Considering the story came from Green, Cuomo’s rival, I decided to take his answer seriously, at first. But a few days later, Connor told me he’d heard a version of it from Cuomo, too. The Daily News also reported in January 2001 that Cuomo had told the same thing to a Democratic county chairman upstate.
So the next time I see Cuomo, I ask him about the story again.
“I don’t remember,” he says. “Anyway, it’s not logical that I’d be suggesting the Kennedy connection. So what? You’re an in-law.”
Which is, as he knows perfectly well, exactly the point of those who took offense at the silly tale.
So is he saying Green and Connor are lying?
“I have a different recollection. That’s all I can say.”
I’m beginning to think that Cuomo lives in his car. What a comedown—not just to scale back your political ambitions but to live in your car on the campaign trail, and to actually be its driver. “Clean up Albany,” he says, giving me his campaign pitch for A.G. “Clean. Up. Albany. I believe in government. But government has to work. Look at what they’re doing now with Medicaid. The largest state program. Theft. Corruption. Everybody asleep at the switch. The attorney general didn’t do it. The attorney general is supposed to be doing Medicaid fraud. That’s why Tom Suozzi is attempting to beat up Spitzer on Medicaid fraud.”
Wait. So he thinks Suozzi has a point? Amazing how Cuomo can’t make this point without grazing Spitzer, whose help it’d be so useful to secure. I’ve developed an obscure affection for Cuomo, come to enjoy his vim and bluntness—it’d be nice to listen to a New York politician without fighting the urge to turn off the TV. But one pays a price for such a style. How this man is going to get through another primary without digesting his own foot is still beyond me. “Well, the Times says he has a point,” says Cuomo. “The attorney general had a Medicaid fraud unit. The Department of Health had a Medicaid fraud unit. And for some reason, the largest program in the state—once again, rampant corruption. You know what every Republican says? Another government program, another ripoff. So I say, make the program work. Protect the taxpayer dollar! That is exactly what I did at hud.”
Indeed, nothing gets Cuomo more fired up than the subject of housing. He lights up like a pinball machine when discussing it. At just 28, he started help, or Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged, which still serves a population of 9,600; when he started as an assistant secretary at HUD, he was just 35 years old. “Think about it,” says John Marino, the former state Democratic Party chairman. “How many people really care about poor people?” Cuomo’s flair for oratory may not be as pronounced as his father’s, but when he gets fired up, he’s quite watchable, seductive in a Clintonian way. He explains things well. He likes thinking about government. How many people truly like thinking about government and its possibilities anymore?
Yet when I ask Cuomo for the names of housing advocates who can talk about the work he did at hud, he says he can’t give me any off the top of his head. When I phone them independently, I get mixed reports: dogged on the one hand, relentlessly self-promoting on the other. He famously went to war with hud’s inspector general, not exactly a mature response to criticism. And while Cuomo rightly touts the high volume of legal cases he oversaw at the agency, his critics complain that he chose lawsuits that had more news value than real-world reverberations. “Cuomo used the money to promote himself at news conferences,” says Shanna Smith, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.
But when Cuomo got to HUD, the entire department—not just parts but the entire department—was on the Government Accountability Office’s list of most-wasteful government agencies. By the time Cuomo left, the GAO had dropped hud from its list entirely. Inspection protocols were redone; he started an enforcement center to make sure that bad buildings were withdrawn from HUD’s inventory. Most impressive, Cuomo nearly doubled his budget, from $15.2 billion to $28.4 billion—this from a Republican Congress—mostly in the form of vouchers, so that it became possible, over four years, for 189,000 very-low-income people to rent private housing through subsidies, at a time when everyone believed that government housing programs were all but dead.
“It’s Andrew, so you have to put up with Andrew,” says Denise Muha, executive director of the National Leased Housing Association. “He’s intense. But he knows what he wants, and he’s bullheaded about getting it. And from our perspective, it was a good thing. The guy took on not only the Republican Congress but his own administration.” Muha has been in this business for twenty years. “People who are smart get him. Clearly, you have to deal with his personality, his temper. But at the end of the day, he’s probably that way because he wants to do things right. If Andrew sticks to what he knows and controls his temper, he can do great things.”