Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general of New York State, sat in his 25th-floor office, high above Wall Street, watching as months of his work burst onto national television. Down in Washington, D.C., Edward Liddy, the beleaguered head of AIG, was sweating in the witness chair as a congressional committee berated him for trying to sneak $165 million in bonuses past their righteous noses. President Obama was outraged, too, ordering the Treasury Department to try to reclaim the cash.
Cuomo sat back and watched the furor build to a crescendo. Since last year, he’d become the prime agent of populist rage, clawing back exorbitant bonus money here, venting anger on behalf of the taxpayers there. Cuomo turned up the tension with well-timed leaks and subpoenas, seizing on the juiciest details: partridge-hunting trips paid for with federal bailout money! Resort junkets! The public outrage had been a useful tool, forcing AIG to freeze payments to executives and, not coincidentally, making Cuomo wildly popular.
But Cuomo could feel the momentum shifting as he listened to Liddy testify. The AIG boss was reading from vicious death threats made against his employees. Cuomo had seen this turning point coming; his office had been checking out the threats. He knew the time for ratcheting up the pressure was running out. Cuomo’s threat to release the names of bonus recipients would soon start to look like pure demagoguery. And if, God forbid, some nut took a shot at some banker in his driveway up in Greenwich? Cuomo might be blamed.
For most of his life, Cuomo had known only one speed: all-out attack mode. But 35 years in politics—from seventies street fights against Ed Koch to being his father’s right hand in Albany to serving as Cabinet secretary in the Clinton White House—had shown him that he had better learn to see around the corner, around the next three corners. The mistakes that nearly ended his political career came when he didn’t look far enough ahead or thought he could simply put his head down and bull his way through. The tendency had earned him a reputation as one of the darkest characters in New York politics—vindictive, arrogant, a bully with a nasty temper. Now, at 51, he’d found an appropriate target for his anger. But he’d finally learned when to back off.
Wall Street’s collapse has created a bonanza of juicy investigative opportunities for Cuomo, putting him on the national stage and giving him the opening to recast himself as a populist hero. Cuomo has craftily walked a fine line, knowing when to push and how hard, injecting himself into huge issues while staying mostly out of camera range. His office continues to rack up major successes—just last week, his ongoing investigation of the $125 billion state pension fund produced the arrest of another New York power broker, plus a $12 million settlement and a guilty plea from a corrupt hedge-fund manager, as he picked off aides and associates of former comptroller Alan Hevesi.
While Cuomo has been masterfully manipulating public sentiment, his erstwhile political rivals have been taking themselves out of the equation—Eliot Spitzer by sleeping his way out of the governor’s office, and David Paterson by racking up a string of unforced errors. Circumstances have conspired to set up Cuomo perfectly for a gubernatorial run in 2010. But his newfound political acumen will be tested over the next year. Last week, the pension-fund investigation reached higher up the rungs of political power, touching the Republican-connected Carlyle Group and Steven Rattner, the New York investor, Democratic fund-raiser, and Obama-administration car czar. Will Cuomo keep pushing the probe without fear or favor? Can he nudge Paterson aside without appearing to push too hard? Can he continue to ride the populist wave without running aground? “The Andrew Cuomo I first met 30 years ago would not be able to,” a veteran political consultant says. “The Andrew Cuomo of 2009 is absolutely capable of doing it.”
Andrew Cuomo has been obsessed with the governorship since his father Mario’s upset victory in 1982. Twenty-four-year-old Andrew had managed the campaign, and after the win, became his father’s counselor and hard-fisted enforcer until 1993, when President Bill Clinton brought him to Washington as assistant secretary of HUD. After Mario’s career-ending loss to George Pataki in 1994, Andrew focused on avenging his father’s defeat. In 2001, he returned to New York from Washington, where he’d risen to HUD secretary, and began to campaign.
The only problem was that Carl McCall, the state comptroller and New York’s first African-American statewide official, was considered next in line by many Democratic leaders. “Everyone told him it was a mistake,” a political friend says. “He wanted to do it because he figured he could take out McCall.” Without the support of the party, and with the enmity of black pols, Cuomo’s campaign went nowhere. He skipped the state convention, then quit the race one week before the Democratic primary. That debacle was followed a year later by the very public collapse of Cuomo’s marriage to Kerry Kennedy, the seventh child of the late Robert F. Kennedy. Cuomo’s lawyer was quoted in a Times story saying his soon-to-be-ex-wife had “betrayed” him. “It was the old Cuomo-family reflex: Turn every problem into a political attack,” a family friend says.