Andrew Cuomo is Ready For His Close-Up

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Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has been on the public stage almost his entire life. His first major political assignment was behind the scenes 30 years ago, working for his father Governor Mario Cuomo. Then there was the stint in Washington as President Clinton's Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. In 2002, Cuomo's bid for the governorship fizzled. But now, as the Democratic nominee for governor, he appears to be the front runner. Andrew Cuomo has learned how to control his public image.

Cuomo's first elective office has catapulted him to national prominence. As attorney general, he has brought scores of cases and recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for New York taxpayers. And like his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has kept the heat on Wall Street. He took on the self-dealing student loan industry and the widespread 'pay-to-play' corruption in the nation's public pension systems.

Throughout it all, he has retained an almost air-tight grip on how the media portrays his efforts. And yet, there are very rare, unguarded moments in public that reveal a self-effacing person at ease with his role as the father of three daughters.

"This is Michalia, she has been at the Convention," volunteered Cuomo to reporters before a Q-and-A got underway.

"She's been all over the state . We just got back from an RV trip. She has been all over the North Country, Sarinac, the Mid-Hudson."

I ask Michalla about her Dad's RV driving skills. "It was fun. Yeah -- it was a little shaky with the curves," she volunteers.

"There was where the curb jumped in front of the RV. That was frightening in one moment," recalls Cuomo.

Cuomo does not like surprises. Working for his father, surviving in Bill Clinton's Washington and watching the implosion of Governor Spitzer, he knows it is essential to protect your privacy, to stay on message and to control how and where that message is delivered. He is disciplined. 

Cuomo picks his platforms prudently. "Live, from the state capital with Fred Dicker here on Talk 1300," blasts the commercial radio announcer.

Fred Dicker is a columnist for The New York Post with an influential radio show that has given Cuomo an important platform.

Dicker strokes his guest. "This is the way Andrew Cuomo opens his very interesting op-ed piece, or opinion piece that is posted now on the Huffington Post," says Dicker as he switches to reading Cuomo verbatim. "'More than a decade after that New York State's government's dysfunction has taken its toll on all of us.'" Then he interjects "Boy, I'd say."

The admiration is mutual. "Top of the morning to you Fred. Sorry for the cellphone," says Cuomo.

In this appearance on Dicker's show, Cuomo taps into the public frustration with Albany. "We have elected governors and nothing has changed." And with Dicker cheering him on, Cuomo describes in expansive terms the people's crusade he says will break the Albany cycle of failed leadership. "If you get the people with you, the politicians will follow, that is number one," says Cuomo.

While other reporters envy Dicker's access, they never miss a broadcast. Access for the rest of the press corps reporting on the Attorney General is often through the disembodied official conference call. 

On one call with reporters, Cuomo spoke with a prosecutor's zeal about his case against Bronx senator Pedro Espada. 

"First, non-profit means just that," declares Cuomo. Cuomo alleged Espada bilked Soundview Health Care System, the non-profit the state senator had founded.

"Not-for-profit means just that, not-for-profit, not for personal gain, not for looting. Not-for-profits are publicly subsidized entities." Thanks to technology, in this forum there is no pushing and shoving. It's all very controlled.

The call's robo-minder keeps the fourth estate in cue. "At this time I would like to remind everyone to ask a question, press 'star number one' on your telephone key pad."

It's like waiting to speak with the Wizard of Oz.

No doubt, in-person question and answer sessions with reporters are frought with risks. Take this exchange with radio reporter Emma Jacobs of WSKG.

"You have said you have wanted to end LLC contributions and that they create a lot of cynicism about the process and I am wondering why you are still taking them?," Jacobs asked Cuomo. 

Cuomo responded "I want to reform the campaign finance system. To reform the campaign finance system I have to get elected. To get elected I have to raise money so I can actually be in the position to make the reforms."

Quickly an aide jumps in and cuts off the session.

"Thanks, everybody." 

After Cuomo's circuitous answer he's whisked away by his handlers. 

And high profile campaign events are also risky. Spontaneous utterances can spread over the Internet in seconds -- only to have to be finessed and walked back later, like at the event held to announce Mayor Bloomberg's endorsement of Cuomo.

On the steps of City Hall, right after a poll showed Republican Carl Paladino in striking range, Mayor Bloomberg came to the rescue and changed the arc of the day.

"The partisan politics of the past can't be the wave of the future. Andrew, you are going to be a great Governor," extolled Bloomberg.

Cuomo was effussive. "Thank you, thank you very much. Well, this is a very big day for me. Politically this is a very big boost for my campaign. And personally it is a big day for me. I have tremendous respect for the Mayor."

Cuomo is concise and calculating. Extra words are seen by him as potential extra problems. When asked about his view on Mayor Bloomberg's controversial congestion pricing, Cuomo executes carefully.

"Congesting pricing, I was not directly involved with," Cuomo says. "I would be open to discussion of the goals that congesting pricing was trying to reach."

No stand, no opposition. Just a future chat about goals. And then, out of nowhere a follow-up question from a reporter about his support of the Mayor.

"Do I support the Mayor? 100 percent, as i said in my opening statement. Have I voted for the Mayor? Yes."

That was a very rare occurrence. Cuomo, publicly wrong. As a resident of Westchester County he couldn't have voted for Mayor Bloomberg.

Most polls show Cuomo with a substantial double-digit lead in the gubernatorial race. His trajectory from behind-the-scenes political enforcer to federal cabinet officer to New York's top lawyer has not been a straight shot. It's had major ups and downs. But no PR makeover can conceal his essence. Here he is summing up his sentiments on July 4 on Staten Island:

"It's a great day," declares Cuomo. "It's a great parade to be out here today and it is a great day to remember who we are and where we come from going down Victory Boulevard. We are fighters. That's who we are as New Yorkers, that is who we are as Americans."

He may live in Westchester now and once have been married to a Kennedy, but he still sounds like a tough guy from Queens.