Andrew Cuomo’s Opportunity is Here: When Will He Endorse an A.G. Candidate?


Andrew Cuomo will show us in the next few days if he has the balls to be a change agent as governor.

His feud with Eliot Spitzer caught fire when Spitzer got stuck in neutral during Cuomo’s 2006 primary race for attorney general against Mark Green, refusing to endorse Cuomo when it mattered. Now Cuomo is doing the same himself. Anyone with a phone knows Cuomo sees Eric Schneiderman as a compromised and unqualified Albany insider sure to lose in November. But if Cuomo doesn’t endorse any of the four alternatives to Schneiderman before September 14, he may well wind up running with the state senator on both the Democratic and Working Families Party tickets. Running with “Special Interest Schneiderman,” and then possibly watching him take over an office that Cuomo reveres, may be the governor-to-be’s worst nightmare. Unless it’s Dan Donovan, a Bloomberg Republican who has expressed no appetite for continuing the office’s tradition of Wall Street cases, beating Schneiderman in November.

It’s not just the ghost of Spitzer that Cuomo should be heeding now. It’s his father’s flawed legacy. As many psychobabble pieces that have appeared about the many twists and turns of the Mario/Andrew axis over the decades, no one has really focused on the substantive lessons the second Cuomo should learn from the failings of the first. For 12 years, Mario Cuomo was ostensibly the leader of the state Democratic Party. He left it in shambles. It was the Cuomo party. Period.

The most powerful Republican in state government when Mario Cuomo lost in 1994 was Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino, who was so close to Cuomo that he tried to block the nomination of the Republican who eventually beat Cuomo, George Pataki, favoring instead a candidate who’d lost to Cuomo four years earlier by 33 points: Herb London. Cuomo had just approved the Marino-engineered, outrageously gerrymandered redistricting that Senate Democrats challenged in court, and routinely allowed Marino to use state aircraft to fly to his Long Island law firm the minute any session ended. The rhetorical giant from the Democratic National Convention of 1984 was so in bed with New York’s Republican U.S. Senator Al D’Amato that the other senator, Pat Moynihan, a Democrat, publicly charged that the two had a “nonaggression pact.” Cuomo sabotaged the Democrat who challenged D’Amato in 1992, Attorney General Bob Abrams. Soon thereafter, D’Amato actually walked young Andrew into the Senate when he was first nominated for a top HUD position.

Everything in the Mario reality show was a Metternich-like, balance-of-power dance with the star. He took no real chances on behalf of other Democrats, measuring any investments of his own political capital against the risk or benefit to his political future, even submarining Democratic mayor David Dinkins with comments about Crown Heights that proved to be untrue. The beneficiary of Cuomo’s false claims that Dinkins told him that black rioters had been granted “a day of grace” before police took tough action was Republican Rudy Giuliani, who beat Dinkins in 1993 and endorsed Cuomo a year later. Cuomo later admitted under oath in a civil suit that Dinkins had never said any such a thing.

Son Andrew has the tactical skills to be even better at this game than his father. Indeed, he was an influential voice in his dad’s ear when most of this happened. It obviously worked well enough to get papa three terms in the mansion. Andrew has to decide if that’s all he’s about. Or he can demonstrate now that he is willing to share his popularity with another Democrat and get up on the air in a TV commercial that asks Democrats to pick a quality replacement for him, taking a chance that his candidate will lose and he will be embarrassed. No possible pain, no gain.

Schneiderman’s surge is largely a byproduct of his Times endorsement, which was a shot across Cuomo’s bow. The opening graph credited Spitzer with going “after Wall Street fraud,” but cited Cuomo only for forcing reforms “on the corrupt student loan industry.” I don’t think there’s a knowledgeable observer of the AG’s office who would limit Cuomo’s success to student loans, a settlement he reached in his first few months almost four years ago. The editorial said how much the state needs a prosecutor “to attack the culture of corruption in Albany,” but made no mention, for example, of Cuomo’s extraordinary prosecution of state pension fund fraud, one of the most significant investigations of Albany corruption in my four decades on this beat. Since the Times‘ argument for Schneiderman was so disingenuous, it may well have been Cuomo’s enmity for him, and the Times‘ enmity for Cuomo, that explains, at least in part, its internally contradictory Schneiderman embrace. Cuomo is the only one with the clout to counter the Times.

The most lucid and consistent voice for Albany reform in the state, the Times‘ editorial page seems to have no idea how to achieve it. Though it agrees with 90 percent of Cuomo’s ethics plan, and indeed could have crafted it, the paper seems to want to surround the new governor with enemies, adding Schneiderman and his Senate ally John Sampson to Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and his comptroller sidekick Tom DiNapoli. Then no one at the Times will have to even bother rewriting their gridlock condemnations. They can just yank them out of storage.

The Times endorsement of Schneiderman was so strained that it praised him for sponsoring an ethics bill it prevailed on Governor Paterson to veto. “Nobody Is Off the Hook” was the headline on a Times editorial in January that prospectively condemned “all 212 state legislators” for their inaction on real ethics reform and said “the voters should turn them all out this fall” if they did nothing after the veto. They did nothing and now the paper wants the Senate leader on this very issue to become the ethics cop of Albany. And it chose Schneiderman, whose bio reveals almost no legal or law enforcement or managerial experience, over several quality alternatives.

If Cuomo remains coyly silent, he will let the Times parody stand as the pivotal pronouncement on a race so muddled that the polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of voters have no idea who they favor, even at this late a date. Leaders, especially ones who care about the future of the office they now occupy, have to do better than that. He can’t let a search for perfection stand in the way of a choice among the remaining four; he has surely endorsed candidates before that he reservations about, as has every voter when they pull the curtain.

If Cuomo is serious about changing the culture of Albany, he can demonstrate with an endorsement in this race that he can elect someone besides himself and that he intends to build alliances with those who share his reform agenda. It will also underline his commitment to cap the power of the public employee lobby that owns Schneiderman. Even Shelly, who managed to issue a press release last week praising everyone in the state but Cuomo for winning the $700 million in federal Race to the Top school funding, will take notice.

Otherwise, this Cuomo may wind up imitating his father, more loner than leader, more wary than willing, moving from enemy to ally, ally to enemy, in ever-shifting and perplexing flux, too big for party, too self-absorbed for partnership.

We will get an early glimpse of the governor the second Cuomo will become in a blink of the eye.