I ask Andrew how he reconciles the democratic ideal of a meritocracy with relying on his family name to advance his career.
“It doesn’t distort the meritocracy,” he says. “They’re electing someone. They pull a lever.”
But does he really think his name doesn’t give him an edge? Does he think it’s neutral?
“It depends with who and when,” he says.
Overall, I say.
“In a primary or a general?”
He’s silent. “I’ve never done the calculus.”
Before this story, I was told by everyone that I’d be charmed silly by Andrew Cuomo. They were right. He can be immensely charming when he wants to be. He’s got that Cary Grant thing going—gallantry, mischief wrinkles around the eyes—and a screwball wit one seldom sees in politics. (One day, he phoned from the road, recounting how strange it was to sit in the same room as the five other contenders for attorney general, as if he were a contestant in a beauty pageant. I asked how he distinguished himself. “I went with a dress of light chiffon,” he replied.) Tonight, he’s on the charm offensive again, this time with the pipe-fitters union in Sunnyside. We’re early, our impromptu curbside visit from the NYPD notwithstanding. Cuomo parks his car outside a squat building. His political director, Joe Percoco, comes out to brief him on the scene. He sticks his head in the car window.
“Okay. Jack Torpey is gonna introduce you. And Ed Malloy from the building trades is—”
“From the day Andrew came out of the womb, his job was to serve his father,” says Ed Hayes.
“Ed Malloy is here? Why?”
“This is part of his group. He came with Jimmy Cahill. He’s actually a steamfitter, but he’s the international representative for the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, who have endorsed us—”
“Wait, give me that again?”
He repeats this information, along with a further elaboration on the union family tree.
“Can I have a pen, please?”
Percoco rummages around, finds him one.
“Okay. Ed Malloy, Jimmy Cahill, Jack Torpey.”
“Right,” says Percoco. They chat a few minutes more, then head inside. The joint’s jumping. Cuomo makes his way through the crowd with an easy vigor, hugging people, grabbing them by their arms, giving two-part handshakes. He climbs onto the stage. “I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be here,” he tells the crowd. “Jack Torpey, Jimmy Cahill, I see here Eddie Malloy. All the big shots came out tonight, boy . . . ”
For eight years, while Cuomo was in Washington, this is precisely the sort of hobnobbing and dutiful homage-paying that Cuomo did not do in his native state, even though he harbored ambitions of a triumphant return. One can see why. There’s something galactically debasing about begging for votes on the rubber-chicken-dinner circuit. Yet today, Cuomo’s living on a steady diet of rubber chickens, when he isn’t snacking on bowls of crow. He marches in parades, attends union meetings, lunches with county executives. A week later, we go to the Queens County Democratic Organization dinner, a bright red seascape of party balloons and Jell-O molds, and there he is again, cupping women’s faces, grabbing men by their ties. The county chairman announces his endorsement of Cuomo that night, telling the crowd, “He did a mea culpa.”
“I think this is all very particular to New York,” says Martin Connor, the former State Senate minority leader. “In most other states, a cabinet member comes back home, and it’s like, ‘Let’s make him governor!’ Not here. Andrew comes back, having been in D.C. for eight years, having had an incredibly responsible position. And people are like, ‘Where you been? You didn’t come to my club dinner when we invited you!’ ”
Not everyone is buying Cuomo’s newfound enthusiasm for the New York State party machine. And a wariness toward him still lingers, especially among the African-American political elite. Recently, he made the inexplicable mistake of giving a paid speech to developers in Las Vegas rather than attending a Martin Luther King Day event hosted by Al Sharpton. Back in 2000, Mark Green says, he asked Cuomo how he could challenge, with a clear conscience, the state’s most qualified black candidate for governor. Green says Cuomo replied, “Every black home has three pictures. One of Jesus Christ, one of Martin Luther King, and one of either Bobby Kennedy or JFK.” His connection to Kerry Kennedy, in other words, would more than inoculate him from black objections.
One day, I ask Cuomo about this story. “That is total . . . that just never happened. Never happened. They never heard that from me. No. They told you they heard that people heard it from me. This was one of the rumors at that time.”