who are sighted wandering its polished corridors.
But the building actually teems with life: The granite-and-marble masterpiece was declared complete in 1899 by then-Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, one in a long line of oversize personalities — and egos — to occupy that post. That includes the Capitol’s current commandant: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who was elected to a third term last month and whose office sits on the second floor, not far from a portrait of his father, Mario M. Cuomo, who also served as governor.
Being the bureau chief in Albany — long considered one of the nation’s most dysfunctional state capitals, and thus one of The Times’s best beats — sometimes seems more like being a police reporter: In my five years here, there have been multiple convictions of senior state officials on federal corruption charges, including two of Mr. Cuomo’s top aides and the leaders of the State Senate and the State Assembly. (Consider that for a second: the leaders of both houses of the New York Legislature were convicted — twice, after their first convictions were thrown out — on charges of abusing the public trust.) There have also been more sordid scandals: lawmakers censured for sexual harassment and groping staff members, for a sham marriage, for trying to bilk the government out of hurricane relief funds. You could set a true-life crime show here, but producers would call it too far-fetched.
Any script about Albany, of course, would have Mr. Cuomo at its heart. A famous micromanager with a taste for political combat, Mr. Cuomo is an oversize presence in the capital, and seems to be here for the long haul. He won a third term decisively in November, and has sworn again and again that he’s not running for president. (Notwithstanding recent reports of him talking to Iowa Democrats.)
With almost 20 million people and a $160 billion budget, New York has plenty of plain old policy to cover. There are legislative elections every two years, and an annual January-to-June session involving hundreds of issues, thousands of bills and hundreds of millions in lobbying. Most weeks, legislators swoop in on Mondays — the best night life and sourcing happens then — and retreat to districts by Wednesday, while Mr. Cuomo often holes up in his New York City office until serious negations begin.
Mr. Cuomo prides himself on making the government run efficiently, and is not averse to calling reporters, myself included, to give, um, critiques of their work. His reaction after beating back a Democratic primary challenge in September from Cynthia Nixon could be summed up in four tidy words: I told you so.
As that implies, Mr. Cuomo’s relationship with the Capitol press corps — a combative lot, admittedly — runs warm to frigid: He used to invite reporters for informal, off-the-record chats at the Executive Mansion, but that hasn’t happened in a while. In a sign of possible détente, however, the governor did host a Christmas party for reporters on Thursday night: the invite, no kidding, said the reception would be “off-the-record and (maybe?) fun.”
Still, the governor gamely invites journalists on white water rafting adventures, and seems to love a good summit, including one celebrating the state’s beer and wine industry, an occasion that regularly inspires an unsurprising increase in tipos. Mr. Cuomo is far from the only character in the Capitol, which has oddities galore. For instance, while Democrats far outnumber Republicans, until recently the Republican Party had managed to keep control of the Senate by collaborating with a group of rogue Democrats in the Senate, including Simcha Felder, who represents a district in Brooklyn that is home to a large number of Orthodox Jews.
Last summer, while working on an aborted profile of Mr. Felder — an affable, quotable legislator — he and I drove around his district, which he long said was better served by his working with the opposing party than his fellow Democrats. And then he took me to see his mother, presumably to vouch for him. (She had nice things to say.)
That power dynamic changed on Election Day, when Democrats swept statewide races and exiled Republicans in the Senate to the political wasteland. And Democrats — holding both legislative houses and the governor’s office — are talking big about a bold progressive agenda. Mind you, last time Democrats held both houses in Albany, in 2009-10, there was a coup in the State Senate, involving two Democrats defecting to the Republicans. (That those two Democrats — former Senators Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate — were later convicted of crimes was just par for the course.)
There are certainly issues that invite bipartisanship, such as heroin treatment, education funding and, of course, lawmakers’ ongoing insistence that they are underpaid. Also, pets: Every year, the Capitol’s sometimes gloomy milieu is broken by Animal Advocacy Day, wherein lawmakers leave their offices and legislative chambers to have their faces licked by nonvoters.
Along with my indefatigable colleague, Vivian Wang, the Albany bureau also handles breaking news from pretty much anywhere north of the old Tappan Zee Bridge. (Or the new one, named for Mr. Cuomo’s father.) That includes the Dannemora prison break in 2015 and the tragic limousine crash in Schoharie, N.Y., in October. There are also more oddball events, such as incidents involving wandering bears and bison — both of which ended badly for the runaway fauna.
For the most part, however, the animals I watch are of a political nature, though apparently no less prone to bad decision-making. I spend as much time reading indictments as I do reading bills.
And there are plenty of moments when the job has all the excitement of a lint festival. During the two busiest times of the year, in March (when the budget is settled) and June (when the six-month legislative session ends), much of my time is spent standing in hallways outside closed-door meetings waiting for legislative leaders to emerge and voice variations of this sentiment: “We’re making progress, but we’re not there yet.”
Despite the scandals, most of the lawmakers are in fact devoted public servants, making the trek to the haunted Capitol dozens of times a year to pass laws and stand up for those who elected them. That includes Mr. Felder, although he hasn’t said which party he’ll sit with when the new legislative session begins. He’s something of a lone wolf at this point — not unlike the coyote seen near the Capitol during this year’s budget talks.
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