The Reinvention of Andrew Cuomo

A Prince of Darkness turns White Knight

But even if Cuomo were more available to the media scrum, it's not certain they'd dent his armor. Like his old man, he's a Zen master at deflecting tough questions. When he showed up at Al Sharpton's Martin Luther King Day event last month, several veteran reporters squeezed off their best shots trying to get him to voice his political intentions.

After the sixth or seventh response, he sounded like his own Greek chorus: "There is plenty of time for politics. Right now, I am serving as Attorney General."

Whatever the media's frustrations, the hide-in-plain-sight strategy has worked remarkably well for the governor-in-waiting. His stay-on-message approach has been the natural complement to the remarkable stroke of luck that left Cuomo as the last man standing of the three top statewide officials elected in 2006. He is now—eight years after his Buffalo belly-flop—poised to become the Democratic nominee for governor. And barring some new nasty foul that takes him out of the game, or a massive voter rebellion akin to last month's Democratic collapse in Massachusetts, he's a likely bet to win in November.

The generally accepted wisdom is that he is ready for the job, that the tantrum-prone, ego-thumping young lawyer whose Jaguar boasted vanity plates reading "AMC ESQ" has been left far behind. Not everyone buys it. He is only 52, and he still carries more old baggage than the airline carousels at JFK, from law partners gone wrong to programs that slipped off track while he was Bill Clinton's housing secretary. On the flip side, there is a proud record of hard work for the homeless and a lifetime of liberal pursuits. And, given the McCall fiasco, followed by a painfully public divorce, even those who longed to see that abrasive young man get his comeuppance might agree that he's paid at least some of those dues.

The attorney general who doesn't like to talk for attribution thinks so. "I've been through a lot in life," he says. "I've learned a lot. I've been up, been down, been all around. I believe I have the context and breadth of understanding at this time of my life that's very helpful."

As for those legendary screams down the phone lines at the Albany press corps, it was part of the times. "When I first started with my father, I was in my early twenties," he says. "Politics was populated with young, hard-charging people. The passion level was very high. The stakes were very high. We were all kids. Older eyes that need glasses tend to see situations very differently, metaphorically and literally."

That's Cuomo the philosopher talking, a familiar and not wholly unpleasant sound to New Yorkers who recall his father's three terms in office in the 1980s and early '90s. The bigger surprise—at least to charter members like this one of the "Andrew Cuomo Is All About Andrew Cuomo" club—is that the son has lived up to Rules Two and Three of his game plan: With the ball doing much of the talking, he's run up truly impressive numbers as a rookie state attorney general.

Colleges conspiring with loan companies to profit off their own students? A month into his job, the AG starts spreading subpoenas around. Three months later, as colleges desperately sue for peace, he wins a new law barring such conflicts. Within weeks, it's a national cause, with hearings before Congress and new federal legislation.

Albany's pork-barrel spending hidden behind a wall of secrecy? Hire a top ethics advocate to help develop an easy-access website for one-stop shopping for government data. Dub it "Project Sunlight" and let citizen fingers do the walking.

Reimbursements for health care expenditures are skewed in the insurance industry's favor by rigged and out-of-date cost schedules? Another sprinkle of subpoenas, another threat to sue. Private health insurers ante up $100 million for a new independent database, amid pledges all around to reform their bad old ways.

Wall Street fat cats still laughing all the way to the bank even after a massive taxpayer bailout? Send attorneys into court to force giants like AIG and Bank of America to cough up embarrassing info about high-cost junkets, perks, and bonuses. In short order, even the change-oriented Obama administration is eating his dust.

These and a few dozen other good-government initiatives have all been accomplished, of course, with a maximum level of showmanship. As carefully as he skirts political debates, Cuomo makes sure he draws every bit of available publicity on his projects. And Cuomo's critics point out that many of his ventures are relatively risk-free since they stop shy of litigation, where the threat of embarrassing courtroom defeat always looms. His response has been a maxim that he posted atop his first annual report in 2007: "It's not who you sue, it's what you solve."

But there's also the not unreasonable suspicion that the job of attorney general is a lousy training ground for would-be governors. It's a notion that has gained much currency in the wake of the fabulous flame-out by Eliot Spitzer, whose own high-scoring record as AG won him the governorship. Attorneys general get to wear white hats while waging high-profile battles against bad guys, the thinking goes, while governors must deal in negotiation, compromise, and deep shades of gray.

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