The first time I ever heard Andrew Cuomo on the phone, I thought it was his old man calling. Andrew sounded shockingly like Mario Cuomo, one of the great orators of our time. Like a kid playing dress-up in his father’s closet, however, it was quickly obvious that the son didn’t fill out the clothes. Although I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, Andrew was about to announce his first run for Governor—in 2002.
Yet, even after a term in Washington as Housing Secretary in the Clinton Administration, he still sounded callow and smug like he did when he served his father as a $1 aide in Albany. It was as if he was a prince—which, of course, he was—and all he had to do was show up to claim his father’s lost crown. But that was then, as they say, and now is now. And while Andrew will never have Mario’s searching intellect, the son has grown enormously since that embarrassing excuse for a political campaign that was followed by the public break-up of a marriage supposedly made in Camelot. Andrew showed personal and political toughness in 2006 winning election as Attorney General after many people, including me, proclaimed his career was kaput. And then he served with distinction. Andrew brought his office more aggressively than any of his storied predecessors into the local arena, challenging wasteful spending and corruption at the village and school district level. It is his resume, not his family resemblances, that have pushed his approval ratings well above the anti-incumbent roil. Barring an almost unimaginable turn of events, Andrew will be the next Governor of New York. And he has a chance to succeed where his father failed—to change Albany’s culture of dysfunction. Recently, Andrew agreed to answer questions from me for Long Island Pulse readers.
Candidates for public office have a style of campaigning. If they’re elected and stay in office long enough, these men and women develop a style of governing that’s a blend of the personal, political and professional. In this context, who is Andrew Cuomo? What is his philosophy of governing? And what has most forcefully shaped it?
Andrew Cuomo: My philosophy about governing is simple: The job of Governor is not about me…I want to be the candidate—and the Governor—of the people. I achieved this goal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) where I brought competent management to a $30 billion bureaucratic mess and I achieved this goal as Attorney General, exposing abuse, waste and corruption and getting results. I know that I can bring that same focus, determination and expertise to the Governor’s office on behalf of all New Yorkers.
As Attorney General, Bobby Abrams saw himself as a champion of the consumer and an activist for the environment. Eliot Spitzer played Sheriff of Wall Street. You seem to have embraced the roles of your Democratic predecessors but expanded on them aggressively in significant ways.
AC: I am proud of the work we have done in particular to expose corruption within the student loan, mortgage and health care industries. Our work has translated into real results for real people—more than $3 million refunded to New York’s students who rely on loans to pay for college and more accurate and transparent doctor ratings by health insurers. I am also deeply proud of our expansion of the Civil Rights Bureau within the Attorney General’s office and the launch of Project Sunlight—a website designed to maintain government accountability and uphold public integrity.
What does the job you’ve done as AG tell us about the job you’d do as Governor? What does it tell us about how you’ve changed or grown, certainly from your early days in Albany when you were a $1 a year aide to your dad?
AC: My work as Attorney General and my exposure to state government during my days as an aide to my father have instilled in me a deep…desire to make government work for all New Yorkers. As Attorney General, I established key priorities and stood up for the people no matter how difficult the fight. As Governor, I plan to do the same. I am running my campaign—and I will run the Governor’s office—the way I have run my office for the past three years: Working directly for the people. We must reorganize our government, reform its ethics and restructure its finances.
Do you favor a property tax cap to help Long Islanders and others cope with one of the most oppressive burdens in the country? And are you concerned about unintended consequences that would hurt the quality of education, particularly in poor districts?
AC: Tough and decisive measures are needed to address our fiscal crisis. I strongly support…the implementation of a local property tax cap to apply to all school districts and local governments, set at the lower of the inflation rate or two percent. While others have proposed a cap on just school property taxes, the fact is that all local property taxes are going up at a rate much faster than inflation. My plan would work as follows: Any property tax levy increasing above the inflation rate would be prohibited, unless endorsed both by the local governing board and by a 60 percent majority vote. For schools, this would be part of their regular budget voting process. Only limited exceptions would be allowed for the cap, such as one-time needs for legal settlements or extraordinary capital expenditures. Counties would also be covered, but with appropriate exceptions for state mandated social service programs that are not capped and which represent a major share of their budgets. All local governments would be covered.
One of the most unusual uses of your power and influence as AG has been to examine Long Island’s oft-lamented system of small, overlapping government entities and to promote legislation aimed at making it easier to consolidate them. What are some of the solutions?
AC: The simple truth is that New York’s state and local governments have become too big, too expensive and too ineffective. To restructure and rightsize the current bureaucratic tangle at the state level, my administration would establish a gubernatorial commission, called the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission (SAGE) to conduct a comprehensive review of every aspect of State government. The SAGE commission will be charged with reducing the number of agencies, authorities, commissions and the like by 20 percent in the interest of saving taxpayers’ money, increasing accountability and improving the delivery of government services.
At the local level, there currently exists overlap and duplication resulting in high taxes, inefficiency and waste. In fact, there are more than 10,500 local government entities imposing taxes and fees across New York State. New York has the nation’s highest local taxes with our local tax burden over 79 percent higher than the national average. That is why, this past year, I authored a law that was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature entitled the Government Reorganization and Citizens Empowerment Act. This Act helps restructure our antiquated system of local government and as a result will reduce the tax burden and uncover greater efficiencies. As Governor, my administration would take the following additional actions to ensure that such an Act is utilized: Make available Citizens Re-Org Empowerment Grants to cover all or part of the costs of merger studies; create the Citizens Empowerment Tax Credit program mandating that a portion of the increased Aid and Incentives to Municipalities funding be given directly to taxpayers for immediate tax relief; create a Local Reorganization Knowledge Network to help local communities use the new Empowerment Law; work to eliminate legal barriers prohibiting certain local government entities from undertaking key government functions and standardize elections for local governments and school districts.
Does the fact that LI’s 124 school districts are overseen by elected board members who often lack basic skills in management and finance leave them especially vulnerable to waste and fraud—such as the theft of millions by officials in Roslyn?
AC: As Attorney General, I investigated and vigorously rooted out waste, fraud and abuse—especially on Long Island. For instance, my office investigated and uncovered fraudulent employment arrangements in which lawyers improperly placed on school district payrolls were able to collect significant pension benefits normally reserved for public servants. As a result I authored a law—the Government Accountability and Fraud Stop Act—to make sure it doesn’t happen again. However, public service is the foundation of our democracy and many who choose to run for school boards often do it to serve their kids and community. Like any elected position—from mayor to judge—it is important to elect quality people. I don’t think the system of governing schools is the problem, per se, and laws…will go a long way in stopping waste, fraud and abuse in the system.
Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue on LI, as it is in many communities. Whatever their status, many of the low wage workers, especially Latinos who often speak little or no English, are victimized by employers who sometimes withhold wages or don’t pay taxes themselves. Tell us how you’ve approached the immigration issue, especially on LI.
AC: My office is receiving more and more complaints regarding immigration issues. We’re hearing about hundreds of very trusting people who are trying to do the right thing and end up getting scammed. They pay a lot of money in exchange for promises of legal help dealing with green cards, visas and citizenship. In reality, those promises are false: The lawyers are often fake and their cases are not being handled correctly. We have shut down numerous companies, including several on Long Island that bilked people out of thousands of dollars. We have also served more than 100 subpoenas resulting in court judgments awarding millions of dollars to victims. More importantly, my office is joining forces with some of the best immigration lawyers in the state to work pro bono to help some of the folks victimized by these schemes.
Why shouldn’t Long Islanders vote for a Long Islander, such as Rick Lazio?
AC: We need to get the state’s economy running again and to do that we need to make the government function again. That means capitalizing on Long Island’s innovation economy, natural resources and entrepreneurial endeavors while simultaneously working to bring businesses back to our upstate communities that have for too long suffered. It means reining in local property taxes and consolidating local governments in the suburbs while embracing our agricultural industries.
This election—and my campaign—is not about upstate versus downstate, Long Island versus Westchester. It is about all New Yorkers who share a common desire to build a better life for their children. I share those desires and want to live in a state that works for my own three daughters the way it worked for me when I grew up. I want to leave my children and all of our children with a home that is fairer, stronger and safer.
1957 Andrew Mark Cuomo is born the second child of a former professional baseball player turned lawyer and community activist, Mario Cuomo, and Matilda Raffa Cuomo, in the middle class neighborhood of Hollis, Queens.
1977 As a teenager, Andrew earns his political spurs—and first scars—managing Mario Cuomo’s losing campaign for New York City Mayor against Ed Koch. To this day, many political insiders believe that Andrew masterminded the infamous flier, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Andrew vigorously denies the charge.
1979 Andrew earns his BA at Fordham University in the Bronx. He would earn his law degree five years later from Albany Law School.
1982 Andrew manages Mario’s upset gubernatorial primary victory over Mayor Koch.
1983 After Mario beats Republican Lew Lehrman in the general election, Andrew becomes a $1 a year aide to his dad, a tenure noted for a ferocious loyalty to his father and retribution for political enemies.
1984 Beginning a public service career apart from his father, Andrew becomes an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan under Robert Morgenthau.
1986 Andrew creats a new paradigm for housing the homeless by establishing Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged. HELP becomes the nation’s largest private provider of housing services.
1990 Andrew joins two powerful houses of America’s Democratic Establishment when he marries Kerry Kennedy, the seventh child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
1993 Andrew goes to Washington to join the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of Housing. He soon tangles with a young Congressman from Long Island named Rick Lazio.
1997 After Henry Cisneros resigns in controversy, Bill Clinton appoints Andrew Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
2001 Andrew takes a position at a New York law firm, as political observers see him preparing to run for Governor.
2002 Following a poorly organized and executed primary campaign against Carl McCall, who was vying to be the first black Governor, Andrew drops out just before the election. His performance and his perceived alienation of black voters leave many believing his political career is over.
2003 Andrew separates from Kerry in a tabloid feast of charges and rumors.
2005 Andrew’s life begins cooking again, so to speak, as he meets Food Network host Sandra Lee. She is credited by friends of Andrew as having helped refocus his life and help him get past the ugly public divorce with Kerry.
2006 Andrew completes a political revival and is elected New York Attorney General to succeed Eliot Spitzer.
2007 Andrew continues to maintain the national profile of his predecessor’s as AG, with innovative investigations into internet and college loan abuses, but also focuses on local government waste and fraud in a way no prior AG ever did.
2010 In finally revealing the worst kept secret in Albany, Andrew formally announces his candidacy for Governor on May 22.
2016 Andrew announces for…