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The Albany Machiavelli

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Cuomo, naturally, counts griping as validation of his centrist achievements: If insiders from both ideological ends are unhappy, then he’s doing something right, and the public is getting a government that works for the greater good. He’s largely correct. But there are major fights ahead—over, notably, the expansion of casino gambling and the legalization of fracking—and the scars from the first half of Cuomo’s term could make it tougher for him to get what he wants in the second half. The state’s unemployment statistics are lagging the nation’s, and municipalities from Long Island to Rochester are staggering with budget deficits.

Cuomo has been brilliant at creating the conditions to advance his agenda—running up high public-approval ratings, propping up amenable legislative leaders. Even more important, he’s exploited opportunities in the unforeseen—whether a natural disaster or a violent tragedy—and he’s known when not to push too hard. Now the eruption of a new round of Albany corruption scandals will require even greater deftness. The temptation will be for the governor to thunder and pontificate about public integrity, goosing his poll numbers. Does Cuomo also unleash an investigation, or maybe try to oust Democratic Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, as the New York Post’s Fred Dicker suggested recently? Doing so might antagonize the (mostly) honest assemblymen and senators at a time when feelings are raw from two years of Cuomo’s muscular methods. The risk, as always for the governor, is overreaching, allowing his desire for control to overwhelm what’s in the best interest of the state, and of his ambitions.

As Cuomo looks to score a wide reelection margin in 2014, he has become New York’s most successful governor since, well, the early days of Mario Cuomo. Yet he’s engendered much more fear than love—an emotion the governor believes is overrated, in politics anyway. The growing turbulence will show whether he’s right about the value of affection in Albany—and whether Andrew Cuomo will loom larger in history than his father.

The calls come at all hours. They are especially frequent on the weekends when his three daughters, from his marriage to Kerry Kennedy, aren’t visiting, and they usually start with the same questions: “What are you seeing? What do you hear?” There is no need for introductions. The voice on the other end is instantly recognizable, a sonorous baritone that can be either whisperingly inviting or roaringly scary; there’s more Queens nasal honk in the mix when Andrew Cuomo grows excited.

The governor does plenty of persuading in person, in his second-floor office inside the state capitol. “When I share something he doesn’t like, he gets very quiet,” says Tom Libous, the Binghamton Republican who is State Senate deputy majority leader. “He stares at you.” Cuomo also tries to keep the meetings one-on-one with other elected officials. “That’s because Andrew is always the best-prepared principal in the room,” one Democrat says. “He gets in the weeds of issues and knows the details, and he doesn’t want aides who know as much as he does interfering and correcting him.”

But Cuomo’s virtuosity and hunger come through most clearly on the phone. He dials from early morning until late at night to a network of elected officials, former aides, and operatives all across the state, angling, obsessing, trolling for information. Sometimes Cuomo will open with a dirty joke, sometimes he’ll commiserate about being a divorced dad of teenagers. He knows birth dates, anniversaries, wedding plans. The governor’s calls are never purely social, though. “He has this whole way about him, and it’s an interesting process,” a New York politico says. “He calls, he doesn’t let you talk a lot. The calls often come out of the blue but usually with a very concerted ask: He’s either trying to get information or confer information or to clean up a situation that requires his engagement.”

When he’s on the line with a reporter, under ground rules that allow him to gossip freely, Cuomo is funny and acerbic, and the conversations are a fascinating window into one of the country’s sharpest political brains. They’re also a dizzying workout. “I get criticized by that kid, what’s his name?” Cuomo asks me one afternoon. “From MSNBC. Chris Hayes.” The name tumbles out of his mouth as if he’s just tasted rotten milk; after last fall’s elections, Hayes ripped Cuomo as a phony progressive for not supporting the Democrats’ attempt to win back the State Senate. “He says I shouldn’t have supported the Republicans. I didn’t support the Republicans; I supported a Republican! I supported Steve Saland, because he said, ‘If I give you the vote on gay marriage, I’m going down.’ I said, ‘If you get into trouble, I will be there for you, you have my word.’ I supported a man who did me a favor, who I gave my word to before he gave me his vote. Hey, look, half these Democrats don’t even support what I support! Other ones have certain character issues. And then if I support Democrats and the Republicans have the majority, I get nothing done. And I did support Democrats, by the way. I didn’t support all the Democrats, but I supported Democrats who I was comfortable supporting.”


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