There are so many intersecting and overlapping spheres of power and meaning in this 43rd-floor room that John Venn’s diagramming hand would swiftly tire. This luncheon, on a snowy day in early March, is to rally support for stricter campaign-finance laws. It is being held on Eighth Avenue at Covington & Burling, a corporate law firm whose lobbyists are among the best connected in politics. Eleanor Randolph, a mighty member of the New York Times editorial board who wrote the “Fixing Albany” editorial series, has taken the elevator up from the Times’s thirteenth-floor offices to watch. One of the prime speakers is Jonathan Soros; both he and his father, George, are deep-pocketed backers of candidates.
Not that the star attraction today, Governor Andrew Cuomo, is running for anything at the moment. But he is clearly out to impress the left-leaning lunchers. Cuomo bounces on his toes as he speaks, varies his cadences for effect. He begins his remarks by describing how he’s put an end to what had become a farcical and damaging spring ritual in Albany: missing the annual April 1 deadline for the state budget.
“We’re trying to get a budget done for the third year in a row on time,” he says. “The last time three budgets were done in a row on time is about 30 years, believe it or not. So it goes back to 1984. A piece of trivia: Who was the governor in 1984?” This crowd is full of political nerds, so the knowing, muffled chuckling starts quickly. “Mario Cuomo was the governor in 1984! Now, another piece of trivia,” continues the son, smiling. “Three budgets were done in a row in 1984. However, two of them were Governor Cuomo’s. One of them was Governor Hugh L. Carey; it was the last year of his administration. So! If we get three in a row, technically I will beat my old man’s record of two in a row.” He pauses, letting the laughter fade. “But who’s being competitive?”
He’s joking, and he isn’t. By the time he was 25, Cuomo had been his father’s campaign manager, enforcer, and sometime Albany roommate. Launching a housing program for New York’s homeless and then rising to hud secretary in the Clinton administration created a separate identity for Andrew, but the psychodrama went back into high gear when he won his father’s old job in Albany. During his three terms, Mario became infamous for intellectualizing, and he was ridiculed as “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his tortured deliberations; Andrew burns to “operationalize,” to be considered decisive and substantive.
Cuomo is also driven to distinguish himself from his father by playing the political angles more savvily than Mario, who disdained the dirty work. “Andrew is very smartly charming and engaging this campaign-finance coalition, partly because it includes money people like Soros and Sean Eldridge and the good-government groups, partly because he doesn’t want to be attacked from the left,” a Democratic strategist says (Eldridge, a possible congressional candidate, is also the husband of multimillionaire New Republic owner Chris Hughes). “He’s a master at the chess game of how you keep people at bay and how you build up chits.” By talking a good game, Cuomo ensures that the Legislature, and not him, gets the blame if public financing never happens.
Andrew will never be the orator Mario was—actually, he takes pains not to be. But he does leave the lunch crowd with rhetoric that reinforces the New Democratic brand Andrew Cuomo is trying to forge, with an implicit contrast to the current situation in Washington—a place that, as everyone in the room knows but never mentions, Cuomo yearns to rule as president. “I believe inherently and innately in the power and capacity of government. Because government is just us!” he says, his voice straining. “For me, my governorship, what politics is about today, is a very simple formula: demonstrate government competence and capacity, that government can actually work, that it can do something, efficiently and effectively, that it’s not gridlocked, and it’s not incompetent.” The lines aren’t poetic or particularly inspiring, but the crowd applauds long and loud.
The governor got his record. The third straight on-time state budget passed roughly three weeks later. But the way the deal was done—with a promise-busting tax increase to help pay for an election-year middle-class tax rebate, and a minimum-wage boost coupled with a tax cut for small businesses—was a vivid illustration of the genius and the expediency of the Andrew Cuomo method. His governorship is a test of how far transactional politics can take a state and a politician.
So far that experiment has been a solid success, especially for Cuomo. He’s been more fiscally responsible than many of his predecessors. He’s boldly and forcefully delivered on progressive ideals, legalizing gay marriage and passing some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. He’s been rewarded with high public-approval numbers in New York and heightened national stature. Yet there’s also a cost, and a considerable irony, to Cuomo’s tactics. For all his speechifying about the “us” of government, he runs a government of one, controlling decisions large and small. And the way Cuomo wins his battles—strong-arming and horse-trading; a mastery of talking past inconvenient questions and facts—tends to antagonize enemies and allies, as in the most recent round of budget wrangling, in which he managed to chafe both liberals and business fat cats. People are afraid of him; David Paterson, as governor, once described feeling like Cuomo was lurking under the floorboards of the executive mansion, holding a saw. In politics, fear can be a highly useful tool, but it is a risky one. The governor doesn’t have many friends.