I'm curious about Cuomo and the class thing -- the divide between Manhattan and the boroughs, between the Cuomos and the Kennedys. Mario always made class an interesting and confusing subtext of the Cuomo message. He was at once a Queens pol and yet the most patrician figure in American politics. In some sense, way too patrician for American politics. But obviously not enough -- in any discussion about Mario and the presidency, somebody always brings up the Mafia thing ("Well, you know why he didn't run . . .").
For his part, Andrew segues artfully between Italian-from-Queens-ness and purebred-yuppie-ness. It's unclear which Cuomo is realer.
"Why did you go to the schools you went to?" -- Fordham and then Albany Law School -- I ask him, because it seems enough out of place on his resume -- and because we're pretty much the same age, and our backgrounds aren't that different, and why pretend it isn't a curious thing.
He defends the schools but understands what I'm asking: Why would the son of Mario Cuomo go to local, commuter schools? Why would an ambitious guy not have been more ambitious (Bill Clinton from Arkansas made it to Yale)?
He pulls on his rubber face. He doesn't seem defensive (certainly not in the sense of Lyndon Johnson among the Kennedy Ivy Leaguers). "I went to a boys' parochial school in Queens. I don't think anybody went to an Ivy League school from my high school," he says, and shrugs. "We went to St. John's. Mario went to St. John's. Fordham was a step up. Then there's affording an Ivy League school. I don't know how we would have done that."
"Like everyone else," I say, "you'd get loans."
"You know, Mario was a rebel. Even if he could have gone to those schools -- he was turning his back on these people. The Wall Street-lawyer crowd. He was a Brooklyn lawyer."
So when did the striving begin?
The whole family has traded up. He's married a Kennedy, his sister has married Kenneth Cole, and another sister married the millionaire video producer of Buns of Steel (of course, there may be some feeling of a mutual trade-up here); his brother is a television personality who hangs with Hamptons socialites. Even Mario and Matilda live on Sutton Place now.
"Your kids won't go to Fordham and Albany Law School."
"I know that," he says, with some fatefulness. He talks about their earning their own money, and his not buying them cars, and getting them to work real jobs over the summer.
"Right," I say laughing.
But I know what he's saying: It's a lot harder nowadays to preserve than to escape your roots. In a sense, Andrew is the last of a kind (he may well have the last Queens accent -- in the future it will have a much different, polyglot sound). Despite top-flight yuppie accomplishments, he's also uniquely old-fashioned: apprenticed to the father; made, effectively, a political runner; then graduating to ward heeler and promoted to consiglieri at an early age. I don't know how you save that.
On the other hand, the last thing Andrew Cuomo wants to be is a Queens pol -- even a princely one.
We reach the site. Politicians need a backdrop. Hands to shake, backs to clasp. A photo op even without photographs.
We've come out to the first help project. This is the thing that Cuomo did as a 27-year-old: He built housing for the homeless.
That, however, is an abstract or bureaucratic concept -- which is, no doubt, why he's hustled me out here to see what he's built. As he tells it, he visited the notorious Hotel Martinique, where, given the rules of federal-assistance laws, the city was housing homeless people in squalor and degradation for a near-luxury price tag during the seventies and eighties. Andrew, who had left working for his dad and spent two years with the Manhattan D.A., and who was then restlessly practicing law, figured you could take that federal money and, within federal rules, do a lot better. In addition, he had a Clintonesque-third-way point of view, which is that the homeless are homeless for reasons other than the fact that they have no homes -- you had to rehab the whole family unit.
Because he's the governor's son, and because he is, supposedly, a son of a bitch (he was, and perhaps still is, relatively unpopular in New York political circles, unlike, say, Hugh Carey's kids in the seventies, who ran restaurants and were very popular), he gets his building built.
One big test of public housing must be how it looks a generation or so after it's been in use. This place opened, with Cuomo as landlord and night manager, in 1988. Thirteen years later, it's a liberal proof of something (unless somebody went running ahead to round up the crackheads and clean the graffiti and fix the windows). It's a clean, sunny, orderly place. GED classes are in progress as we wander the halls, peeking into windows, with Andrew shaking the occasional hand; so is computer training, day care, exercise for pregnant women. The premise is: Families move in here from shelters; with social support, the families get themselves together; then they move into a permanent place.
Across the street is the permanent housing that Cuomo built. It's a four-story rectangular building overlooking a large, landscaped interior courtyard. Cuomo, who I imagined can talk about public housing as knowledgeably as anyone in America, has many points to make (if you like this sort of stuff, and I do, it's a good talk -- why there's always an el in such neighborhoods; why cities always dump facilities in poor neighborhoods, which then contributes to keeping the neighborhood poor). One of his most obvious points is about architecture. Because this is a well-designed building, it sends none of the messages that public housing usually sends (i.e., to the people who live here: You're prisoners; to the taxpayers who pay for them to live here: They're criminals).
Andrew has created St. Mark's Square in East New York. A staircase at the corner forms the campanile; the common rooms and community space (they've held weddings here) form the basilica-like structure; the apartments, looking into the courtyard, the procuratie.
This is his pitch: Liberal solutions can work (forgetting the fact that, here in East New York, we're also surrounded by former generations of public housing, like sedimentary layers, that didn't work). Government, or, in middle-of-the-road-speak, a public-private partnership, can make something functional, economical, uplifting, and dignified; indeed, there are 3,500 people in help housing -- in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester, Philadelphia. The other part of his pitch, which I find hard to resist, is that he's the only modern-American politician who's actually put a roof over someone's head.
It's very movielike. The young, idealistic politician against this background of accomplishment and hope. It's almost eerie in its foreboding -- where's the body?