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With his daily briefings and disarmingly blunt manners, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become the face of reopening a state that is vital to the health of the nation's economy and the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus.
But Cuomo is far from alone in planning strategy to repair New York’s diverse economy that includes everything from deal making on Wall Street to farms in its north country. His right hand in the gargantuan effort is an affable and modest banker who has built a long career in both high finance and government.
That banker is Bill Mulrow, a senior advisory director at private equity powerhouse the Blackstone Group, who was appointed by Cuomo in late March to help repair the state's economy once it emerges from the virus-related shutdown and quarantines.
Mulrow, 64, is a long-time Cuomo associate. He has traversed both the banking world and state politics for nearly 40 years. Some people compare him to Felix Rohatyn, the financier who helped New York City rebound from the 1970s fiscal crisis that nearly devastated the economic and social fabric of Gotham.
Though he has never had or sought the public profile of Rohatyn—who maintained a significant media presence during his years in the public and private sector—Mulrow is being tasked with fixing a problem that may be more intractable. Since the pandemic lockdowns began in late March, business in New York has ground to a halt. New York, including its densely populated New York City metropolitan region, has been hit harder by the virus than any place in the country, and the various quarantines in the state's southern regions could last well into June.
The result has been economic calamity: New York's $1.7 trillion economy is the third largest in the country behind California and Texas. Nearly two months of quarantines that have shuttered businesses to combat the spread of the virus have led to massive unemployment and budget shortfalls that are likely to balloon into the tens of billions of dollars, according to estimates provided by the Empire Center for Public Policy, an independent think tank based in Albany, New York.
The center said in a recent report that the "economic shutdown imposed by the governor to contain the spread of the coronavirus also has caused state government’s budget resources to collapse on an unprecedented scale."
Mulrow's job is to help the state to recover from all of this as soon as possible. At bottom his job is to advise Cuomo on business conditions that various industries in the state will face in the weeks and months ahead and how they will operate in a post-lockdown environment.
In recent weeks he has been holding around-the-clock meetings with top business executives, all of them by phone given the social distancing requirements of the day.
With his background in banking and state government, Mulrow knows exactly who to call. He has ties to executives who run the big New York City banks, as well as executives in real estate, sports, restaurants and technology who dominate the downstate economy. Because of his long years working in state government, Mulrow is plugged into New York's powerful private sector unions, and he is said to be tapping into those contacts as he looks to reopen the upstate economy that is dominated by manufacturing and agriculture.
Cuomo announced Mulrow's unpaid advisory role on March 23, just days after the governor shuttered all non-essential businesses in the state. Though Mulrow remains a Blackstone executive, he spends most of his time these days on his volunteer work, which could last through most of the year given the size of the shutdown and the complexity of New York's business environment.
It's an important task, maybe the most important in Mulrow's long career in business and government. One indication of the seriousness of his new job: He speaks regularly to Cuomo and still occasionally his Wall Street boss, the voluble private equity chief Stephen Schwarzman, who runs Blackstone. Schwarzman is said to be paying close attention to Mulrow's efforts because of the implications it has for Wall Street, one of New York's premier industries and a key component of the nation's economy, these people say.
"Bill isn't spending much time on Blackstone business these days, and he shouldn't," said one person close to Mulrow who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "What he is doing is so important not just for the state but the entire country."
A Blackstone spokeswoman declined to comment other than to confirm that Mulrow remains a full-time employee of the firm. A spokesman for Cuomo didn't return a call for comment.
Mulrow declined to provide a comment for this report. People who know him say he hasn't done any media since his volunteer work began, mindful of the politics surrounding his job. He also knows not to upstage Cuomo, one of the nation's most capable if egocentric politicians seeking a fourth term as governor and possibly the presidency in the coming years.
Cuomo's political stature has certainly grown with his deft handling of the pandemic. His shutdown of the state, except for essential businesses, has begun to "flatten the curve" of the virus in New York. Cuomo's daily press briefing where he provides blunt, informative and often calming assessments of the pandemic and how New Yorkers should comport themselves, has burnished his stature as a national leader.
And it’s during these sessions, where Cuomo has occasionally given Mulrow a shout out as his trusted "financial expert” though ostensibly, the two couldn't be more different. Cuomo can be charming but also notoriously combative and unyielding. Mulrow is amiable and an adviser who believes in compromise. Mulrow's father was a working-class Irish immigrant, while Andrew's dad nearly became the Democratic nominee for president
But they have bonded over politics, and developed a strong working relationship that has lasted decades. For starters, both are long-time Democrats and moderate liberals who believe business isn't the enemy but could be a solution in achieving progressive goals. This goes back to when the two first met in the mid-1980s, when Mulrow was an official for Mario Cuomo, the iconic three-term governor of the Empire State and Andrew's dad.
Andrew was then his father's campaign manager, and would spend just a few years as private sector lawyer and housing advocate before joining the Clinton administration. He lost a bid to become governor of New York, later won the state's attorney general slot, and ultimately won the governorship in 2011.
Mulrow, meanwhile, has dipped in and out of state government over the last four decades, while working for some of the biggest names in finance. He ran unsuccessfully for New York state comptroller and pursued a successful career on Wall Street, including banking roles at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, money manager Gabelli & Co. and then private equity titan Blackstone Group in 2011.
He left Blackstone to become Cuomo's secretary, or his de-facto chief of staff in 2015, and later served as his campaign chairman. He returned to Blackstone in 2017 but remained close to the governor and is regarded by many as his top private-sector adviser and confidant.
How Mulrow survived the politically treacherous Cuomo orbit is something Democratic political advisers have marveled over for years. "He's the last guy to open his mouth around Andrew and only when he has something valuable to offer," said veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "He's also loyal and honorable, a trait you don't find much in politics. That's why Andrew trusts him.
And that's why Cuomo early on decided he needed Mulrow and a coterie of private sector advisers such as Steve Cohen, an executive at McAndrews & Forbes to shape his plan to rebuild New York in the wake of the pandemic. And it won’t be easy. One way to track the difficulties in reopening New York for business is to track the spread of the coronavirus. So far there have been 965,933 COVID-19 cases reported in the country, and nearly a third of them, or 288,076, come from New York State, home of the nation's largest city by population, New York City.
Given the city's density, it's not surprising that it has seen the brunt of the COVID-19 caseload of 158,268 infections and approximately 12,227 deaths.
While the worst of the virus may be over in New York, the future of the pandemic remains as fraught as the state's economy. Mulrow and Cuomo recently ramped up their efforts to produce a reopening plan and get people back to work as the virus has abated. They’re also watching infection rate data carefully in crafting a strategy that will allow some businesses to reopen by the middle of next month, with a target date of May 15.
For now, the plan is to begin integrating construction and manufacturing back into the state economy first and on a regional basis. Parts of upstate New York have far fewer COVID-19 cases than the city, so these areas could be free of restrictions on May 15, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Downstate, with its densely populated cities, may not open until June or later, and then only on a business-by-business basis.
But the entire strategy depends on the number of COVID-19 cases; if they continue to stabilize and recede, more regions of the state and more businesses will begin to open. If the numbers reverse, then the opposite will likely occur: Rolling lock downs to deal with a new wave of the virus.
How long Mulrow plans to be working full-time for the state is anyone's guess, but Blackstone is said to be giving him wide latitude.
"Maybe one good thing here is that there aren't many private equity deals, so Bill can do his state work full-time," said one friend of Mulrow.