Miner recalls many Mario Cuomo aides referring to Andrew privately as “the prince of darkness,” a spectral presence in the administration even after he moved to Washington. Now the rebranded, post-2002 Cuomo was trying something different: humility, or at least the appearance of it. One favorite bit of shtick in those wilderness years, according to a 2015 biography by Michael Shnayerson, had Cuomo opening phone calls with: “Hi there, this is Andrew Cuomo. C-U-O-M-O.”
When Cuomo announced a run for attorney general in 2006, allies gave interviews gushing about his bridled ego and heightened listening skills. Cuomo curbed his own freewheeling press strategy — no more cigar interviews in the park — and controlled his daily political surroundings to the point of obsession. Sometimes, according to an aide who worked on the campaign, he refused to enter an event venue until he had been briefed on such details as the room temperature and the length of the walk to the microphone. (The spokesman denied this.)
The transformation had its limits. Some who worked on that campaign detected an essential shallowness that could lurch privately into conspicuous indecency. Another aide said that Cuomo once accused him of failing to head off aggressive reporting from a female journalist for personal reasons, asking, “You banging her?” He could also bridle at the indignity of voter courtship, growing especially irritated about an event celebrating Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday when the faithful gather outdoors beneath temporary shelters of branches and greenery. “These people and their fucking tree houses,” Cuomo vented to his team, according to a person who witnessed it and another who was briefed on his comments at the time. (The spokesman denied both incidents, adding: “His two sisters married Jewish men, and he has the highest respect for Jewish traditions.”)
Cuomo’s election as attorney general — over the Republican nominee, Jeanine Pirro, the future Trump-defending Fox News personality — at last conferred upon him a power commensurate to his political appetites. One former associate recalled Cuomo’s describing an advantage of the job after taking office: When visitors sat for investigative interviews, Cuomo enthused, he could make them nervous with physicality alone, leaning forward in his chair as they studied his every twitch. “I loom over that table,” Cuomo said, according to the associate. “In their minds, I’m Sonny Corleone” — the violently impulsive eldest son in “The Godfather” — “and I’m capable of anything.” (The spokesman wrote that Cuomo “never uses ‘Godfather’ references,” adding, “This is an anti-Italian, bigoted, false, defamatory statement.”)
Cuomo’s prime antagonist in Albany happened to be another rampaging alpha. And Eliot Spitzer, the new governor known as the “sheriff of Wall Street” when he had Cuomo’s job, was not going to be browbeaten by anyone. In any capital, the two offices can come into natural conflict; no governor wants an attorney general nosing around the executive chamber, and few attorneys general have failed to consider how nicely a promotion might suit them.
But these two made a particularly combustible pair. Spitzer, a self-described “steamroller,” pledged an ethical reckoning in a capital long tarnished by official misconduct. Cuomo was disinclined to cede that turf, making public corruption a signature focus of his new post. The governor’s office earned his attention early. Less than a year into Spitzer’s term, Cuomo issued a damaging report accusing Spitzer aides of using the state police to acquire information about a rival, Joseph L. Bruno, the State Senate majority leader. A scrambling of reputations seemed afoot. “If anyone thought six months ago which one would be incompetent, they thought Cuomo would be the jerk and Spitzer would be the cool guy,” Henry J. Stern, a longtime New York City parks commissioner and good-government advocate, said at the time. “But that appears not to be the case.”
As it happened, Spitzer’s ultimate downfall in 2008, in a prostitution scandal, required no assistance from the attorney general. And as the suddenly elevated lieutenant governor, David Paterson, flailed through the rest of the term, Cuomo emerged as a de facto governor in waiting. Paterson, whose early fund-raising had been dwarfed by Cuomo’s, was discouraged from pursuing a full term by Barack Obama; the White House feared that Paterson’s unpopularity could be a drag on down-ballot New York Democrats.