Michael Shnayerson’s unauthorized biography of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, The Contender, is both engrossing and devastating. It is definitely not to be confused with Cuomo’s own memoir, which could set a record for fewest sales by a possible candidate for the Presidency.
Cuomo may well be the most fascinating personality on the national political landscape. His father Mario, a three-term Governor of New York, was often portrayed as the “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his flirtations with running for the Presidency. I am not conversant enough with my Shakespeare to know which character Andrew resembles, but I know there must be one.
Although he was the son of a long-serving Governor, Andrew was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in working class Queens, and worked his way through school by driving a AAA emergency truck at night. He is a skilled automobile mechanic. When working on his father’s campaigns, he did not hesitate to shimmy up utility poles to staple a Cuomo election poster. He is also rumored to not being averse to removing ones of an opponent.
Of course his father did not hinder his getting high level government positions with the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. Even so, Cuomo had plenty of night-time meetings when he went out to neighborhoods to sell a controversial development project. He got a boost from his father, but he also paid his dues.
It is the force of the younger son’s personality, for better or worse, that got him where he is today. He has had a signature achievement – getting marriage equality passed through a recalcitrant New York legislature. While that is notable, describing it as an act of courage misses the point that he had little to risk by pushing it. Indeed, it is legislators from conservative districts who voted their conscience, many of whom were defeated for reelection, who can be cited for taking a courageous position.
The Governor may be inclined to point to the passage of five consecutive on-time budgets as demonstrating his ending the traditional dysfunction that has characterized New York politics on the state level. First of all, getting a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year does not warrant accolades – it is a basic of your job. It might be an easier sell on ending the dysfunction, however, if one of your partners in the first four did not have to miss the fifth following his federal indictment, causing him to resign as Speaker of the Assembly.
It was the Governor’s push for a new gun control law – the SAFE Act – following the killings in Newtown that are more emblematic of his style of leadership. Rather than working with the differing interest groups and having an open debate to build public support, Cuomo rammed through his version of an ideal law. Because he failed to listen to others, the law limited the size of magazines to seven bullets instead of the ten permitted under federal law. Since seven-bullet magazines are not manufactured, it made little sense. But two important aspects were at play. First, it was tougher than the federal law, even if it was foolish. Perhaps just as important, however, Shnayerson speculates that the Governor’s real motivation was to beat President Obama to the punch on his proposed federal legislation.
That ignoring of good advice and getting the better of other politicians are traits the book amply demonstrates. Then there are the constant manipulations and deceptions that seem to be Cuomo’s second nature. A close adviser and supporter of both Cuomos was quoted: “Andrew is like a younger brother to me, but if there’s ever a moment when he can take political advantage, he’ll cut someone off at the knees, me or anyone else.”
The Governor does not appear to get along with any other political leaders, with the possible and puzzling exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie, of course, poses no threat to Cuomo in New York, but Cuomo’s idea of a “threat” is someone else who might get credit for a good idea or accomplishment. (Shnayerson does raise the possibility that Christie’s “Bridgegate scandal” may have been initiated by one of Cuomo’s appointees to the Port Authority that runs the George Washington Bridge.)
Cuomo is a well-known micro-manager. Shnayerson’s book also is replete with examples of the Governor being petty, vindictive, deceptive and untrustworthy – all to advance the career of one Andrew Cuomo. While he is unquestionably a skilled political tactician and strategist, he also comes across as an arrogant jerk. This is not someone who is going to go far if he gets a chance to run for a national office.