Just as Spitzer did 4 years ago, a driven attorney general, Cuomo, tries to take NY

By Michael Gormley, AP
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

As Spitzer did a cycle ago, Cuomo tries to take NY

ALBANY, N.Y. — A hard-charging Democratic attorney general who whipped Wall Street and corporate boardrooms to become the most popular politician in New York is running for governor on a platform to clean up and revive the Empire State.


That description of Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 campaign was also true four years ago, when Eliot Spitzer ran for the state’s top seat and won, only to resign in disgrace after 14 months. But New York voters still sorely want a champion, and many hope to find it this time in Cuomo.

“They were both well-regarded,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll, which reported Monday that Cuomo had about a 66 percent to 23 percent lead over each of his three Republican challengers. “Eliot Spitzer changed the office, made it a more powerful office, and Andrew Cuomo continued that and moved the priorities more to what affected everyday voters.”

Cuomo’s first big case, busting conflicts of interest in the college loan industry, was a gift from Spitzer who had subpoenaed some major lenders in his closing weeks as attorney general. It was the beginning of big national headlines for Cuomo, following Spitzer’s trail of publicity from an equally press-conscious attorney general’s office.

Jerome Smith, a 51-year-old unemployed manufacturing worker, is skeptical that anyone can “reform this crazy state.”

“They become part of the status quo,” Smith said after visiting a library in Rochester. “The ability to dismantle that system and reform it is what he’s hanging his hat on now. Let’s see if he’ll do it!”

The similarities shared by Cuomo and Spitzer, from the charisma to past bosses to their daughters, are almost eerie.

Intense and impatient, Spitzer and Cuomo carefully staged well-financed campaigns that talked not just of winning, but of winning with a historic mandate for “change.” Each waved off the little criticisms — of their egos or lives spent under a powerful father — by noting they are humbled and wiser for their rare losses.

Spitzer’s loss was his first attorney general race in 1994; Cuomo’s was in 2002 for governor, which he was forced from by lack of support before the primary.

Both use the soaring rhetoric of elite educations, while emphasizing street smarts and toughness they attribute to growing up in the outer boroughs of New York City and working in the famed Manhattan district attorney’s office. Brilliant law school students, both try to temper their hard edges with references to the school-age daughters who drove them to create a better future.

Both see public service not as a job, but a quest.

Those who have known each for decades say their differences can be subtle: Spitzer’s talent is in policy, Cuomo’s in politics; Cuomo is steeped in decades as a political operative, Spitzer as a prosecutor; both make enemies, but Cuomo chooses his more carefully.

The Democrats both had wildly successful fathers. Manhattan developer Bernard Spitzer rose from a childhood in a cold-water flat. Cuomo is the son of Democratic icon Mario Cuomo, himself a former New York governor, and learned at the foot of his old man, playing hardball for Mario.

“He’s just like Mario,” the old line went regarding Andrew, “but without the charm.”

Yet polls and political supporters seem to accept the Cuomo portrayal as an outsider — potentially a critical position in the anti-incumbent wave evidenced by the outcome of primary elections in several states last week.

Rene Rodriguez, a laid-off Buffalo machinist, said voter support for Cuomo has more to do with a pack mentality than any real confidence, because Cuomo has gotten so much media attention. He wants the next governor to be from out of state.

“They see him going after Wall Street and think, ‘Oh, he must be a good guy,’” he said. “We need a fresh start, new thinking.”

As with Spitzer, there is immediate talk of a presidential run by Cuomo, something over which his father famously fretted before deciding against it.

But the question for both has been whether the skill set of a hard-edged prosecutor without having to balance a budget or persuade a Legislature will work as governor. For Spitzer, he nailed early victories on long-stalled issues — reform to a less expensive worker compensation program, ethics reform. But the Legislature struck back at him soon after.

Spitzer forced more ideas the Legislature found politically unpalatable, including issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in a move that made sense to some national security experts but was lunacy to the public. It took nearly a year before Spitzer started to regain his lost momentum and historic mandate. That ended when he was ensnared in a prostitution investigation, then quickly resigned.

Cuomo has been the secretary in charge of housing and urban development in the Clinton White House; before that he worked for a law firm, and before that was a top adviser and campaign commando for his father. Cuomo as attorney general has gained legislative support for law-and-order bills, as did Spitzer, but he has never had to wrestle the leaders for something they hold more dear — such as the state budget.

“Andrew has demonstrated … that he has grown in so many significant ways,” said Robert Abrams, the widely respected former attorney general who served on Spitzer’s transition team for governor. “Cuomo also has the benefit of learning the experiences of Eliot Spitzer, and I think he can get commitments from legislators.”

That, Abrams said, is critical as legislatures nationwide have gained more power to challenge governors.

It remains an open question whether Cuomo, at 52, is no longer the candidate who ended his 2002 governor’s bid after he ridiculed then-Gov. George Pataki as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s coat holder after Sept. 11 and who was the “Prince of Darkness” enforcer for his father.

But, as with Spitzer, it’s one rarely talked about as the juggernaut of a campaign gains steam.

AP writers Ben Dobbin in Rochester, N.Y., and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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