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The Name of the Father

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Father-and-son basketball at the governor's mansion in 1990.  

Today, Cuomo is back. Chastened, single, and courting the support of the same party leaders he once spurned, he now hopes to succeed Eliot Spitzer as attorney general. So far, he is doing well: He has nearly seven times as much money on hand as any other candidate; he’s six points up on his closest rival, Mark Green, the former public advocate; and the party machine is supporting him with almost the same vigor with which it rejected him last time. “I think Andrew spends a lot more time listening now,” says Stuart Appelbaum, the chairman of his labor committee.

But the campaign season is young, and the field of Democratic-primary candidates is dense. There’s Green, a smart and highly ambitious man, though he’s also a perennial candidate (Congress in 1980, Senate in 1986, Senate primary in 1998, mayor in 2001). There’s Richard Brodsky, a shrewd state assemblyman; Charlie King, an African-American lawyer who was Cuomo’s pick for lieutenant governor last time; and Sean Patrick Maloney, a former Clinton aide who’s openly gay. And then there’s Denise O’Donnell, the former U.S. attorney from Buffalo who’s Catholic, decent, smart. She may be the most intriguing candidate of all—if only she had any money, and if only people had a clue who she is. Whoever wins must then face Jeanine Pirro, the former district attorney from Westchester County, a strong candidate in her own right.

Whenever anyone makes an argument against Cuomo, it’s generally based not on his qualifications for the job, but his character. It is staggering how ugly his reputation is—especially considering how playful, silly even, he can be. Cuomo, for example, kept a bright-green parrot as a young man, a squawking, shrieking thing his father loathed. I ask him about this early in our acquaintance.

“Who told you about that parrot?” he demands. “That parrot was an attack parrot. It was a trained attack parrot.”

Did he send it away for training?

“Oh, no. I trained it myself. It was the only trained attack parrot. It would go sa-woooping down at you—”

Did he train it to speak?

He shakes his head. “It didn’t say anything. It was just this loud, screechy WAAAAH, WAAAAH.” He spreads his arms, curls his fingers into claws.

Yet merely mention Cuomo’s name—it almost doesn’t matter to whom—and one hears the same set of complaints: He’s abrasive. Stubborn. Terribly conceited. He condescends, and Lord even knows why, because it’s not like he’d be anyone without the Cuomo name. And sure, he’s charming and charismatic, but a big bully, too, who has a way of alienating employees. “Andrew Cuomo did not endear himself to his staff,” says Sara Pratt, a career hud attorney who spent seven years as director of the office of enforcement for fair housing, two of them under Cuomo. “People were afraid to disagree with him, afraid to take bad news to him, because of the reaction they got.”

Cuomo’s friends say he’s a changed man. The loss of 2002, the dissolution of his marriage, the subsequent marital counseling—all of it had positive, salubrious effects. “Before, there was an ego,” says his friend Sam Hoyt, a Democratic assemblyman from Buffalo. “There was a big ego. But I don’t think ego is driving him this time. There’s a degree of entitlement that’s now gone.”

And publicly, anyway, Cuomo seems at least to have adjusted to the idea of taking responsibility for his 2002 campaign. “Whatever mistakes were made were mine,” he tells me one day. Less than a minute later, however, he adds, “But a lot of it was situational.” His usual list of explanations follows: He hadn’t been in New York during eight of the ten years preceding the governor’s race but in Washington; he was running against a highly qualified African-American whose time had come; September 11 had engendered a certain caution in the electorate.

Whatever the reasons for his failure in 2002, Cuomo will now have a second chance to carry on in the public-service tradition of his father, perhaps even to best him. The two have an immensely complicated relationship. Andrew was his father’s Bobby Kennedy, the loyal relation who ran a winning campaign but for years was regarded as the strategy man, the enforcer, the one who was too calculating and ruthless to be the candidate himself. And like Robert Kennedy, he seems to live in awkward, prideful, conflicted relation to his more famous relative’s stature and influence. Twice, Andrew has let me know that being hud secretary is a more powerful position than almost any governorship—“as a matter of protocol”—and that as HUD secretary, he was thirteenth in line to the presidency. “Cabinet secretaries also tend to be more powerful because they control more funds and have larger staffs,” he adds one evening, as we’re sitting in his SUV. “If you take out New York and California, most of the federal departments are bigger than every state. It’s just that New York doesn’t hold cabinet secretaries in as high an esteem.”


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