Charming, Ruthless Andrew Cuomo

Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo; drawing by James Ferguson

At his inauguration in January 2011, Andrew M. Cuomo declared that he was taking office as the new governor of New York with an attitude of “constructive impatience with the status quo of Albany.” Six months later, Cuomo engineered passage of a law that recognized same-sex marriage. It was an utterly unexpected bloom in the political tundra. No state had moved on same-sex marriage in the previous two years. California’s Supreme Court decision in 2008 recognizing it was frozen by referendum and litigation. The New York State Assembly had approved same-sex marriage legislation three times in 2007 and 2009, but the State Senate had rejected it in 2009, and the arithmetical road to passage in 2011 seemed just as daunting. Cuomo invited anxious legislators to his office and one by one coaxed and cajoled them to support it.1

In the next two years, six other states followed, an expression of popular will that emboldened the US Supreme Court in 2013 to strike down a federal statute that excluded married same-sex couples from important benefits.2 (In 2015, as part of a landmark ruling, the Court said Tennessee had to recognize the same-sex marriage of an army sergeant, one of the first under the New York law.) Cuomo’s success astounded Albany, where people in the statehouse had long known his reputation for political strong-arming but had not expected such persuasive passion on a matter of mere principle.

The Contender: Andrew Cuomo, A Biography, by Michael Shnayerson, was conceived and titled in hope that a man scarcely known outside New York State—a “prince in waiting,” his life “the iconic story of the twenty-first-century American politician,” as Shnayerson writes—might emerge as a strong candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. That prospect seems to dim each day that Hillary Clinton wakes with a strong pulse and ruddy polls. Still, The Contender was a reasonable bet, although, at 529 pages, a hefty one.

Cuomo himself made the same wager with a five-hundred-page memoir, All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life, published a few months before Shnayerson’s account. So tightly woven are Cuomo’s candor, charm, disingenuousness, idealism, ruthlessness, and drive that each and all those qualities seem to have propelled his successes and failures.

“The brilliance of Cuomo is this,” Joe Ventrone, a Republican aide on Capitol Hill when Cuomo was the secretary of housing and urban development in the second Clinton administration, told Shnayerson. “He is probably the most effective secretary that HUD ever had. And the most hated.”

Shnayerson records similar verdicts from people—most unnamed—who encountered Cuomo at many stations of his public life, which is now four decades long. He entered politics as a teenager in the campaigns of his father, Mario M. Cuomo, who served as governor of New York for twelve years; on weekends, he drove a tow truck for AAA, trying to get cars running with roadside…

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