I REALLY TREASURED DREW ZAMBELLI
Andrew “Drew” Zambelli is dead. I can’t believe it. I really, really treasured this guy. Our intense and strange relationship began many years ago when I used to interview Mario Cuomo every week on public radio stations all over the place. Drew was the governor’s top man, other than son Andrew, and he ended up as Mario’s Secretary, the top job. Shortly after Andrew became the governor, I was summoned to his office. When I got there, Drew was seated next to Andrew and the new governor asked me to do something that I just didn’t want to do. I left his office and I have real reason to believe that Andrew never really forgave me for that. Frankly, that hurt.
Shortly after that bad scene, I received my first phone call from Drew. Then, what started as a trickle turned into a torrent. Every week, Drew would call and we would talk, sometimes for an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more. We would speak of our families and our children and our aspirations for them. Drew was a phenomenal pollster and we would talk about what people wanted from government and what was troubling them. We would also speak of my unhappiness with Andrew’s behavior toward me. I would share with Drew on these incredible weekly (sometimes more) conversations my puzzlement over what I considered Andrew’s mean spiritedness. Good friend that Drew was to Andrew, he would give me the reasons that I was wrong. I remember once telling him, “No one likes the guy.” He gently told me that I was wrong and that Andrew was liked as well as feared by a lot of people.
Perhaps because of Drew, I tried to be fair to Andrew. When he took the lead on sensible gun control in the United States, I praised him to the hilt. Shortly thereafter, I received a call from Andrew who said he was puzzled that I had written a piece praising him since previously, I had been writing in a different direction, if you catch my drift. He asked me why I had done it and I tried to be funny, responding, “I was only trying to confuse you, governor.”
In any case, like Dostoevsky’s character Roskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, I grew closer and closer to Drew. If he was just playing an agent of the governor’s (“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”) which is what I assumed it was all about, he was awfully convincing. I assumed he reported back to the governor about what I was thinking but after a while, it really didn’t matter. I just really, really liked him. At the end of every conversation he would say to me, “You know the phone works two ways, you can always call me.” But I don’t think I ever did. He gave me hints that I was not the only one he was working the phones with. Once when I mentioned my friend Gerald Benjamin, he told me that he was in touch with him.
Once or twice he mentioned that he had some health issues but when I probed, he moved away fast. After a while, he left the governor’s employ but the conversations continued, maybe a little bit more infrequently. Just when I thought it was all over, the phone would ring and he’d be there. Those conversations really meant a lot to me. Since they were off the record, he cautioned me once when I quoted a “friend of the governor.” I assumed that he left Cuomo because he had to make some money and he told me that he was doing well. He said he was still doing polling and other stuff for the governor.
He was only 70 years old. These days, that’s just too young, especially when someone has become a treasured friend. I will sure miss Drew and those conversations.
Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected]