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The Cuomo Family Business


Bill Clinton announcing Andrew's appointment as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  

It wasn’t always easy to measure up to Mario’s expectations. Chris spent three years as news anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, a coveted job greeted with ambivalence at home. “My father struggled with it as a significant form of service,” Chris tells me. (Andrew echoed the sentiment: “You got to decide what’s more important: your personal celebrity or what you’re able to do for other people,” Chris recalls him saying.)

By the time Mario was in his forties, the Cuomo family business was politics, and Andrew was absorbing the lessons, one of which is that ideological purity isn’t always the best political strategy, no matter what his father might say. “My first remembrance of him in politics is his position on the death penalty,” Andrew tells me. Mario opposed the death penalty, perhaps his defining issue. Pollster “Pat Caddell, who at that time was the big guru, said, ‘You cannot win [for governor in 1982] with that position, but the good news is you’re not on record anywhere, so you can change it.’ My father said, ‘I’m not changing it.’ Caddell said, ‘Okay, well, at least never bring it up.’ So my father would go out on the stump, and if someone asked, ‘What do you think about the transit fare?’ he would say, ‘I’m glad you brought up the death penalty.’ ” Andrew shakes his head and laughs warmly: “His politics are, You say what you believe. Whatever happens happens. He’s not a replicable model.”

When Mario served as lieutenant governor, he decided to live part-time with his son, then at law school in Albany. I asked Mario if he roomed with Andrew for the fun of being together, which is how that time is often characterized. He seemed surprised by the question. “Our family couldn’t afford to do a lot of things for fun,” he said. The lieutenant governor had to provide his own housing; sharing an apartment was a way to save money. For Andrew, his father’s motives were simpler still. “He was just trying to slow down my bedroom activity,” he says. (Mario, a virgin when he married, hung a Virgin Mary in the apartment.)

The turning point in Mario’s political career—and the crucible of his relationship with Andrew—came during the 1982 race for governor. “It’s difficult for a young son working for a father,” Andrew says, but in the midst of the battle, they found that they were complements. Mario pondered the big questions while rising early to record his personal flaws in his diary. “If you said to my father, ‘Design your perfect day and your perfect job,’ ” Andrew tells me, “intellectual ideas, thoughts, reading, writing, communicating ideas.” Andrew staked out territory his intellectually domineering father couldn’t or wouldn’t enter. “I like to think I think the big thoughts,” says Andrew, “but I also operationalize.” Andrew means that he turns ideas into action. Put another way, he gets the job done. “Andrew would do what works; Mario, he would believe it works,” says a political associate of the Cuomos. It was in Mario’s service that Andrew first nurtured the idea that most anything is justified for a good cause—like his father’s career. “It went beyond what a dedicated political supporter would give to a candidate,” says a former political colleague. Back then, Andrew was sometimes called the Prince of Darkness, a political wizard who “threatened [party members] with the loss of lucrative state jobs” to get his way, as a state report concluded.

To some, Andrew appeared to have a chip on his shoulder, as though every attack were personal, a perception magnified by his youth. “He operated from anger in those days,” says the former colleague. “It was as if Andrew was Mario’s id. They were both supersensitive to any criticism. Anything would set them off.” With Andrew, every infraction mattered, even those committed by loyalists. “Andrew gave [one county official] the scorched-earth treatment” if he didn’t fall in line, says one former elected official. “He said to me, ‘I’m on the team. Why is this happening?’ ”

Mario bestowed power on Andrew, or allowed him to take it, a sign of his love and faith, but it proved a mixed blessing. Andrew doesn’t share Mario’s brooding nature, which tempered his father’s aggression. He knows he lacked “emotional maturity” at the time. “He had an enormous amount of power and not the temperament to wield it,” says a friend. “It wasn’t fair of his father to put him in that position.” Fair or not, Andrew was seen as his father’s henchman, a thug, a paternal legacy that, though Mario rejects the characterization, persists to this day.

For father and son, the 1982 campaign created a primal bond, one that had been absent at home. “I was thinking about this the other day,” Andrew says. “[The campaign] was an emotional, personal relationship on every level—it’s not like he was an accountant. I’ve been with him on his good days and on his worst days. It’s a much fuller, richer relationship.”


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