New York

The Reinvention of Andrew Cuomo


For a politician with a true gift of gab, Andrew Cuomo has been operating for more than three years now under some strict and self-imposed rules of the road. As described by the state’s own Attorney General, they are:

One: No trash-talking allowed. Two: Let the ball do the talking. Three: Run up a big score.

These decrees are not surprising coming from a guy whose own trash talk helped sink him the last time he ran for governor, back in 2002. That April, he was on a bus packed with reporters headed for Buffalo on a four-day statewide tour announcing his run for the Democratic nomination. He was bantering with those around him—microphones set in Record mode—when he popped off about then-sitting governor George Pataki and how he had let Mayor Giuliani hold center-stage after the horror of 9/11. “He stood behind the leader,” said Cuomo, spacing out the words in his rich Queens voice. “He held the leader’s coat.”

Even for those who agreed with him, the words clanged like a bad shot off the rim. They also sparked an electric shock of recognition: Oh, right, a lot of folks were suddenly reminded. That Andrew Cuomo. The bad-talking twentysomething who played the big-shot bully in the big office when his father, Mario, was governor. The kid they called the “Prince of Darkness.” That Andrew Cuomo.

The now-ancient history is that he never made it back on the bus. A week before the primary, he pulled out of the race. This was a belated bid at fence-mending with those who were irate that he would run against H. Carl McCall, the state comptroller then trying to become the state’s first black governor. It was also to avoid ignominious defeat. “Our internal poll numbers had it at 60-18,” a former McCall aide says.

These days, Cuomo makes no bones about his missteps. “It was a bad comment,” he told the Voice last week. “It was a mistake for me to say that.”

But this sort of sudden, near-death experience is often greatly instructive for survivors. And the fallout from the Buffalo bus ride is one of the reasons why the successful reinvention of Andrew Cuomo these past three years has kept him unnaturally tight-lipped.

You don’t see him spouting off on TV talk shows. You don’t read wide-ranging interviews. You don’t hear him commenting on the crucial issues of the day, other than those that fall squarely within the parameters of the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

What you do get is a steady drumbeat of press releases and carefully staged news events presenting The Andrew Cuomo Show: a reality-based series featuring a modern Knight Templar waging a crusade against wrongdoers and rip-off artists. The show itself gets exceptionally high ratings. But the tightly scripted performance by its star—a clearly ambitious politician—has driven some of New York’s media right up the wall.

For instance: Over a year ago, Bob Hardt, the news director at NY1, posted a “Cuomo Clock” on his website, counting down the days, hours, and minutes since the sitting AG has failed to come in for a round on the station’s influential Road to City Hall show. On Tuesday, the clock stood at 1,126 days.

“I have spoken repeatedly to him about coming on the show, and he has said he would,” says Hardt. “But when we try to nail it down, it never happens.”

Not that Cuomo doesn’t talk often, and at length, to reporters. It’s just all cautiously off the record. You can talk for an hour to the state’s top law enforcement officer. If you come away with a quotable sentence in your notebook, you’ve done well.

Even his press conferences—and he averages better than one a week—tend to keep the press at bay. While he does many in-person events outside the city, his preferred mode in media-dense Gotham is to hold telephone call-ins. Reporters sit dumbly looking at the phone while some off-screen wizard selects those looking to ask a question.

A good example was last week’s phone presser on cyber-scammers who dupe customers into hidden fees on their credit cards. Among the alleged culprits were some of the Internet’s biggest salesmen: Barnes & Noble, Ticketmaster, and the movie ticket retailer Fandango. It was a classic episode in the crusade: The people’s lawyer using innovative tools to bring big shots to heel.

The press conference also came two days after Cuomo took a hard elbow from Governor David Paterson, who insists he is running for re-election no matter how much better Cuomo does in the polls (64 percent to 31 percent), or how much fatter his campaign coffers may be ($16 million vs. $3 million). Paterson said Cuomo was hiding out in a “candidate-protection program,” ducking the tough issues. A day later, Daily News columnist Bill Hammond—no big Paterson fan—seconded that emotion, urging Cuomo to “quit the fan dance.”

Three dozen reporters were on the line listening to the cyber-scam announcement, but only two questions were asked, both pleasingly on-topic. Cuomo aides said they were surprised no one hit the buttons to raise an impertinent query about politics. That’s a break Cuomo would never catch at an old-fashioned stand-up conference, where the press gets to piggy-back off one another’s inquiries.

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.

It’s all true. Different skill sets for different jobs. But there have also been some glimpses during Cuomo’s three-year stint in office that offer a decent clue at how he might handle things as the state’s chief executive.

One of them was Cuomo’s seemingly obscure battle to force the country’s largest investment firms to assist customers who had been badly misled about something called auction-rate securities. Former deputy AG Eric Corngold said that he was skeptical at first: “My attitude was that this was some esoteric kind of investment that only rich people make. I said, ‘I’m not sure we should get involved in this.’ “

Like most of the deputies Cuomo hired, Corngold was a former federal prosecutor and had never met the attorney general before. “At the first meeting of the senior people, I remember him saying, ‘You know, none of you really know me. I don’t really know you. I don’t even know who you voted for in the election.’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Primary or general?’ “

One of Cuomo’s first demands was that top aides join him on sojourns across the state to hear what was on people’s minds. Whole days were spent in Utica, Niagara, and Rochester listening to mostly humdrum gripes. But among the complaints was that of a couple who had lost their kid’s college kitty after their broker persuaded them to put it into auction-rate securities. They’d been told the securities were just as liquid as savings accounts, and paid more interest. But the liquidity dried up when the auction-rate market collapsed in February 2008. “They said, ‘Now we can’t get our money out and our kid can’t go to college,’ ” recalls Corngold. Another woman said she had had to un-retire after putting her retirement money into the now-frozen securities.

Cuomo launched his probe in early summer 2008. By December, the office had deals with such titans as Citigroup, UBS, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs to unfreeze some $50 billion in investor assets. It was the largest return ever of investor funds. Some $600 million was collected in fines, $125 million of it to New York.

The negotiations revolved around highly technical legal issues, but Corngold says Cuomo was a hands-on participant at a table crowded with megawatt lawyers defending their most valuable clients. “He wasn’t the guy sitting in his office waiting for the results. He was a tremendous and brilliant negotiator. I have learned the world from him about how those deals get done.”

That’s one checkmark in the correct box on the list of what it takes to be governor. Another is old-fashioned gumption. Among the many charges that the attorney general has led with his sword pointed at the enemy, the biggest and most notorious is the sprawling criminal probe into the startling corruption Cuomo’s team found at the state pension fund under the watch of former comptroller Alan Hevesi.

So far, five people have pled guilty to paying kickbacks to grease their way into hundreds of millions of dollars in pension investment deals. None are small fry. In December, Cuomo won a guilty plea from a Los Angeles–based financial magnate named Elliott Broidy, a former national finance chairman for the Republican Party who held fundraising soirees at his Bel Air mansion for his pal George W. Bush.

Locally, the best-known name to take a collar in the ongoing investigation has been Ray Harding, the aging walrus who for decades was the chain-smoking mastermind behind the Liberal Party. If ever there was a time for the old-boy network to cash in its political favors, this should have been it. But despite the long relationship between Harding and the Cuomos, it didn’t happen.

Over the years, Mario Cuomo and Harding had many duels. But the father stayed on the party’s ballot line, and Harding was a Cuomo strategist as late as Mario Cuomo’s losing race to Pataki in 1994. When Andrew Cuomo ran for governor in 2002, Harding gladly gave the son the Liberal endorsement. This proved to be his last hurrah: When Cuomo dropped out of the race, the Liberal Party lost its ballot line by failing to snare the required 50,000-vote minimum.

His political career sunk, Harding turned for help to Hevesi, his other statewide candidate. Under the tutelage of Hank Morris, Hevesi’s political guru, Harding became a “placement agent,” a kind of marriage broker between pension funds and investors. Not that he did any real work. Harding admitted in court that his $800,000 in fees was the product of a series of shams.

The attorney general announced Harding’s guilty plea in one of his phone-ins in October. The state’s pension funds, he said, had been “looted to reward a political boss.” Thanks to either politeness or a lack of institutional memory, nobody asked Cuomo whether he had thought of Harding as a “political boss” back when he was running on his Liberal Party line for the state’s highest office.

The bottom line here is that it’s refreshing to see a potential governor pull no punches in dealing with a crooked ex-ally. On the other hand, it’s a little chilling to hear someone denounce his one-time political sponsor as a “boss,” without even a tip of the hat to his own past history.

Harding may still catch a break, providing he helps himself first. The plea agreement allows the AG to reduce the charges if Harding cooperates fully in the ongoing probe. The target here is Morris, whose indictment last March along with Hevesi’s former pension investment chief, was the trip wire for the massive investigation. It’s one of several pieces of unfinished business that Cuomo would presumably like to wind up before announcing for governor sometime this spring.

Another is the matter of Steven Rattner, the billionaire investment banker and Democratic angel who quit his post as an Obama economic adviser last summer as the pension fund probe was heating up. Rattner has not been charged, but his name surfaced in one of the many nutty aspects of the case: His Quadrangle Group investment firm not only paid Morris a $1.1 million fee for “finding” it a $100 million deal with the state, he also had an affiliate buy the DVD rights to a screwball movie produced by the pension fund director’s brothers.

Cuomo also has to decide what to do about another high-profile donor, a hedge fund operator named George Hall whose Clinton Group has donated more than $250,000 since 2005 to Democratic candidates. In 2006, Clinton was part of a three-way joint venture that landed a whopping $750 million of state funds. Cuomo has charged that the deal was manipulated by Morris and the pension fund chief to generate huge fees. One joint venture partner has already pled guilty; another agreed in July to fork over $2 million as its share of the proceeds.

In 2008, after the probe was under way, Hall donated $10,000 to Cuomo’s campaign committee. Cuomo’s people say donations are sometimes not returned immediately in order not to alert subjects that they might be under investigation. In Hall’s case, he got his money back in October—after a Bloomberg News reporter asked about it.

Campaign money is a complicated issue for Cuomo. He has steadily condemned the “pay to play” atmosphere of state politics. He’s also called for a new system to cap campaign donations, à la the city’s Campaign Finance Board. At the same time, he’s raised a ton of money the old-fashioned, pre-Obama way: from big donors.

Inside the huge tub of $16 million he’s sitting on, the average donation is somewhere north of $1,000. Almost 600 donors have written checks for $5,000 or more. More than 50 have given over $50,000. It’s hard to identify all of them because, under the state’s wide-open rules, it’s still perfectly legal to split up donations among different corporate entities, whose principals aren’t even disclosed to the public.

This is the same anything-goes kind of politics condemned as “disgraceful” 20 years ago by the Feerick Commission on Government Integrity, a panel appointed by then governor Mario Cuomo in response to an earlier generation’s campaign scandals.

Scroll through the rolls of Andrew Cuomo’s givers and you can find most of the permanent government, a bipartisan crowd of power brokers and fixers who are used to getting their way and are happy to pay for the privilege.

Those two dozen checks for $5,000 apiece from corporations out on Union Turnpike in New Hyde Park? That’s Leonard Litwin, longtime pillar of landlord power. Those half-dozen donations of $10,000 and $5,000 from companies on Oak Street in Garden City? It’s Al Benjamin, developer pal of Alfonse D’Amato, the former senator turned lobbyist who has been rainmaking for Cuomo 2010.

Here’s the Dolan family and Cablevision, dropping $55,000 into the bucket. The Long Island company even rated a personal visit to its Bethpage headquarters in April, the same day that Cuomo held a fundraiser at swank Oheka Castle in Huntington.

Given the system that exists, however, you need multiples of millions to be taken seriously as a statewide candidate. And Cuomo’s argument is that any would-be favor-seekers won’t get to first base with him because he has more than enough dough to be able to tell them to get lost. His eight-figure war-chest makes him a pressure-resistant “mini-Bloomberg,” his crew argues.

“Can you look at my filings and see a lot of the usual suspects?” says Cuomo. “Yeah. That’s the campaign system we now have, which desperately needs to be changed.”

To ease the sting, Cuomo has imposed a rule that his campaign will not take donations from anyone—other than their attorneys—with matters pending before his office. Donors are asked to sign cards certifying it.

“It’s not perfect,” he says. ” ‘Perfect’ is no contribution ever.” But politics, he adds, “shouldn’t be an occupation only for billionaires or millionaires. At the end of the day, you are never going to get past one variable—that you have to elect people who you believe are going to do the right thing. There will always be a force trying to influence them, either monetarily, or politically, or electorally. And that is why you have to elect people who you believe are going to act from the proper motivation.”

Last week, the day before he knew a Times story was likely to run describing his agency’s dealings with several developer donors, Cuomo held a telephone press conference to try to show where his heart is. He announced plans to sue Vantage Properties, one of the Wall Street–driven operators that scooped up thousands of city working-class apartments and then began harassing tenants out. “We understand their calculus,” Cuomo said. “The only thing in the way is the law.”

But campaign money obscures even the best of intentions. And when the score is being measured in dollars raised, tough questions often go unasked.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, for instance, Cuomo attended a campaign fundraiser on Long Island held by a prominent local attorney named Howard Fensterman. Back in 2007, Cuomo had decided not to take donations from Fensterman, who had been serving as his Long Island campaign finance chairman. The reason was a report in Newsday that Fensterman was trying to become partners with a health care businessman then under investigation by the AG’s office in a wide-ranging scheme involving home health care fraud.

Fast-forward to last fall and here is Fensterman again raising money for the campaign. The largest donor at the November 24 Cuomo event was the businessman in question, a major nursing home operator named Ben Landa, who contributed at least $6,000 in checks drawn on his various corporate entities. Three weeks after the fundraiser, Landa signed an agreement with Cuomo’s office to pay $3.7 million, without admitting wrongdoing, to settle the attorney general’s fraud probe.

Asked if the donations violated the AG’s pledge not to take money from those with matters pending before his office, aides acknowledged that the contributions had slipped through the cracks. “They are being returned,” said one. Fensterman’s own fundraising was OK, they said, since he had withdrawn his application to become partners with Landa.

The real-life lesson here, though, for a would-be governor is that contributions are often just the opening gambit. Back in the 1990s, Landa was even more generous with his checkbook to then governor Pataki, who responded by placing Landa on the state’s Public Health Council. There, Landa hit on the idea that mentally ill patients could be released to adult homes who would then keep them in locked wards. State health officials agreed and, as luck would have it, hundreds of such patients wound up as paying guests at several of Landa’s adult homes.

Those abysmal conditions later became part of the disturbing series that won a Pulitzer Prize for Clifford Levy of the New York Times. Levy’s stories about the Dickensian adult homes appeared just as the 2002 gubernatorial race was getting under way. Cuomo and McCall held dueling press conferences where they both accused the governor of failing the public.

“This is a tragedy,” Cuomo said then. “This is a fundamental governmental failure.” The kind of thing he may soon get his chance to fix.

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