For a man with a reputation for uncareful public speech and private bouts of hotheadedness, Andrew Cuomo is surprisingly serene when he’s being grilled by the New York City Police Department—or at least, he is under the present circumstances, as he sits curbside in his SUV and half-wonders, I’m sure, exactly how compromising it will look in print to be busted for a traffic violation while campaigning for the state’s top job in law enforcement. Until this moment, our brief trip had been amusing and uneventful, with Cuomo contemplating his route to a union meeting in Queens (bridge or tunnel?) and talking about Robert Moses (a logical topic for a former Housing and Urban Development secretary stuck in midtown traffic). He chooses the tunnel. Then, the whoop of a siren. Cuomo looks in the rearview mirror.
“Is he pulling me over for some reason?” He looks around, then checks the mirror again. “I think he is.” He turns to his assistant, sitting in the back of the car. “Can I have my wallet, please?”
A cop wanders over, a big black fellow, stoic and handsome and as solid as the door to a vault. If he recognizes Cuomo, he’s not saying so. He asks if Cuomo was aware he was driving without his seat belt. Cuomo, looking puzzled, points to the belt in question, which is secured across his shoulder. “Now you’re wearing it,” says the policeman. “You weren’t before.”
Cuomo assures him he wouldn’t lie about a matter like this. The cop responds by asking to see his license and registration. Cuomo moves toward the glove compartment and discovers he can’t reach it. “Uh, is it okay if I remove my seat belt now?” The cop gives a barely discernible nod. The glove compartment contains the rambling campaign essentials—maps, a hairbrush, a bottle of mouthwash—but not the registration. Cuomo eventually finds it, hands it over with his license. The officer reads the name on the documents. He doesn’t blink. Cuomo repeats, without a trace of irritation, that he really wouldn’t lie about this. The cop nods and wanders back to his car. Cuomo looks at the two of us. “I was wearing my seat belt.”
I feel kind of bad for him. He was. I tell him he ought to go plead his case. He looks at me, looks back at the cop in the rearview mirror, and jumps out. I follow about 30 seconds later. Cuomo’s leaning into the police-car window, saying good-bye. Not only is he ticket-free, but he’s on such smiling terms with the police officer that I ask, point blank, if he told the officer who he is.
He shakes his head. “Apparently, he was just saying to his partner, ‘You know, I think this guy is telling the truth.’ ”
Wait. So the officer didn’t recognize him?
“No,” he says.
Is it a good or bad thing when you’ve run for governor of New York and a city employee still doesn’t know who you are? Back in 2002, Andrew Cuomo didn’t just lose his bid for governor, he cratered. No one, least of all he, could have predicted the stunning indignity of the outcome, especially considering his pedigree: the Kennedy wife, the Cuomo name. His ambitious plan was to enter the primary; defeat his rival, Carl McCall; and go on to defeat George Pataki, the man who defeated Andrew’s father, Mario, in 1994. Instead, he began his campaign with an unforgettable barb about Pataki—that he’d merely held Rudolph Giuliani’s coat in the aftermath of September 11—which, while admirably candid in retrospect, was remarkably unattuned to the sensitivities of the day. On the hustings, Cuomo could never make the basic themes of his campaign clear; in his ads, voters decided he looked angry. The party, meanwhile, lined up foursquare behind McCall, a well qualified if uninspired candidate, who as state comptroller had put in all the requisite hours at the state-party wingdings and as an African-American had a chance to make New York history.
By the time the Democratic state convention came around, Cuomo had alienated so many party leaders it was unclear whether he could muster enough delegates to earn himself a place on the ballot. He refused to attend. By August, he’d fallen roughly 24 points in the polls. One week before primary day, he pulled out of the race. What was supposed to be an opera of exquisite revenge had become one long, vaudevillian skid on a banana peel.
That turned out to be the easy part of his year. Ten months later, the news broke that Kerry Kennedy, his wife, was having an affair, and his marriage dissolved with almost the same painful, public garishness—in no small part because Cuomo’s own people clearly leaked the story to the tabloids. Dynasties, apparently, are more fragile than they seem.