Cuomo’s friends say he’s been mellowed by his political losses and the breakup of his marriage, that he’s a sensitive man whose hard edge has always been exaggerated by enemies. “He’s a complicated individual in some respects, and he’s been evolving, a lot, over the past few years,” a longtime family friend says. “When you get the shit kicked out of you a couple times, it forces you to reevaluate what matters. I don’t want to say it humanized him, but he realized, as he said to me, that there’s a certain randomness to life. He used to think he could control everything, and he found out he can’t control much of anything. He’s become less obsessive.”
And more disciplined. Historically not one to shy away from the spotlight, Cuomo has lately allowed the attention to come to him. What’s particularly striking about his rise to national prominence is that it’s happened during a period in which he has turned down almost all interview requests, speaking to reporters primarily through conference calls.
His critics are not convinced that he’s a new man. “Are you kidding me?” scoffs an elected official who has known Cuomo a long time. “Whatever virtues and defects Andrew has have only been concentrated by age.” Perhaps he’s simply learned the subtler art of getting what he wants by persuasion rather than by force. Cuomo can be quite engaging. “He’s a seducer,” a political consultant says. “He genuinely likes people in a way Mario never did.”
Father and son are close and oddly distant at the same time, yet political allies to the end. In 2006, after Andrew had given up on running against Spitzer for governor and decided to try to succeed him as attorney general, Mario swung into action. The former governor was troubled by a bitter feud with Ed Koch that had simmered since the 1977 mayoral campaign, when posters reading VOTE FOR CUOMO, NOT THE HOMO appeared. The Cuomo campaign denied responsibility; Koch didn’t buy it. Now, with both men in their golden years, Mario thought perhaps they could finally let bygones be bygones. One morning at the Regency Hotel restaurant, long a prime spot for political players, he approached George Arzt, a longtime New York Democratic strategist. “Mario came over to me and said, ‘Isn’t it time that Ed and I finally settled whatever ill feeling there was?’ ” Arzt recalls. “I said, ‘What did you have in mind?’ Mario said, ‘Ed endorsing my son.’ ” Koch agreed. Though it was a nice gesture, Andrew didn’t really need his father to broker endorsements for him. He won the race easily.
“Andrew is orchestrating all of it to construct the conclusion that Paterson shouldn’t run. That’s his endgame.”
Spitzer, now governor, was extremely wary of Cuomo in the attorney-general post. “Eliot kept saying, ‘The first chance Andrew gets, he’s gonna fuck us. Mark my words,’ ” a former Spitzer aide says. And it wasn’t long before, in their eyes anyway, he did. In July 2007, after Joe Bruno, the powerful leader of the State Senate Republicans, accused Spitzer of using the state police to spy on him, Cuomo issued a rapidly assembled report that shed a harsh light on the tactics of the governor’s staff.
Otherwise, Cuomo seemed determined to build a new image as earnestly working for his constituents: He won praise for forcing eighteen student-loan companies to clean up their acts and later compelled UnitedHealth, the state’s largest medical insurer, to stop shortchanging customers. The one place he didn’t seem to be racking up wins for the little guy was Wall Street. “The office was slow out of the gate on financial-industry cases,” a New York white-collar defense attorney says. “It was clear from the outset that the Cuomo folks weren’t going to engage in criticisms and activities that were directed toward the financial markets.”
A Cuomo deputy insists it was a matter of tone, not tenacity, and an intentional contrast to the way Spitzer had run the AG’s office. “Andrew came in and said, ‘I want to do it a little differently: I want to do it cooperatively. Let’s get industries to agree to reform themselves, by working with them, in ways they can handle, so it won’t kill the company,’ ” says the aide. “Andrew has wanted, as AG, to, whenever possible, not end up fighting in a personal way with Wall Street.”
But as the financial industry came completely unglued, he seized the opportunity for huge political profit with minimal risk. Cuomo issued requests for compensation information from all the major financial institutions receiving federal money; when banks dodged, he scolded them and issued subpoenas. Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, among others, eventually agreed to suspend or shrink bonuses for senior executives.
Cuomo’s policing of the excesses exposed by the financial-system meltdown has raised a sticky question, however: Did he have a role in enabling the boom in subprime mortgages that contributed to the disaster? As detailed by Wayne Barrett in an August 2008 Village Voice cover story, Cuomo, as hud secretary, pushed to expand the issuance of loans to low-income borrowers. Cuomo’s defenders say he merely wanted to make home ownership easier for consumers who had been unfairly shut out of the mortgage market—and that the mortgage companies ran wild only after the Republicans took over. “To say Andrew Cuomo is in any way responsible for what happened at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is absurd,” a Cuomo spokesman says.