On the evening of September 19, 1977, a few hours after being dealt a humiliating defeat by Ed Koch in his bid to become mayor of New York, Mario Cuomo held a quiet conversation with his oldest son, Andrew, and his wife, Matilda, in their home in Holliswood, Queens. Mario was by then a crusading lawyer with a reputation for eloquence and passionate social commitment, already on his way to becoming a kind of philosopher-statesman. Yet as a politician, he seemed destined to be a footnote—“a loser,” as one political observer later said. Andrew refused to accept that fate for his father. The son was a tough, competitive, smart, though not terribly bookish, young man, with a Queens accent so pronounced that some thought it an affectation. He had a kind of blue-collar spirit—he was good with his hands and had toyed with opening a gas station. Until his father’s defeat, Andrew hadn’t seriously contemplated a career in politics. But that day he turned to his mother. “We’ll make Dad a winner,” he told her sharply. He was 19 at the time.
Mario rode Hugh Carey’s coattails to victory as lieutenant governor the next year, a consolation prize. And then, in 1982, with the fierce, sometimes vindictive style that has characterized his elective efforts ever since, Andrew masterminded his father’s come-from-behind victory for governor against Koch, among others, after Mario had trailed in the polls by as much as 38 points. “Sure enough,” Mario told me, “Andrew made me a winner.” The victory changed both of their lives. It launched Mario into political stardom—he served three terms as governor—while it gave Andrew, who’s almost certain to win his father’s old job this November, an arrogance that would take two decades and humiliating defeats of his own to confront. “At 24, Andrew was given a belief he could control events,” says a friend. “It made him an asshole.”
Typically, the father passes the torch to the son. With the Cuomos, there’s a twist. Andrew, in some sense, grabbed the torch prematurely, the son having done what the father couldn’t do for himself. And Mario, now 78, hasn’t been eager to relinquish it—he hates being muzzled. The two are still obsessed with each other. They bicker good-naturedly over almost anything, from who beat whom at basketball (neither will admit to ever having lost) to their comparative political talents. And they each keep careful track of the other’s accomplishments—an internal scorecard that begins with the relative difficulties of their youths.
“My father was not physically around much,” Andrew tells me, then pauses, calculating his father’s response. “He’ll admit it, depending on the day.”
Mario was a workaholic before the term was popular. “I don’t think I realized it at the time. I don’t know that I still actually realize it,” Andrew says in his bland, spacious state attorney general’s office, which he’s occupied for the past three and a half years. “He was so focused on what he did. If you wanted to develop a relationship with him, you had to go where he was, because he wasn’t going to come to where you were.”
Andrew, 52, has his father’s dark hair and long face—Mario once described his own bags-under-the-eyes looks as those of “a tired frog.” Andrew is handsome in a film-noir way, though right now he’s dressed like a prosecutor in a dark suit and crisp white shirt with cuff links. He insists he doesn’t want to speak about his father, but can’t resist for long—it is, after all, the topic that makes him come alive.
“My father was running every few years,” he says. “I got involved in his campaigns because it’s what he was doing. I think it was a way of developing a relationship.”
Mario’s brutal work ethic was an inheritance from his immigrant father, who, as Mario has said, “bled from the soles of his feet” to provide for his children. Mario later mythologized his parents as American heroes (to considerable political effect), but the myth concealed a punishing truth. Andrew’s grandfather and namesake, Andrea, ran a small grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens, which he and his wife staffed 24 hours a day, a grueling schedule that left little time for Mario, their youngest son. Mario spent years working in the back of the store, where for amusement he turned boxes into toys and read—Dickens, among others. “I had no youth,” he told his biographer Robert S. McElvaine. “I remember a thousand days being alone in my own quiet world while all the neighborhood’s activity was going on, steps away, on the other side of the door.”
Mario told me that he’d never had a long talk with his father. Advice was given in simple syllables: “Puncha, puncha, puncha, fighta, fighta, fighta.” Andrea couldn’t read Mario’s report cards, but he knew when his son received a B instead of an A, which earned him a rap on the ears. Mario’s mother was cool and unemotional and provided little relief. “I won three damned governor’s races, and she never said a thing about them. She never said, ‘How nice.’ Never gave me a hug and a kiss,” Mario explained to me.