Questions remain after high-profile Biaggi staff changes

Former chief of staff says he’s surprised about his deputy’s unplanned exit

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It was a Wednesday afternoon in March and state senate finance chair Liz Krueger and ranking minority member James Seward were debating the proposed state budget. Seward, a Milford-based Republican, was chastising Krueger and her colleagues in the new Democratic majority for including even more taxes in their proposed budget than Gov. Andrew Cuomo included in his draft.

“The extension of the millionaire’s tax for five years, the opioid tax, the discontinuation of the energy services sales tax exemption,” Seward rattled off from his list of objectionable taxes on the senate floor. “Make the waste tire fee … ”

Before Seward could finish lodging his complaint over the extension of a $2.50 fee on retail tire sales, a loud crash and a commotion startled him from behind. Someone yelled, “We need to pause!” The state senate live stream of the budget debate cut to an exterior shot of the senate chambers with elevator music playing in lieu of live audio.

An intern had collapsed, Sen. Michael Gianaris explained a few minutes later as the session resumed. Alessandra Biaggi’s chief of staff Andrew Mutnick rushed to the aid of the intern who “seems to be OK,” Gianaris reported.

“Fortunately, he was fine and had suffered from an episode of vasovagal syncope,” Andrew Mutnick later wrote in an email describing the incident in a way only a doctor would. A pediatrician by trade, Mutnick was an early booster of Biaggi during the 2018 Democratic primary campaign against then state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, and became her chief of staff when she took office in January.

On May 10, Mutnick left her office after just four months, citing the March 13 incident on the state senate floor as a catalyst for his departure. “Shortly following that, I realized that I was missing medicine and would prefer to return pediatric practice.”

Just a couple weeks later, Mutnick’s deputy, Christian Amato, was fired. Mutnick was on vacation out of the country when Amato was walked out of Biaggi’s district office May 31, and was surprised by the news.

“I remain puzzled over his termination,” Mutnick told The Riverdale Press, without offering much more.

Amato was a staffer on the Biaggi campaign from its earliest days, and a staffer in the senate office since Biaggi’s inauguration. He said he was given no reason for his firing, and Biaggi’s office declined to offer one, citing the common practice of not commenting on personnel matters.

Amato was let go suddenly on a Friday with a lawyer and a personnel official from senate central staff in the room and few words, if any, from Biaggi. A deputy of the state senate’s sergeant-at-arms escorted him out of Biaggi’s Morris Park office, but only as far as the building’s elevator.

Biaggi’s office referred questions of protocol to the state senate’s personnel office, which referred questions to the senate majority’s communications director Mike Murphy, who could not be reached for comment.

Amato, like most state senate employees, worked “at-will” and could be fired at any time for any reason. But the manner in which he was let go left him, Mutnick and some outside observers perplexed.

“There goes the revolution for change,” Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera wrote in a Facebook comment, accompanying his lament with a crying emoji. Although Rivera later endorsed Biaggi in the general election, he supported incumbent Jeffrey Klein during Biaggi’s primary challenge last year.

Efrain Gonzalez Jr., was a Bronx state senator who served in Albany for nearly 20 years before losing a primary election in 2008 and pleading guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy charges in 2010. Prior to his two decades as an elected official, Gonzalez worked 15 years on the staffs of Bronx state senators Israel Ruiz Jr., and Joseph Galiber, so he “knows where all the bodies are at.”

“Not knowing the circumstances, its very unusual, no?” Gonzalez said of Biaggi losing two stop staffers this early into her first term without replacements lined up. A search for replacements is indeed underway, Biaggi spokesman David Neustadt said, but he would not confirm if anyone was serving in an interim role.

At the time of his firing, Amato said he essentially served as interim chief of staff after Mutnick’s departure.

Mutnick returns to his pediatric primary care practice this month, and Amato is exploring new projects in both the political realm and the theatre world. Before working for Biaggi, Amato was a theatre producer. He also volunteered on other political campaigns, including an unsuccessful effort to draft Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Amato said he plans to stay involved in Bronx politics to some degree.

Both Mutnick and Amato speak very highly of their time with Biaggi and do not hold any grievances against the senator, although both remained confused over the circumstances of Amato’s termination.

“I know Christian to be a tireless worker who is exceedingly reliable and loyal,” Mutnick said. “Christian possesses the dedication and positivity that is most needed on collaborative teams. He’s an outstanding colleague, and wherever he lands next, they will be lucky to have him.”

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