Cuomo's right hand Melissa DeRosa is 'unapologetically fierce'
On most days during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s widely-watched televised briefings on the coronavirus crisis, Melissa DeRosa, who occupies the highest unelected position in the state as New York's first female secretary to the governor, can be seen sitting next to him (six feet apart as per social distancing guidelines, of course).
In a statement to The Journal News/lohud, the governor's office said this about DeRosa's role: "Melissa is the proverbial right hand to the governor. All work streams end with her and she is overseeing the monumental task of coordinating the state’s COVID-19 response including managing the war room of senior administration officials and their teams dedicated to the effort, helping craft emergency executive orders, coordinating with elected officials and strategizing with hospital leadership and business executives across the state to ensure frontline workers have the resources they need."
Below is a profile of Cuomo’s right hand originally published May 28, 2019.
Two years ago, at age 34, Melissa DeRosa made history when Gov. Andrew Cuomo named her New York's first female secretary to the governor, the highest unelected position in the state. She was also one of the youngest to be named to the post, but when it came to the idea of motherhood, she was becoming acutely aware of her ticking biological clock.
Six months into her high-pressure job, DeRosa visited her doctor to explore the possibility of freezing her eggs. She’d just turned 35.
“A lot of my girlfriends, in their mid-to-late-30s were having trouble having kids,” she said on a recent Thursday, sitting in her office on the 39th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper with views of the Chrysler Building right across the hall from Cuomo’s private office. “And they were sort of saying to me, ‘if this is something you're not going to do right away, you want to make sure to preserve your options.'”
In a wide-ranging interview, DeRosa, who also chairs the state’s Council on Women and Girls, discussed her experiences with sexual harassment, gender bias, working to advance policy with a feminist mindset and dealing with questions about members of her family working as lobbyists
She addressed New York Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox calling her a “petty thug” on Twitter right after she was appointed to the position of secretary.
“It's pretty funny actually," she said. "I'd only met him once at the Quogue Field Club in the Hamptons. I’d never interacted with him.”
Her meeting with her doctor that day to explore the possibility of freezing her eggs, she said, led her down the “rabbit hole” of learning about the woefully inadequate insurance coverage for fertility treatments.
“The thing that you learn when you're going through this process is that if you have to take the extraordinary step of doing IVF (in vitro fertilization), it is very expensive — to the tune of $20,000 or somewhere in that range,” she said. “Having fertility issues is a medical problem, right? I was outraged by it personally and in my opinion, if this was about a man's ability to reproduce, then insurance companies would have figured out long ago how to cover it. And so we wanted to put the muscle of the administration behind it.”
Last month, as part of the 2020 budget, a bill requiring large group insurance providers to cover the cost of in vitro fertilization was signed into law by Cuomo. The bill also covers egg-freezing services for women with certain medical conditions.
The fertility rate in the United States last year dipped to its lowest in 32 years, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among a range of reasons cited by experts include delays in marriage, more women joining the workplace, economic uncertainty and an absence of supportive family policies.
Fertility in women decreases gradually but significantly at age 32 and rapidly after 37, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. So for women delaying childbirth, access to assisted reproductive technology — of which IVF is considered to be the most effective — becomes a crucial part of the journey to motherhood.
Since 1996, more than 1 million U.S. babies have been born as a result of these techniques, according to the Pew Research Center.
DeRosa, who joined the Cuomo administration as director of communications in 2013 and was promoted to chief of staff in 2015, is credited with being the force behind several of the governor's key legislative victories such as paid family leave, $15 minimum wage, IVF/egg freezing insurance coverage requirement and free college tuition.
In a recent interview, Cuomo said the fact that DeRosa was the first woman to serve in the position of secretary to the governor was merely an "aside."
“She’s a star. She has the formula for success — intelligent, hardworking, right values and she embodies that,” said Cuomo. “She deserves it on the merits. I appointed her to that position because she was better than anyone else.”
When President Donald Trump decided to disband the White House Council on Women and Girls, which was set up to make sure federal agencies would consider the unique needs of women and girls when crafting policy and creating regulations, DeRosa, in concert with other senior women in the governor’s office, convinced the governor to establish the NYS Council on Women and Girls in 2017.
Since its establishment, the state Council on Women and Girls has taken up issues such as maternal mortality in the African American community and created a pilot program to provide doulas to women going through childbirth as well as expanding access to venture capital fund for women-led companies.
During her conversation with her doctor about egg freezing services and her own health insurance coverage, DeRosa got a glimpse into how society views the rights of single women.
“She was saying, well, if you fertilize the egg and freeze it, that's covered by your insurance. If you don't and you're just freezing your eggs, it's not covered by insurance,” DeRosa said referring to her doctor. “And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. So what you're telling me is because I'm married, or because I know who I would want to have children with, my insurance would cover it, but if I didn't and I was single it wouldn’t be, that's crazy.”
Risa Levine, a board member of RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association and longtime activist, said having a woman in a position of power as an ally in the legislative battle for IVF coverage made a big difference.
“Melissa worked to make things happen. Not loudly by pounding on a podium, but behind the scenes to make sure that IVF coverage was included in the governor’s Women’s Justice Agenda,” said Levine. “And then in the governor’s budget.”
DeRosa’s ability for deal making and negotiations was on display from a young age.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, recalls joining political forces as a sixth grader with DeRosa, then an eighth grader at the Albany Academy for Girls.
Both were running for class representative for their respective grades to be part of the student council.
Stefanik’s platform was to bring a snack machine to school. To DeRosa’s credit, she recognized a good idea and convinced Stefanik to join her ticket.
“It was a pretty popular idea for every student,” recalled Stefanik, who in 2014 became the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress at age 30.
DeRosa is still proud of her early political prowess.
“She was my ticket mate and, we cut a deal where I was like, ‘I'll bring you the eighth grade vote, you bring me to sixth grade vote, and we’ll both win,” DeRosa said with a laugh. “And we did. We negotiated to bring a snack machine to school.”
DeRosa was entrenched in politics and government from a very young age. She is thedaughter of an influential Albany lobbyist and a high school math teacher who once served as a union liaison to New York State United Teachers.
Her father, Giorgio DeRosa, a senior partner at Bolton-St. John’s, began his career with the United Auto Workers as a union organizer and later served as district director for Congresswoman Louise Slaughter.
“I was four years old and my father would take me to rallies. I have pictures of myself marching in parades for Louise Slaughter. We used to go door to door,” said DeRosa. “I was exposed to politics and campaigning from a very, very young age and I just fell in love with it immediately. I was hooked.”
DeRosa was fascinated by her father’s world. Her third grade assignment titled “Day in the Life of a Lobbyist,” is framed on a wall in her office and it references “the late budget and the senate which keeps going home."
Her father’s passion for politics has rubbed off on her siblings, too.
Both her older sister, Jessica, and her younger brother, Joseph, work at Bolton-St. Johns, the lobbying firm where their father is a partner. Those connections, coupled with the fact that her husband, Matt Wing, a former Cuomo press secretary who now serves as a senior communications executive with Uber, has raised questions of potential conflicts of interest.
Common Cause, a good-government advocacy group released a statement soon after DeRosa’s appointment saying the “family's extensive business interests before the state raise serious questions” and that to “avoid even the appearance of a conflict” the administration should disclose, among other things, the meetings she’s “recused” herself from and her role in the ride-hailing expansion in New York.
Two years in, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said they had received no further information on the matter from either DeRosa or the governor’s office.
“The same concerns still stand," said Lerner in an email.
DeRosa said she has worked with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which oversees and regulates lobbying in the state, for years.
"My father went into this line of work nearly 30 years ago, and I have been involved in government and politics for a decade and a half,” said DeRosa in an email. “I have fully complied with the Public Officers Law recusal policy for years and worked with JCOPE to ensure the highest standards are met to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."
Cuomo’s spokeswoman Dani Lever said the list of bill and budget items on which DeRosa’s family is lobbying is publicly available on JCOPE’s website.
Wing defended his wife as “an incredibly ethical person.”
When he worked as a press secretary to Cuomo, DeRosa, in her position as director of communications, was his boss.
“Initially she didn’t want to date me because she was worried about the fact that she was my boss,” said Wing. “And I literally went out and got an outside attorney to draw up an ethics opinion in order to convince her that there was no violation of the state Public Officers Law.”
But he acknowledged the concerns about the subject were understandable.
“It doesn’t mean that there can’t be a very fair question of conflict or people who are concerned about that,” said Wing. “It is impossible to live a life with no conflict. It is about taking the issue seriously. It’s about being accountable and being responsible.”
DeRosa’s first experience working in politics came at age 16 as an intern for the political director of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O. That was in 1999, when Hillary Clinton, then first lady, was launching her Senate bid from New York.
The union was preparing to endorse Clinton, gaming out what the campaign was going to look, how they would organize and what tactics they would use.
“And I remember thinking while I was doing the envelope stuffing and answering the phones, that someday I want to be the person who's sitting in that room and driving those conversations and mapping out strategy and being a part of it in a meaningful way," DeRosa said. " And so that’s what I've set out to do."
After graduating from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and a brief detour as a fashion publicist ("it was moment of rebellion," she said), she joined Bolton-St. John’s as a lobbyist, seeking out another partner at the firm so as not to directly work under her father.
One of her first assignments was to work on a campaign for $2.9 billion bond act to finance transportation projects statewide. The referendum had been defeated twice by voters.
“I loved moving around the state and setting up press conferences and gaming out who could be the people against this and how to get out in front of them, pitching the editorial boards, regionalizing data and how to make the best argument,” said DeRosa. “We won. And something about politics that I love is Election Day comes and there's a winner and a loser.”
After working on congressional campaigns and public relations including on Capitol Hill for Brooklyn Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, she returned to New York to pursue a master’s degree from Cornell in public administration. After graduation, she was tapped to lead then President Barack Obama’s national political action organization for New York.
From there, she moved on to work as the deputy chief of staff to the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, for two years.
Asked if she had any inkling of the #MeToo allegations that subsequently surfaced against her former boss, she said she was “as surprised as everyone else.”
At the same time, she said she had dealt with her share of experiences of harassment and gender bias.
When she was 26 and working as a lobbyist, she heard a client — whom she described as a national figure in progressive politics — making a lewd remark about her on a conference call that he didn’t know she was on.
“My boss said, ‘Melissa will be taking the lead on the project’, and he said, ‘Why doesn't she take the lead right up to my hotel room?’” DeRosa recalled.
DeRosa said her boss was horrified. He apologized to her after the call and told her it was “wholly inappropriate.”
“I was like, ‘I'm OK, I'm OK. I didn't say anything at the time because I was younger, I was less experienced and I wasn't as comfortable in my own skin.” DeRosa said. “I was almost afraid to say something because I didn’t want to be treated differently and for them to say, 'she can’t take a joke'.”
But she remembers the feeling well.
“I remember just thinking to myself what do people think about me when they look at me? Is this how people see me? How many things do I need to accomplish and how many years do I have to have to work and how many titles do I have to hold before they will look at me the same way that they would look at a man in this position with the same level of respect and treat me the same way?,” said DeRosa, as her eyes glistened with tears.
Months after her appointment as secretary, DeRosa said she had accompanied the governor to the 9/11 ceremony at Ground Zero with several dignitaries lined up in front of the memorial.
“This person who had known the governor for years looked up and said, ‘Oh, Andrew, who's this cute person? And he's like, she runs the state of New York,” DeRosa said. “But would anyone ever say that to a male aide who's talking to the governor?”
DeRosa said being in the same industry as her father has posed additional challenges.
“I feel like I've spent the last 15 years trying to convince people that I'm not daddy's little girl, which feels entirely unfair because men don't have to do that,” DeRosa said.
For example, she said, when she was appointed to the position of secretary after spending four years as director of communications and then chief of staff to Cuomo, the print headline for the New York Times story said, “Cuomo’s Chief of Staff, Daughter of Powerful Lobbyist, is Promoted to Secretary.”
“The New York Times took 15 years of my professional life away from me because they defined me not in the context of my accomplishments or my experience or my capacity,” said DeRosa. “But they defined me through my father and it was terrible, and it shouldn't have happened to me. It shouldn't happen to anyone else.”
DeRosa's skills as a political operative have earned her the respect of her counterparts in opposing camps.
Bill O'Reilly, a political consultant who served as communications director for Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate for governor who ran against Cuomo last year, said he was not surprised by DeRosa’s career trajectory.
"Melissa is super smart, super tough and super loyal," O'Reilly said. "She doesn't suffer fools lightly, and that's exactly who a governor would want around him or her. Cross her boss at your peril."
Emma Wolfe, chief of staff to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who's had a famously testy relationship with Cuomo over the years, called her a "tenacious fighter for her boss."
"We’ve had our share of knock-down-drag-outs but she's always honest with me about where they are, which means a lot in this business,” said Wolfe. “She doesn’t take the job for granted and she works at all, and I mean, at all, hours."
Asked if she would ever consider running for elected office, DeRosa demurred.
"I get asked all the time, which I think is hysterical," said DeRosa."This is all I'm focused on right now. I applaud all the women who are running and who knows what the future holds."
But if she does decide to run one day, she wouldn't have to look far for a communications adviser.
"She's unapologetically fierce. I would drop everything in a heartbeat if Melissa ever decided to run for office," said Lis Smith, who worked on Cuomo's reelection campaign with DeRosa and now serves as a senior communications adviser to presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. "She'd be great."
In the coming years, DeRosa wants to make sure insurance coverage would extend to egg freezing for non-medical reasons.
“The reality is when you have children, you're leaving the workforce for a period, at least six weeks. For women, that means that you're deciding at a critical point in your career that you're taking a timeout,” said DeRosa. “So the ability to be able to say, I want to preserve the ability to have children later on and not give up what I'm doing right now because I'm not financially able or I'm not married or I haven't found my partner yet is important.”
Companies such as Facebook and Apple offer up to $20,000 for egg freezing for female employees.
“Going through it on a personal level, it's something that makes you think about the broader picture and why diversity of leadership is so important,” said DeRosa. “Why you need to have women at the deciding table, why you should have equal representation. You take your own life experiences to everything that you're doing.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women in power for the USA Today Network Northeast. Write to her at email@example.com