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The political maturation of Andrew Cuomo

The political evolution of Andrew Cuomo is the topic of an interesting read in the current issue of New York magazine.

Entitled "The Political Art of Anger Management," the piece portrays the attorney general and prospective gubernatorial candidate as a work in progress.

CuomosFor most of his life, Cuomo had known only one speed: all-out attack mode. But 35 years in politics—from seventies street fights against Ed Koch to being his father’s right hand in Albany to serving as Cabinet secretary in the Clinton White House—had shown him that he had better learn to see around the corner, around the next three corners.

The mistakes that nearly ended his political career came when he didn’t look far enough ahead or thought he could simply put his head down and bull his way through. The tendency had earned him a reputation as one of the darkest characters in New York politics—vindictive, arrogant, a bully with a nasty temper. Now, at 51, he’d found an appropriate target for his anger. But he’d finally learned when to back off.

Wall Street’s collapse has created a bonanza of juicy investigative opportunities for Cuomo, putting him on the national stage and giving him the opening to recast himself as a populist hero. Cuomo has craftily walked a fine line, knowing when to push and how hard, injecting himself into huge issues while staying mostly out of camera range...

While Cuomo has been masterfully manipulating public sentiment, his erstwhile political rivals have been taking themselves out of the equation—Eliot Spitzer by sleeping his way out of the governor’s office, and David Paterson by racking up a string of unforced errors. Circumstances have conspired to set up Cuomo perfectly for a gubernatorial run in 2010. But his newfound political acumen will be tested over the next year.

Last week, the pension-fund investigation reached higher up the rungs of political power, touching the Republican-connected Carlyle Group and Steven Rattner, the New York investor, Democratic fund-raiser, and Obama-administration car czar. Will Cuomo keep pushing the probe without fear or favor? Can he nudge Paterson aside without appearing to push too hard? Can he continue to ride the populist wave without running aground?

“The Andrew Cuomo I first met 30 years ago would not be able to,” a veteran political consultant says. “The Andrew Cuomo of 2009 is absolutely capable of doing it."

Not that Cuomo doesn't invite continued skepticism.

He used to think he could control everything, and he found out he can’t control much of anything. He’s become less obsessive.”

And more disciplined. Historically not one to shy away from the spotlight, Cuomo has lately allowed the attention to come to him. What’s particularly striking about his rise to national prominence is that it’s happened during a period in which he has turned down almost all interview requests, speaking to reporters primarily through conference calls.

His critics are not convinced that he’s a new man.

“Are you kidding me?” scoffs an elected official who has known Cuomo a long time. “Whatever virtues and defects Andrew has have only been concentrated by age ... ”

If Cuomo’s tenure at HUD produced murky results, it’s even less clear what he’s accomplished in his battles with Wall Street. His record draws ridicule from veterans of Spitzer’s pugilistic years.

“He’s been very, very weak on settlements,” a former prosecutor says. “In many cases he’ll find an issue and do a quick resolution that involves new industry standards or best practices and a smallish fine, and he’ll move on. As a lawyer and a regulator, he’s a lightweight.”

Less partisan observers, however, give Cuomo higher marks.

“He was the first person to get a real settlement in the auction-rate-securities case,” says John Coffee, a Columbia Law School professor and expert in securities law. Cuomo accused banks of misleading investors about the safety of these bonds. “The SEC may have extended the settlement, but it wouldn’t have happened without Cuomo being there first.”

How will it play out? Good question.

He seems to be at the top of his game—actually, multiple games.

He’s moving his political rival aside while feigning uninterest in the governor’s job, and positioning himself as a champion of the taxpaying masses as he lines up campaign money from business titans. He has been very good, but he’s also been very lucky. It’s a combination that state government hasn’t seen in a very long time.

But Andrew Cuomo knows better than anyone how quickly the game can change.

Stay tuned.

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Politics | State government
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