Andrew Cuomo has a problem.
He has accomplished a great deal at a relatively young age, and
he has an impeccable political pedigree by birth (son of former Governor Mario
Cuomo), marriage (married to Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry) and
association (a cabinet member in the Clinton administration). But to listen to
New York’s political establishment on the merits of Mr. Cuomo’s gubernatorial
candidacy, his qualifications for office can seem almost beside the point as
the conversation inevitably turns to his personality, his family or his age.
And no wonder: The spectacle of a strong-willed and ambitious dynastic heir
trying to avenge his father’s defeat makes for considerably more impressive
narrative than any recitation of Mr. Cuomo’s qualifications. (In his early
20’s, Mr. Cuomo helped engineer his father’s surprise gubernatorial victory in
1982; he went on to establish a housing program for the homeless that won
national recognition, and later he served with distinction as Mr. Clinton’s
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.)
Now, as Mr. Cuomo prepares for his first run at elected office at
age 44, his outsized reputation and strong personality-unlike that of his
mild-mannered primary opponent, Comptroller Carl McCall, or of incumbent
Governor George Pataki-threaten to overshadow his inarguably impressive resumé.
Asked during an interview with The Observer to explain this phenomenon, Mr. Cuomo said he had to
“think through” the question. He deliberated for several minutes, musing aloud
and off the record. Then he arrived at a two-part answer.
No. 1: Some people carry a grudge against his father. “Some had
personal firsthand experiences that they’re communicating,” he said. “Who got a
job, who didn’t get a job; who got an interview, who didn’t get an interview.”
No. 2: Certain entrenched
segments of the Democratic Party establishment are resistant to the reforms
that he has undertaken at various jobs throughout his career. “If you are
vested in the system, you are going to find me disruptive,” he said. “Why?
Because I am! Because I want to change the status quo. And if you are part of
the status quo, you are going to say, ‘This is a disruptive force.’ Yes.”
It seems simple, really.
“Who would be the best governor?” Mr. Cuomo asked rhetorically.
“That should be the only criterion.”
But it isn’t. Mr. Cuomo’s simple equation doesn’t begin to
explain the rather personal criticisms of his candidacy served up on demand by
some prominent New York Democrats. Here, for example, is what U.S.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a McCall supporter, had to say: “I think there’s
some ill will and some resentment in the Democratic Party about Andrew Cuomo.
Suddenly, because of his relationship with his father and the fact that he
raised a lot of money, he thinks he should be our candidate. It seems like it’s
a combination of his arrogance and personal ambition that’s making him run, and
he’s going to divide the party and ruin our chances of beating George Pataki in
the general election.”
Mr. Cuomo says that such complaints typify a problem in his
party. He made it clear that he considers himself an outsider in this race,
despite his father’s 16 years as Governor and Lieutenant Governor from 1979 to
1994. “How much time did I spend up in Albany?” he asked. “Nine months.” He
said that Mr. McCall’s support in the Democratic Party was not as “broad-based”
as some media reports have made it out to be. And as for the notion that his
opposition to Mr. McCall will divide Democrats, Mr. Cuomo said, “After the
primary, one person’s going to win and one person’s going to lose.
[Afterwards,] you’re going to have to unite them-or just don’t divide them.”
Some, not all, of the ill feeling towards Mr. Cuomo may be
attributable to political grudges, resistance to change or just plain envy.
Some, though, stems from his hands-on political style, as evidenced by the
potential supporters who have been on the receiving end of multiple, forceful
appeals from Mr. Cuomo in a single day, or by the frankly worded calls he has
made to people who have criticized him in the press.
“He has a reputation that he has to either overcome or live down,
one of being a hard-ass and not very easy to work with,” said consultant Norman
Adler. “People are perfectly willing to have tough leaders, but they don’t
generally want brass-knuckle types.”
But Mr. Cuomo’s supporters say that his intuitive understanding
of politics and his command of policy are his greatest strengths. “He’s his own
strategist,” said City Councilman Bill De Blasio, who worked under Mr. Cuomo at
H.U.D. “He’s always open to criticism and new ideas, but he masters all the
details himself. In a world of handled politicians and front men, it is nice to
have someone who can think up policy and political strategy from the
Perhaps more relevant outside the circle of people who have
regular contact with Mr. Cuomo is the way he seeks, and obtains, coverage in
the media. (He has been known, for example, to complain to editors about the
perceived bias of their charges.) Mr. Cuomo’s problem, contrary to a popular
conception, may not be that he’s too slick and media-savvy for his own good; it
may be that he’s not slick enough. “Andrew is driven and so detail-oriented,”
said one former State Democratic Committee member. “He wants to win every
point-he’s like an athlete who goes back to look at the videotape 10 times. The
only thing is that he’s so methodical that some people mistakenly come to
regard it as Machiavellian.”
Publicist Dan Klores, a friend and longtime advisor to Mr. Cuomo,
argues that his personal story and ability to attract attention will be major
advantages in this year’s campaign. “I think his name recognition is a plus,
not an albatross,” Mr. Klores said. “Being Andrew Cuomo is a plus. Being
married to a Kennedy is a plus.”
Mr. Klores, who is working on the campaign, also said that Mr.
Cuomo’s personality would figure prominently in the campaign’s public-relations
strategy. “We are ready, willing and able to talk issues,” he said. “We’ll be doing
it in a way that mirrors [Mr. Cuomo's] personality. It will be inventive, it
will be creative, it will be new, it will spark dialogue. And that only comes
from someone who is a leader. You have many instances where there is a son of
or daughter of someone who is famous, and they don’t have the perception of
[being a] leader. Andrew does.”
Either way, Mr. Cuomo’s public-relations strategy and management
methods are stylistic issues that are unlikely to determine the outcome of the
gubernatorial race. His real message-so
far as it can be discerned during an interview-is this: Mr. Pataki, who
defeated Mario Cuomo’s bid for a fourth term in 1994, has done a bad job, particularly with public
schools and the upstate economy, and Andrew Cuomo alone has the creative
ability, experience and determination to fix those problems.
No Easy Task
Mr. Cuomo’s task will not be easy. First, he will have to find a
way to defeat Mr. McCall, who is fresh off a strong appearance at the annual
conference of the State Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and whose
status as New York’s first minority gubernatorial candidate is likely to create
a momentum of its own in the run-up to September’s primary. In the wake of an
ugly, racially tinged Mayoral primary election in New York City last year, Mr.
Cuomo will have to tread delicately to avoid any appearance of divisiveness or
insensitivity with a public more highly attuned to it than ever before. Mr.
McCall is also a complicated target simply because he is a well-liked, dues-paying
Democrat who is a sentimental favorite of many party veterans.
If Mr. Cuomo does become the Democratic nominee, it would mark
the sixth time in the past seven gubernatorial elections that a Cuomo was on
the party’s ticket. And it would mean that Mr. Cuomo will face a popular
incumbent in Mr. Pataki, whose approval ratings have soared in the months since
Sept. 11. Mr. Pataki, whose image as a laid-back, genial executive is the exact
opposite of Mr. Cuomo’s, has spent years reaching out to unions, environmentalists
and ethnic minorities, among other traditionally Democratic segments of the
electorate, to out-maneuver his eventual challenger.
Mr. Cuomo appears to be unconcerned about the challenge of taking
on Mr. Pataki, whose candidacy was stunningly underrated in 1994, the year he
toppled the elder Mr. Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo called the Governor’s high approval
ratings a temporary “hangover” from the terrorist attacks, as New Yorkers rally
around their elected representatives in a time of crisis. As for Mr. Pataki’s appeals to Democratic
interest groups and constituencies-on Feb. 17, for example, he made his
first-ever appearance as Governor at the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus-Mr.
Cuomo dismissed it all as ideological pandering. “I don’t think he’s trying to
seize the middle,” said Mr. Cuomo. “He’s launched himself to the left. He went
right past the middle, and I think that kind of abrupt shift in personality and
philosophy doesn’t appeal to anyone.”
Mr. Cuomo, who spent six years in Washington before moving back
to New York last year, also suggested that Mr. Pataki showed particular
ineptitude in appealing to the federal government for more than $50 billion in
disaster relief in the months following the attacks. “He got turned down by
Washington faster than it took the shuttle to fly there and back,” said Mr.
Cuomo. “I don’t think he understands how Washington works.”
Clearly, Mr. Cuomo thinks he does. But will the Cuomo Way-which
has served his purposes so well in the past-work in a statewide election, only
eight years after the elder Mr. Cuomo was sent packing? “To the extent that you
were a young fellow and you got a lot of things done, why is that not helpful
as an older fellow?” he asked. “I think being able to get things done and being
able to take on the bureaucracy is a good thing whether you’re 24 or 44. The
status quo opposed it when I was 24; they’re going to oppose it when I’m 44.”