Senator’s staff shake-up: Key aides are gone

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She is closing in on six months in office, and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi already has decided to upend up her administrative team, losing both her chief of staff and his deputy within weeks of each other.

Andrew Mutnick, a pediatrician who worked to topple Biaggi’s predecessor, Jeffrey Klein, departed as chief of staff at the beginning of May, according to Biaggi’s office. Yet, it was a different story when it came to Mutnick’s deputy, Christian Amato, who says he was escorted from Biaggi’s Morris Park district office last Friday.

“I was fired,” Amato told The Riverdale Press. “I wasn’t given any reasoning.”

Mutnick, who could not be reached for comment, is returning to his medical practice, according to a Biaggi spokesperson.

Amato, however, is still trying to figure out what’s next after he was pulled into meeting with senate personnel officer Debra Meade and Biaggi on May 31. There he said he was told he was an “at-will employee” and that he was being terminated.

Without a contract, Amato was left without options. When asked for an explanation, Meade simply repeated her initial statement, and then turned to Biaggi and asked if the senator had anything to add, according to Amato. Biaggi simply said “nope.”

Biaggi’s office confirmed the meeting did take place, that both Biaggi and a senate lawyer were in the room, and that Amato was fired.

Surprising exit

Immediately after the meeting, Amato was escorted out of the Morris Park district office and to the building’s elevator. Amato said Meade informed him he was no longer welcome in the district office — even as a constituent — without the express consent of Biaggi. However, Biaggi’s office denied this claim.

Amato was one of Biaggi’s longest-serving staffers, joining her campaign as a volunteer in January 2018. He was a digital strategies director and a regional field director for both the 80th and 82nd Assembly districts through the end of the campaign. He took a job in the senator’s office when Biaggi officially became a senator last January.

When he was fired, Amato was essentially serving as Biaggi’s chief of staff.

Mutnick also was an early volunteer in Biaggi’s campaign, promoting Biaggi through political groups like NYCD-16 Indivisible, which had focused heavily on pushing Klein out of office over his then leadership of the Independent Democratic Conference, the breakaway group of senate Democrats that caucused with Republicans.

Just days after the firing, Amato says he’s still not sure why it happened. He couldn’t recall any major conflict or argument that precipitated his departure.

Biaggi’s office would not share a reason, either, telling The Press it’s “normal not to comment on personnel matters.”

Noted absences?

Amato claims Biaggi is under an immense amount of pressure in Albany and praised her early work in the senate as a progressive legislator. But he believed she had neglected in-district work even as her staffers worked to ingratiate themselves in the community.

“There was frustration in the fact that we were compiling district strategy and working on really incredible stuff,” but Biaggi’s focus was elsewhere, Amato said.  The district office planned and attended dozens of events during the senator’s first five months in office.

“The senator’s absence at those events didn’t rub people the right way,” he said.

Biaggi participated in a handful of in-district town halls, including one on housing with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on May 30 and another on the budget process in Riverdale on April 7. However, activists who supported her election pointed out the senator has yet to make appearances at Community Board meetings or events hosted by neighborhood associations, particularly in the east Bronx.

When the state legislature is in session during the first half of the year, the senator “must spend the majority of her time in Albany to legislate on behalf of the community,” Biaggi spokeswoman Maya Moskowitz said.

A search is underway to fill both positions, and it was not immediately clear if other staffers were filling those roles on an interim basis.

Longtime Bronx activist and founder of Northwest Bronx Democrats Anthony Rivieccio said he was confused by the whole affair. Traditionally, losing two top staffers in the first five months of a senator’s term is “a very bad sign,” he said.

After campaigning for Biaggi, Rivieccio noted she made a couple of rookie mistakes during her first months in office — namely hosting a small Black History Month event in Morris Park as opposed to the large breakfast Klein hosted each year at Villa Barone Manor in Throggs Neck. But he chalked those up to her inexperience and the demands of a first term.

Besides, Rivieccio added, Biaggi had “3,000 people” in her ear telling her what she should and shouldn’t do.

“I think Ms. Biaggi needs to learn how to run a professional team,” Rivieccio said, adding that Biaggi had three different campaign managers during her run against Klein.

Rivieccio, however, believes there’s more to the staff changes than mismanagement. He wasn’t a big fan of Mutnick to begin with. And while Amato’s fieldwork during the campaign was unparalleled, he seemed overworked and stretched thin during his time in the senate office, Rivieccio said. If Amato was fired in the manner described, it’s possible he “did something way out of left or right field he wasn’t supposed to do.”

Experience required

David Knapp and the group he co-founded, Northwest Bronx Indivisible, worked in partnership with the Biaggi campaign in the primary against Klein. While he was surprised by the staffing changes, Knapp speculated they might be casualties of Biaggi earning experience over time.

“They were both relatively new” to politics, Knapp said of Mutnick and Amato. As Biaggi proposed 65 pieces of legislation in Albany the last five months, Knapp said she probably became more acquainted with the ins and outs of being a lawmaker and realized she needed a more experienced staff.

Mutnick worked as a pediatrician and an academic administrator before joining Biaggi, while Amato was a theater producer.

In a Facebook post, Bronx activist Cynthia Prisco alleged staffers in Biaggi’s office witnessed verbal abuse and were denied time off to care or visit sick relatives. Prisco volunteered for Biaggi’s campaign after quitting Klein over policy differences and alleged labor violations. Amato said he heard similar rumors of verbal abuse, but never witnessed it himself. Seven campaign volunteers who worked alongside Biaggi to various degrees told The Press they never witnessed mistreatment of staff on the campaign, but could not speak to her time in the senate.

Amato did confirm, however, that Biaggi personally denied staffers time off to care for sick or elderly family members. Biaggi denied ever preventing anyone from taking time off in those situations, and her office spokesperson said there were no reported incidents of verbal abuse.

Despite the turmoil of the last few weeks, Amato is still a fan of Biaggi’s. He called campaigning and serving in her office an “amazing dream” and is proud of her legislative record.

I “still wholeheartedly believe in Alessandra and believe in her as a progressive leader,” Amato said. “I hope that she delivers for our district like she promised.”

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