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 improvisation. (He now fixes cars as a hobby.3) A practical, expedient streak has served him well as an auto mechanic and, up to a point, as a political operative. When he was just twenty-eight, working as a private citizen, he helped create a new kind of housing for homeless people that included social services support because he—and others—saw that true shelter was more than four walls and running water. Later, he had a successful turn as New York’s attorney general.
In getting his way, he has time and again amplified the power of standard legal tactics such as audits, subpoenas, and investigative commissions with bluster, shrewd instincts for the vulnerabilities of others, and public relations gimmickry. He sweet-talks and he bludgeons.
At age fifty-seven, early in his second term as governor, he has a portfolio of accomplishment rare in public life: marriage equality in New York; reform of HUD; the creation of 200,000 housing units nationally for poor and homeless families that include a “continuum of care”; the exposure of student loan gouging schemes at major colleges; forcing the surrender of huge bonuses paid to executives at financial firms that had been bailed out by the public in 2008; the dismantling of a pay-to-play scheme at the New York State Pension Fund, in which investment banks funneled cash to well-connected middlemen for a share of the fund’s business. He ended a number of the built-in “inflators” in the New York budget that had automatically driven state spending from $79 billion to nearly $137 billion in less than a decade.
His failures have been as consequential or as glaring as his achievements. He broke a promise to end the discriminatory gerrymandering of New York’s legislative districts. He brazenly shut out other important public officials, among them the mayor of New York or the state attorney general, from decisions such as closing the city’s subway system ahead of a predicted storm or disposing of millions in legal settlements. (Recently, the mayor publicly said that Cuomo had thwarted the city’s legislative goals in education and public housing through “game-playing,” and claimed the governor was acting vindictively in other ways over perceived slights.) Cuomo denounced a loophole in state campaign money laws, then made heavy use of it to amass a $47 million treasury, much of it from real estate concerns that needed his favor.
Until last year none of his policy reversals or petty stunts had cost him much politically. He calculated that the broader public would not really care much about a particular issue, and that anyone who did would have to accept change at the pace he deemed prudent. Some of his seemingly nonnegotiable goals—reforms in ethics requirements, campaign financing, redistricting, and criminal justice—turned out to be the currency of compromise, coins he surrendered if the price was right. Last year, though, one such gamble turned sour.
To close a deal on the state budget with legislative leaders, Cuomo agreed in March 2014 to shut down an anticorruption commission he had created only nine months earlier. When the commission still existed, Cuomo declared, “Anything they want to look at, they can look at: me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.” He could not possibly have meant that and, as a team of New York Times reporters showed in a withering account last July, his administration took care during the commission’s brief life that it not cause much grief for himself or his allies. (For example, his aides blocked a subpoena to a company that had bought airtime for Cuomo’s own campaign).4
Two men, however, were furious about the commission’s probing: the majority leader of the State Senate, Dean Skelos, a Republican, and Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly, a Democrat. They were, with Cuomo, the three points of power in Albany. All legislation had to be agreed to by them and the governor—the “three men in a room” who run the state.
Cuomo’s commission subpoenaed records of outside income paid to state legislators in excess of $20,000, a matter of little practical concern to most senators and assembly members, but of the utmost importance to the two leaders in the room with Cuomo. They had been paid millions of dollars by private law firms, and under New York’s flaccid disclosure laws, never had to explain what services they performed for the money.
These subpoenas, Skelos and Silver argued, violated the separation of powers, and on behalf of the legislature, they hired law firms to resist them. They could have saved themselves the trouble. Cuomo needed their cooperation more than he wanted to know what their pay records revealed. Changes in New York’s governance—rent regulation, tax breaks for developers, criminal justice issues, education policy—are agreed on in a package deal by the three men. Everything is negotiated. What emerges is known as the Big Ugly, the product of an expensive annual carnival of dysfunction.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, from 1985 through 2004, not a single state budget was passed on time, and then only occasionally until Cuomo took office in 2011.5 He immediately declared that late budgets would be “a thing of the past.” After three passed on time in his first three years, he called it a hat trick and handed out celebratory hockey pucks.
In 2014, in order to close the deal with Skelos and Silver on the fourth budget, Cuomo offered to shut down the corruption commission, which was then halfway into its eighteen-month term. It would mean, of course, that the commission would no longer be poking into the outside incomes of Skelos and Silver. That made those two men happy. Cuomo, for his part, pointed to some new minor ethics reforms and pronounced his defunct commission a “phenomenal success.” He handed out souvenir baseballs to mark the fourth on-time budget—a grand slam. Within a year of the commission’s closing, both Silver and Skelos had been indicted on corruption charges; federal authorities claimed that large parts of private income paid to them or family members were simply bribes, dolled up as fees.
Whatever the public understood of the details, Albany was now looking the same under Cuomo as it had for years. His poll ratings sank. Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, wrote that “the political peril confronting Andrew Cuomo is rooted in the very behavior that enabled him to achieve success.”6
It was not that Cuomo did not care about the pervasive corruption in Albany. But it seems that he could not bear to part with the one coin he valued beyond all else, the on-time state budget, an affirmation that he could pull off what his predecessors had rarely, if ever, managed. That included his father, Mario Cuomo, who was in office from 1983 through 1994.
Mario Cuomo, the son of Italian immigrants, was raised in Queens and was a top-of-his-class law school graduate who joined a practice in Brooklyn after he could not find work in the white-shoe firms of 1950s Manhattan. That snub marked him. A relentless worker who often left the house before his children were awake and returned home after they were asleep, Mario Cuomo rose to public notice as a crusader in the mid-1960s when he took up the cause of sixty-nine homeowners from Corona, an Italian section of Queens. The city planned to bulldoze their homes for a new school. The homeowners paid Cuomo’s fees by unclogging household drains or with baskets of homemade food.
There was no playbook for what needed to be done to save their homes, no statutory scheme, but Cuomo—with backing from the columnist Jimmy Breslin—put together a solution that preserved the neighborhood. That levelheadedness brought him an assignment from Mayor John V. Lindsay to mediate between the city and activists in Forest Hills, a middle-class neighborhood where planners intended to build three twenty-four-story towers of low-income housing.
From these episodes, Andrew, his eldest son, drew at least two lessons. First, he writes, government officials too often were indifferent to complexity:
I saw then how dangerous it can be for politicians, Democrats or Republicans, to wage political arguments from on high, with little knowledge of the ultimate consequences of their actions….
He also realized that he would have to find ways of getting his father’s attention. During the Forest Hills debate, protesters appeared outside the family home one morning. Mario Cuomo, it turned out, was not there. “To make their point, the demonstrators would have had to march at 7 PM on a Sunday, the one time of the week that my mother insisted he be home for dinner,” Cuomo writes. “I learned early that if I wanted to spend time with my father I had to tag along.”
He served as the director of his father’s long-shot campaign for governor in 1982, the most practical and tireless of loyalists. Shnayerson cannot help admiring a piece of Andrew’s tactical mischief during that campaign. To get on the ballot, Mario Cuomo needed 25 percent of the delegates at a state Democratic convention. Most were already committed to Mayor Ed Koch. As Andrew wrangled for backers, he did not want the county bosses to know about a small group of delegates who were already secretly in the Cuomo camp. So he hid them, chartering an evening cruise for them on Onondaga Lake. Meanwhile, back on shore, Andrew met the bosses, who agreed to throw a few delegates to Mario Cuomo. He wound up tallying 39 percent. Though still far behind Koch, he had, thanks to Andrew’s sleight of hand, gotten on the ballot and won the runner-up’s coveted prize: he exceeded expectations.
After starting nearly forty points down in the polls, Mario Cuomo beat Koch in the primary, and then a successful Republican businessman, Lewis Lehrman, in the general election. The Cuomo campaign had been outspent three to one.
In conversation or in a speech, Mario Cuomo might drop a mention of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist; many Jesuits, much less the Albany press corps, would be hard-pressed to explain de Chardin in any detail. On his office wall, Cuomo displayed a Holbein portrait of Thomas More, then popularly regarded as the public man of conscience portrayed in A Man for All Seasons.
His son, meanwhile, was sent out to beat sense or submission into state agencies. One magazine article described Andrew as “Mario’s id.”7 Andrew writes, “The Albany media dubbed me ‘Prince of Darkness,’ ‘Darth Vader,’ and Mario’s ‘hatchet man.’” Shnayerson quotes the young Cuomo: “I like to think I think the big thoughts. But I also operationalize.”
As transition director for his father, twenty-four-year-old Andrew, just out of law school, had to tell prominent Democrats in state government that they would not keep their jobs:
People assumed that I was making the personnel decisions. They were wrong, but I became the lightning rod for dozens of people out of work. There was nothing good in it for anyone. The newly unemployed didn’t lash out at my father. They blamed the messenger.
Cuomo partially attributes his failure in the Democratic gubernatorial primary of 2002, his own first run for elected office, to resentment that lingered from two decades earlier. Maybe. But his wins and losses owe much to his innate aggressiveness. When Cuomo was at HUD, Shnayerson writes, he would lash out brutally at aides for what he regarded as insufficient preparation. Shnayerson has many such stories, and though almost none is attributed to a named person, no one seriously disputes Cuomo’s astringency. Some count his impatience as a virtue. Shnayerson writes of the Cuomo ethos at HUD:
“Process does not count as progress,” he would exclaim. “Don’t tell me you had a meeting, don’t tell me you called them, don’t tell me you’re going to get together and you sent out a memo. That’s process. Where’s the progress? Where are the results?” He had a point. In fairness, he almost always had a point. But that point could be really sharp. “When you can’t respond,” recalled one staffer, “that’s the cruelest thing.”
Not only is Cuomo a demanding, difficult boss, but also, Shnayerson hints, without showing much evidence, a master saboteur of rivals. He raises the possibility that Cuomo toppled or pushed from power Eliot Spitzer, a predecessor in the governor’s office, or contrived to damage Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and a potential rival for the presidency.
Of Spitzer, who resigned when his meetings with a prostitute in Washington were exposed during a money-laundering investigation, Shnayerson writes: “Some would wonder if Andrew had given the governor some final nudge: passed along a rumor of call girls to the authorities, perhaps.” Christie fell from grace when his aides were found to have created four days of traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge as punishment for a New Jersey mayor who had not endorsed his reelection. Shnayerson conjures a scene of Christie pacing in the governor’s mansion in New Jersey, wondering if Cuomo had leaked damning documents.
Shnayerson does not endorse explicitly either of these readings of events, but he indulges unnamed sources who, at times, speak far more speculatively than authoritatively. He quotes an anonymous federal civil servant describing how Cuomo scuttled a rival’s appointment as HUD secretary, supposedly by seeking an investigation of a Seattle commercial development that might have reflected badly on the man. In fact, an inquiry into the development was started not by Cuomo but by housing and civic activists in Seattle who filed a formal complaint, as was reported at the time and confirmed to me last month.8
Cuomo and members of his administration protect his reputation with fierce arguments to journalists, though they are rarely willing to be quoted by name. No wonder Shnayerson leans heavily on unnamed sources. Alas, their musings needlessly distract from the history that he chronicles with verve and a steady hand: Cuomo’s tactical use of the powers in his various offices.
When he was New York’s attorney general, Shnayerson writes, Cuomo loudly criticized financial firms that had taken federal bailout money in 2008 and were planning to pay huge bonuses to their executives. He claimed that as attorney general, he had standing to sue because the payments amounted to a “fraudulent conveyance.” A thin argument, but his righteous outrage won the day: the bonuses were reduced to $18.4 billion from $32.9 billion in 2007.
Then Cuomo learned that American International Group (AIG) was giving away $165 million not in bonuses but in “retention” payments to its executives. AIG had received the largest public bailout of a private company in United States history after it “guaranteed” $58 billion in shaky subprime mortgages. Politicians on all sides railed against the retention payments. Cuomo demanded the names of the recipients, and under pressure, AIG complied. Cuomo did not make the list public. If the recipients voluntarily returned the payments, he said, he would not reveal who had gotten them:
Andrew told AIG that its top retention-payment earners had the weekend to decide whether to comply. On Monday, nine of AIG’s top ten bonus recipients, along with fifteen others, agreed to give back their retention payments, $50 million in all. As promised, Andrew slid the names in a drawer: he would no longer threaten to release them, or any others.
It was a muscular, bravura performance. With the same maneuvers of extralegal publicity, he wounded Spitzer, a rival who served as governor while Cuomo was attorney general. Following a report in the Albany Times Union that the State Senate majority leader, who was an enemy of Spitzer, had used state helicopters for what were primarily political fund-raising trips, Cuomo commenced an investigation. His office’s report concluded that the senator had not violated very loosely drawn rules—but it faulted Spitzer and his aides for ordering the state police to recreate missing records in order to embarrass a foe. Thanks to Cuomo, the villain of the story was not a senator squandering state resources, but Spitzer’s office for assembling information and leaking it to the press.
In the summer of 2014, the Cuomo reelection campaign tried to disqualify Zephyr Teachout, an insurgent candidate, from the gubernatorial primary ballot on the grounds that she was not resident in New York. Teachout was a full-time law professor at Fordham University in Manhattan, and Cuomo hung his case on her occasional occupancy of a family home in Vermont.9 She fought off the challenge, but burned up valuable time in court. Cuomo also refused to debate her. With poor grace, he ignored her at a Labor Day parade. It was asymmetrical warfare, and unbecoming.10
To punish the Working Families Party, a small progressive party that had considered giving Teachout a valuable ballot line, the Cuomo forces set up a Women’s Equality Party and spent millions to qualify it for a rival position on the ballot. The initials of this new party, WEP, were just one letter different from those of the annoying Working Families.
New York is a decidedly blue state, but under a truce between the two parties, gerrymandered electoral maps allot twin fiefdoms: the Democrats get emphatic control of the Assembly and the Republicans, with an eroding demographic base, are able to cling to a Senate majority. Incumbents have an estimated 98 percent reelection rate. Cuomo promised that he would bring this shameless manipulation to an end. Instead, he traded it in during the 2012 budget negotiations in order to get changes to the state pension system. Two years later, as we have seen, he swapped his corruption commission for, among other things, an on-time budget.
To win the prizes of reformed pensions and timely budgets, Cuomo made deals that also hardened the status quo. Shnayerson chronicles these compromises fairly; Cuomo, who knows the paradoxes of government better than anyone, does not address them at all.
The most affecting parts of Cuomo’s memoir deal with his failed campaign for governor in 2002, and the public collapse, immediately after it, of his marriage to Kerry Kennedy. He had been set adrift by his own arrogance, he writes. That period in the early 2000s reminds him of a frightening trip, years earlier, piloting his family’s thirty-three-foot Chris-Craft from Martha’s Vineyard to Virginia. Alone, he lost the horizon and his bearings in fog off Block Island. After nearly hitting jagged rocks, he reluctantly decided to trust the boat’s instruments:
Giving up control is not something I’ve done often in my life…. I bobbed around for what felt like an eternity in the fog…. I felt now as I had then, lost without anything I usually depended on to keep me safe.
He recalls that going back to his old neighborhood in Queens, seeing his grandparents’ home, and devoting himself to his children helped him get through the funk of his personal failures.
Cuomo is not nearly as searching about his public life. Perhaps it is hoping too much that a book composed as a campaign prop would turn out to be consistently revealing and useful. Still, to the profit of himself and his readers, he might have reflected on the coinage of his public compromises, what he spends and what he gets and what things cost him. His promise of “constructive impatience” with the status quo has often become an unseemly acquiescence. One might argue that this is the ugly necessity of governing; that as bad as those moments have been, perhaps he has been as good as we can expect. To his credit, Cuomo would be the last to make that argument.
Cuomo, while leading the charge, had the benefit of a new coalition of supporters of the cause, including wealthy Republicans and Ken Mehlman, who had managed George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and served two years as chairman of the Republican National Committee. As Jo Becker writes in Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality (Penguin, 2014), Mehlman lobbied Republican state senators. ↩
Writing for the majority in United States v. Windsor, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the New York law was a “far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages.” ↩
Michael Barbaro, “Indulging an Obsessions with Motors and Muscle,” The New York Times, October 28, 2010. ↩
Susanne Craig, William K. Rashbaum, and Thomas Kaplan, “Cuomo’s Office Hobbled Ethics Inquiry by Moreland Commission,” The New York Times, July 23, 2014. ↩
From 1983 through 1994, Mario Cuomo was governor. He was followed by George E. Pataki, 1995–2006; Eliot Spitzer, 2007–2008; and David Paterson, 2008–2010. ↩
“A Lesson of Watergate, 40 Years On,” Times Union, August 6, 2014. ↩
Steve Fishman, “The Cuomo Family Business,” New York, August 1, 2010. ↩
Peter Lewis, “Probe Stalls Rice’s Possible Hud Nomination,” The Seattle Times, December 13, 1996; John V. Fox and Carolee Coulter, “Pacific Place Garage Example of Projects Going Awry,” City Living Seattle, May 3, 2011; John Fox interview, May 25, 2105. ↩
“Ruling in Challenge to Zephyr Teachout’s Residency,” The New York Times, August 11, 2014. ↩
Like Mario Cuomo, Teachout, too, exceeded expectations in the primary vote tally, getting 34.3 percent. ↩