The Attorney General Isn’t Doing Politics

cuomo 2 The Attorney General Isnt Doing PoliticsIn the minutes before a rare public appearance on June 18, Andrew Cuomo actually hid.

Rather than mingle with hospital employees and patients in an elevator bank at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he was scheduled to announce the successful completion of an investigation into the health insurance industry, or to make his way to the 10th floor auditorium in a manner that might have led to unplanned contact with the waiting press, Mr. Cuomo stood on his own for nearly 10 minutes in an empty corridor, blocked off by a white wall and a dark-suited entourage of security agents, hospital executives and press officers.

Finally, an elevator arrived. Mr. Cuomo and his crew commandeered it, crammed in, faced forward and gazed out in stony silence as the doors slid closed.

Let it not be said that Andrew Cuomo isn’t deadly serious about sticking to the PR directive that he should let his actions as attorney general speak for him, and not let his abrasive personality get in the way. It’s been nothing less than a political lobotomy, and it’s worked.  

As Albany crumbles, dragging the approval ratings of Governor David Paterson down to breathtaking new depths, Mr. Cuomo has studiously acted as if nothing’s happening at all. He may acknowledge in private what is obvious—that he is interested in being governor, and that he believes he will get a chance next year—but in public, he has merely announced one righteous crusade after another against the least popular business entities and individuals in New York and beyond.

Contrary to the spotlight-seeking, self-adoring candidate for governor the public saw in 2002, Mr. Cuomo has been almost impossibly restrained when it comes to naked politics, passing on the opportunity to offer anything beyond pro forma statements on the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, on Mr. Paterson’s bungled Senate selection process and, most notably, on the weeks of anarchy in the State Senate that have paralyzed New York government.

“I think he is doing his job and even visually not being all that noticed,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll, which on June 30 released a new survey showing that Mr. Paterson’s approval rating had risen from 19 percent to only 21 percent. “He is not doing the shows and overplaying his role in this. It’s not a lot of Andrew Cuomo showing up.”

It has been this way since Mr. Cuomo was sworn in as attorney general in 2006, capping four hard years of virtual exile following the disastrous 2002 primary against Carl McCall.

“Very consciously, from the very moment he was sworn in, Andrew has been exceptionally circumspect in public appearances,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “He had the reputation of being a publicity hound rivaling Charles Schumer. Now he has very consciously let the investigations do the talking rather than him. You don’t want to appear to be too ambitious, particularly when you have an incumbent of your own party, whether it was Spitzer or Paterson.”

Mr. Cuomo, in other words, has become the sum of his prosecutorial deeds—and of the press releases, canned quotes and conference-call transcripts that flow out of his office. He is a defender of college students from the predatory student loan industry, the helmsman of the best Medicaid Fraud Control unit in the country, the scrubber of child pornography from New York’s Web servers, the protector of our pension funds, the scourge of Wall Street greed and global warming and the eradicator of taxes and government bloat.

All of which has made his occasional public tweaks of Mr. Paterson’s budget and tax-cut proposals—his office suggested, among other things, that there had not been sufficient attempts to reduce spending—that much more galling to the governor.

 “You haven’t heard anybody other than the governor suggest how to solve this problem,” Mr. Paterson told The Observer last month. “Because anyone who would be interested would know they can’t win making a suggestion here. So that’s the difference between governing and half-governing.”

“He’s been very low-key,” said State Senator John Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican. “Almost gone underground.”

 

In Rochester on June 23, Mr. Cuomo responded to a question from a reporter about the Senate crisis with a mini-lecture.

"Figure out a way to share power, share control, and get on with it and do the people's business, in a power-sharing agreement," said Mr. Cuomo, putting air quotes around the words "power sharing."  "It's 50-50. Figure out a way to cooperate to the extent of doing the people's business."

That has pretty much been it from him.

As Mr. Paterson and others have fairly screamed in attempts to affect some sort of change in the embarrassing Senate stand-off between the deadlocked factions—or, at least, in an attempt to be seen to be trying—Mr.  Cuomo’s office has delivered more of the usual: statements boasting of a guilty plea Mr. Cuomo secured from a former tax department employee, an angry letter to Bloomberg News for a critical story about Mr. Cuomo’s pay-to-play investigation of the state pension fund (“It is quite clear that Bloomberg's performance violates the ethical standards of responsible reporting and runs afoul of the basic legal standards imposed on journalists”), notice of an indictment for a travel operator for selling phony vouchers and an announcement that the profits from an auction of the art collection belonging to an associate of Bernard Madoff would be frozen to repay the victims of the alleged fraud.

Mr. Paterson’s barely veiled criticisms aside, in other words, Mr. Cuomo’s political behavior has literally put him beyond reproach.

“I’m not aware of any particular leverage the attorney general would have in this, institutionally,” said State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who, like Mr. Cuomo, has been called on by some critics to get more involved to resolve the Senate leadership issue. “I don’t think anybody benefits from being in the middle of it. It’s obviously a very messy, unprecedented situation so whether that’s a deliberate strategy I can’t tell you; I haven’t had that conversation.”

“In 2002 he was running for office so he was obviously pretty active, but I mean, what can he do? The best way to deal with the crisis in Albany is to stay out of it,” said Mr. McCall, who said he now talks to Mr. Cuomo and holds no ill feeling toward him.

He continued, “We have seen that the governor has very little authority to do anything about it, it’s a separate branch of government and you can’t tell them what to do, and I think the attorney general would feel the same way. You can’t tell them what to do. I think that anybody who jumps into the middle of it takes on all the liabilities that go with it.”

“Is he purposefully lying low?” said State Senator Bill Perkins, an ally of Mr. Paterson. “I would say there’s some of that as well. Strategically, he may have an agenda that requires him to stay away from the fray.”

 

After the elevator finally brought him to the 10th floor of St. Vincent’s for his Power Point presentation about how his office had reached a final agreement to address conflicts of interests in the health insurance industry, Mr. Cuomo entered the small auditorium to applause. He waved his right hand above his head at the gathered health care providers, flashed a broad smile and took a seat alone at the end of the first row. With his hands held together, thoughtfully, in front of his face, he listened to testimonials from hospital executives and patients about how he was on a “quest to improve health care for New Yorkers” and how he “changed the way I think about government.”

A cancer patient, who Mr. Cuomo’s office had been helping to negotiate the ins and outs of covering her treatment, introduced him as “the coolest man I know, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.”

“I’m cool,” Mr. Cuomo said, to laughter, when he took over the podium. “I’ve been called a lot of things before. Never cool.” 

After the presentation, he returned to the elevator without taking any questions.

–additional reporting by Jimmy Vielkind