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The Cuomo Family Business

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The Cuomo family in Albany, 1982.  

Of course, Mario is an unforgiving competitor. “Good thing we won,” says Andrew with a thumping laugh. “If we’d lost, it would have really been bad.”

After the campaign, Andrew was a new person—one with a greatly expanded reputation and barely contained ambitions, as well as a list of enemies. But the son still lived in the father’s shadow, and through his twenties felt a need to insist, as he told one journalist, “I am Andrew Cuomo, and I am an independent person.” Even then, Andrew longed to run for office, but, he’d quickly add, only when his father was gone.

By 1985, Andrew had struck out on his own, briefly joining the Manhattan D.A.’s office, then a Park Avenue law firm. As the son of a sitting governor, he wielded enormous influence, and reveled in it, and yet as the son of Mario Cuomo, he wasn’t supposed to enjoy the privilege. “He’s psychologically empowered,” explains a friend. “It inflates the ego, and, of course, he feels, I deserve this power. But as a Cuomo, you have to figure out, How do I not feel entitled?” In 1986, Andrew retooled his father’s ideals, and put his expansive ego in the service of his own good works. He founded HELP USA, a private-public partnership that only someone as strong-willed, clever, and connected as Andrew could have pulled together. “He really changed the way the city and country care for homeless people,” says a former colleague. It also turned out to be a brilliant career move, which, along with his pedigree, quickly yielded results. In 1993, Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros chose Andrew as an assistant secretary. When Cisneros departed in scandal three years later, Andrew knew he was the best person for the job and wasn’t about to let anyone stand in the way of his good intentions. Norman Rice, then the mayor of Seattle, was another contender for the post, but his candidacy stalled after reports about an investigation that Rice misspent HUD money, an investigation approved by Assistant Secretary Cuomo’s department. The charges proved baseless, but by then it was too late for Rice. In 1997, the Senate approved Andrew as HUD secretary—at 39 years old, the youngest Cabinet member in history, as he has sometimes noted (though in fact it’s Robert F. Kennedy, his ex-father-in-law, who holds that distinction). By most accounts, he did an excellent job expanding the mission of an agency so ineffective and corrupt that it had been in imminent danger of being shut down.

As a Cabinet secretary, Andrew not only did good but also felt he’d arrived—above a mere governor, which he didn’t mind pointing out to his father. Andrew recalls a meeting at which Vice-President Al Gore, Andrew’s friend, mentioned that in protocol, a HUD secretary is more important than a governor—thirteenth in line to the presidency. Mario was in the audience. “I don’t know if Mario had fun with it, but I did,” Andrew says.

Playgirl had once named Andrew one of the country’s ten most eligible bachelors, but before he arrived in Washington, he gave up the title and married Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kerry—characteristically mixing life and politics. The press called it a merger or a ticket, and it was impossible to look past the union’s professional advantages. Still, the couple did have a lot in common—Kerry founded the RFK Center for Human Rights. “Just look at the two of them, their values and their priorities are so much the same,” Matilda Cuomo said at the time. “You just know this marriage will last a lifetime.”

The June 9, 1990, wedding was the political affair of the year, so overbooked that Andrew had to disinvite a friend or two from the old days. The press noted the elevation of Andy from Queens, as he was once called, though by then the Kennedys’ reign as political royals was mostly over.

For their part, some of the Kennedys were not taken with the Queens mystique. Andrew didn’t always dress quite right—too fond of cuff links, perhaps. And then there were his manners. At the Kennedy-family compound in Hyannisport, a person is supposed to toss a football, go for a swim, and, come dinnertime, argue passionately about the national good. “Andrew refused to do anything fun, anything without a clear benefit to his career,” a person who’s spent time with the family reported.

While Andrew was off at HUD, Mario’s political career went into eclipse. The governor dithered while opportunities passed him by: a run for the presidency, a nomination to the Supreme Court. In 1994, he mounted a dutiful campaign for a fourth term—he insists he would happily have bowed out if he’d found another candidate against the death penalty. Andrew had tried to talk his father out of the race; he knew the public was tired of the Cuomo name. And from Washington, Andrew couldn’t help with the campaign, a crucial point in Andrew’s mind. “I was not involved in any serious way with an election he lost,” he says. “He”—Mario—“has noted that.” In 1994, the great man fell at last, losing by just four points, a margin some attributed to his death-penalty stance, to a relative unknown from Peekskill named George Pataki. It was a deep sadness for Andrew, but also, at last, an opening.


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