How Cuomo found a shortcut to political redemption

FILE - New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo

FILE - New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo gives a press conference about recalled Toyota cars February 24, 2010 in New York City. It was announced in an online video that he will run for governor. (Credit: Getty Images)

AndrewCuomo's path to political redemption turned out to be something of a shortcut.

After his 2002 campaign for governor failed spectacularly - in part because of his off-the-cuff speaking style - many political observers wrote him off. That was followed by the ugly public collapse of his 13-year marriage to Kerry Kennedy, mother of his three daughters.

But four years later Cuomo emerged from a crowded field to become state attorney general, a position in which he has won mostly high praise for wide-ranging efforts to reform Wall Street, the student-loan industry and Albany. His personal life has settled down, with Cuomo in an apparently stable relationship with Food Network host Sandra Lee since 2005.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation and Gov. David A. Paterson's deep unpopularity unexpectedly cleared the way for Cuomo to take another shot at both the governor's office and the culmination of a political dynasty that began nearly three decades ago with his father, Mario. Andrew Cuomo officially announced his candidacy Saturday afternoon outside the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, before the Democratic state convention that begins Tuesday.

"He is a different person politically today because he's had the experience of being elected to statewide office, finding the matters that citizens care about and doing something about them," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant who worked for Cuomo's Democratic challenger in the 2002 race. "He had a little bit of luck in that Eliot Spitzer was not a good governor, never mind the prostitute, and David Paterson was not effective at all - he became the alternative to the chaos because he had done his job as attorney general well."

Cuomo, 52, was born in Queens, the second child of Mario and Matilda Cuomo. Even before graduating from college, he was a trusted, and in some circles, infamous, aide to his father - first in the elder Cuomo's failed campaign for New York City mayor and then in his successful, long-shot run for governor.

Relationship with father

In a relationship that is now etched into political lore, Andrew served as his father's enforcer, strong-arming allies and opponents, and he bore the brunt of his temper when things went wrong. The two were extremely close, at one point sharing an apartment in Albany.

"He spent a lot of time in Albany with his father when his father was governor," said Stanley Klein, a political-science professor at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and a Republican committeeman. "I think it helps him - being up close, you're not shocked by some of the idiocy that comes to you as you sit behind the governor's desk."

In 1993, Andrew Cuomo was named to Bill Clinton's presidential transition team and became a deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Three years later Clinton tapped him to head the agency. Assessments of his tenure are mixed: While he was secretary, HUD was removed from the General Accounting Office's list of "high risk" agencies. But it also endured a damaging scandal and critics have linked Cuomo, who encouraged home ownership for moderate or lower-income families, to the subprime mortgage crisis.

When Cuomo returned to New York from Washington, seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. George Pataki - the Republican who had defeated his father in 1996 - his campaign foundered. His comment that Pataki did little after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but hold Mayor Rudy Giuliani's coat outraged both Republicans and Democrats.

Angered some black leaders

He also angered many state African-American leaders, who hoped to see his fellow Democrat, H. Carl McCall, make history as the state's first black governor. Cuomo withdrew from the race before the primary, but McCall lost to Pataki.

"The older you get, the wiser you get," Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College's School of Public Affairs, said of Cuomo's 2002 missteps. "It was the wrong race to run against Carl McCall. He was running in a race where it was history in the making and he bucked that."

Despite the embarrassing defeat, Cuomo surged back four years later to succeed Spitzer as attorney general. Though he once said he did not plan to fully reprise Spitzer's role as the "Sheriff of Wall Street," at times he has done just that, striking at the financial industry for alleged misdeeds and exorbitant bonuses.

Spitzer is unimpressed, saying recently that Cuomo had sought headlines rather than lasting changes in how Wall Street operates. Cuomo had incurred Spitzer's wrath for dropping a signature lawsuit that sought repayment of the lavish salary of former New York Stock Exchange chief Richard Grasso.

Lead role in investigations

Cuomo also has taken a lead role in investigating various scandals in the beleaguered Paterson administration - until recently, when he referred a probe to former state Chief Judge Judith Kaye, citing possible conflicts of interest.

"In a sense he [as attorney general] has out-Spitzered Spitzer, in that his interests have been much broader, and deeper, than Spitzer's," Muzzio said. "He's batting close to a thousand."

Observers agree that Cuomo could draw on both his Albany experience, as his father's aide, and his executive background, at HUD and as attorney general. But it remains unclear what combination would emerge should he win the race.

"To a certain extent, you never know until the person gets into the office," Muzzio said. "In fact, I would argue that the person himself doesn't know until they get into the office, because they don't fully understand the office."

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