Magnet for Democrats : Speculation Focuses on Gov. Cuomo

Times Staff Writer

He is perhaps the best orator in the Democratic Party--a complex, charismatic, intuitive, gladiator-style trial lawyer who has become a potential presidential contender and the target of Reagan Administration rhetoric and wrath.

But hours before he was to deliver the speech that would establish his national political reputation--the keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention--Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was nervous. Things were going wrong.

During rehearsal, the TelePrompTer had failed in San Francisco’s cavernous Moscone Convention Center. Secret Service agents and party officials were balking at letting Cuomo dim the lights for the film that would introduce him and quiet the delegates.


‘I Spritzed My Hair’

In the governor’s Hyatt Regency hotel suite, Andrew Cuomo, the governor’s 28-year-old son and closest political confidant, warned his father that it was time to get ready.

“I went in, shaved so close an Indian couldn’t have done any better,” Cuomo recalled in a recent interview. “I did my hair strategically. I spritzed my hair over the bald spot. Matilda (Cuomo’s wife) had all this makeup. It was set out on the vanity. I took the white stuff, I took brown, I didn’t know what I was doing. I took everything she had. I kept putting it on. . . . And then I got dressed and then I came out.

“Andrew is very fastidious where I’m concerned. He pulled down my jacket, polished the shoes a little bit. . . . Then he said, ‘Now, we’re going to put on the makeup.’

“I said, ‘Jerk, I’ve got everything your mother’s got to offer on my face. He said, ‘You’re kidding.’ He put his thumb on my cheek and he took off what appeared to be an eighth of an inch of makeup. He said, ‘My God, we’re in trouble.’ ”

Hurried Backstage

The two Cuomos hurried to the backstage makeup room at the convention center. “They had two makeup guys,” Cuomo said. “I never saw people like this. They must have been 6-foot-3. Both of them had powder puffs that looked like catchers’ masks. Andrew sat me down and said to these two guys, ‘Hey, give this s.o.b. everything you’ve got.’ That’s Andrew.”

Andrew also persuaded the Secret Service and convention officials to darken the hall so the introductory film could be shown, then stood backstage to hear his father.


At first, Andrew said, he was anxious, but soon applause rolled through the hall in waves. Some of the governor’s aides stood with tears in their eyes. “It was a very exciting moment,” Andrew recalled.

Mario Mathew Cuomo, New York state’s 52nd governor, had arrived.

Today, 19 months later, Cuomo is so popular in New York state that embarrassed Republicans, even with White House support, have been unable to find a candidate to oppose his reelection bid in November. And since December, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy called him to say he was about to announce he would not run for President in 1988, Cuomo has been the focus of increasing national attention.

He is one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful magnets for money, with a name that national fund raisers say brings in more dollars on solicitation letters than the signatures of Kennedy or Walter F. Mondale, the 1984 presidential nominee. Last year, Cuomo organized successful opposition to President Reagan’s effort in the House to end federal income tax deductions for state and local taxes.

In New York state, polls show the powerfully built, dark-haired former minor league center fielder has job approval ratings of more than 70%.

Too Early to Decide

Cuomo’s closest advisers believe it is too early for him to decide about running for the presidency in 1988. The governor, however, comes right to the point:

“I don’t want to be coy about this, let’s be perfectly open about it,” he told The Times. “What is the alternative position? That I will never think about the presidency? It’s not an intelligent position. That doesn’t even make any sense. . . . If that doesn’t make any sense, the only other position is: Hey, look, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I am not planning for it to happen. I won’t expect it to happen. The only reason I’m not going to close the door entirely is that’s not intelligent.

“It doesn’t serve the state’s purposes, doesn’t serve the Democrats’ purposes, doesn’t serve my purposes. . . .”

If the road to the White House required only raw intelligence, the 53-year-old governor would be a favorite to hang pictures of Matilda and their five children, aged 15 to 30, in the Oval Office.

Demolishes Straw Men

He dominates a room intellectually, probing, paraphrasing, setting up and demolishing straw men with the speed of lightning. In a single sentence he can shift from lofty ideals to needle-sharp thrusts, covering the attack on an opponent with humor or folksy anecdote.

He is a consummate debater. Sometimes, tired and testy, he can be thin-skinned, honing his debating skills on reporters or those closest to him. “Give me your proof,” he will demand.

He will not let a generality go unchallenged. As one of his daughters was growing up, Cuomo kept asking her “Why?” until, out of frustration, she posted a “Why not?” sign in her bedroom.

Those who know the governor well say he plays threedimensional political chess, moving pieces with his long-term strategy in mind. But such a mind, while exemplifying a trial advocate’s attributes, can also appear devious to enemies.

Psychic Geography

Comprehending Cuomo, associates say, requires understanding both the layout of a courtroom and the psychic geography of New York City, the difference between the outer boroughs and Manhattan.

His parents, Immaculata and Andrea, came to the United States from Italy, operated a small grocery store in the South Jamaica section of Queens, a poor New York City neighborhood. Cuomo, their fourth child, was born in June, 1932. He attended Queens public schools, St. John’s Prep and was graduated summa cum laude from St. John’s University and its law school, where he was tied for the top of his class.

He played baseball briefly on a Pittsburgh Pirates farm club, where a scout described him as aggressive, intelligent, not easy to get close to--someone who “will run over you if you get in his way.”

In 1975 former Gov. Hugh L. Carey appointed Brooklyn lawyer Cuomo as his secretary of state; two years later Cuomo lost a bitter mayoral primary to Mayor Edward I. Koch. But in 1978, Cuomo was elected New York’s lieutenant governor, and in l982 he won the governorship.

‘An Ethnic Ronald Reagan’

Some political commentators have called New York’s governor “an ethnic Ronald Reagan” because of the ability he shares with the President to paint glowing visions of the American dream, to appear to rise above politics in his speeches.

Cuomo accepts the compliment, with a codicil.

“I would be very flattered by that if they meant that I’m a good communicator like Ronald Reagan,” he said in his second-floor office in New York’s gray stone Capitol in Albany. “If they mean that I’m a good communicator but I can’t do anything else, then I will reach down and bring you my budgets and bring you Ronald Reagan’s budgets and lay them side by side and say, ‘Now you make the judgment. . . . Res ipsa loquitur --the thing speaks for itself.”

Republican critics charge, however, that the governor has been long on rhetoric, short on leadership, often willing to put forth proposals and wait for the Legislature to produce solutions.

Other observers say Cuomo has been cautious in dealing with difficult problems.

‘Fairly Minimal Tax Cut’

“I think when you look at the record, the accomplishments don’t quite add up to the popularity of the image,” said James M. Hartman, president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

“At first it looks as if he is doing everything and keeping everybody happy. But a lot of these things are phased in over a long period of time. The tax cut is a fairly minimal tax cut . . . down from 10% to 9% over a three-year period.

“His pattern has been to announce things with a great amount of fanfare but to phase them in very slowly. Thus, he is on the right side of all the issues but is not committing any great resources to any. . . . That is not a criticism, but is the fact of the matter.”

The governor’s supporters counter that he has been struggling with some of society’s most intractable problems with some success. They point out that he faced a $1.8-billion budget deficit when he took office.

Helps Other Democrats

Recently, seeking wider exposure within the party, Cuomo has begun traveling to help elect Democratic officials around the country. He won an enthusiastic response from Texas Democrats when he spoke in San Antonio at a dinner on behalf of Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez. That speech, rewritten seven times, underlined one of Cuomo’s principal themes, “the politics of inclusion.”

In it, Cuomo stressed that his boyhood in the South Jamaica section of Queens and Gonzalez’s childhood in San Antonio’s West Side were similar in their “aching to belong.” He emphasized that all parts of the nation are bound together in ties of need and opportunity.

Andrew, Cuomo’s eldest son, is expected again to manage his father’s gubernatorial campaign, making it a showcase for such national themes. Aside from his wife, Andrew is Cuomo’s closest confidant and political ally. How close? “It’s closer than blood,” says the governor’s longtime friend Meyer S. Frucher. “Not only is it his son but Andrew is a principal operative.”

Family friends and fellow politicians say the relationship between the two Cuomos is fascinating. As John Kennedy was to his brother Robert, they say, Mario is to Andrew, but the bond in this case is father and son practicing and maturing in politics together.

No Niche in Wall Street

When Mario Cuomo came out of St. John’s University Law School, despite his excellent grades and clerkship to a judge of the New York state Court of Appeals, he could not find a place in a Wall Street firm. He joined a firm on Court Street in Brooklyn.

The distance between Court Street and Wall Street, from Brooklyn to Manhattan firms, is a short ride across the Brooklyn Bridge, but light years away in terms of access and prestige. Cuomo made his trip across the bridge relatively late in life, as governor; Andrew, who practices law in a small Park Avenue firm, made it relatively early, as the governor’s son.

Both men grew up in the rough and tumble of New York politics. “Andrew’s advantage politically was that he came into it with me,” Cuomo said, leaning back in his desk chair. “He was about 16, 11 years ago, on his way to 17. We did not know what we were doing. He has done everything politically. He started (by) putting up posters and tearing the other guy’s down and having truckloads of kids who had fistfights with their truckloads of kids.

“That’s gone now, I’m afraid. That may be in some assembly races, but in 1974, our campaign was posters.”

A Lonely Figure in 1982

In the winter of 1982, there was no more lonely public figure in New York state than Mario Cuomo. Mayor Koch had returned from a European vacation to announce he would seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. New York’s feisty mayor was immensely popular; Cuomo’s career seemed crushed. But he stayed in the race, overtook Koch and won a startling victory.

“It was Rocky Balboa against Koch,” said David Garth, the political consultant who managed the mayor’s unsuccessful campaign. In November, Cuomo narrowly defeated Lew Lehrman, a conservative Republican drugstore entrepreneur, who spent more than $12 million of his own fortune on the race.

Even Cuomo’s severest critics concede he is a very effective advocate for his point of view. They say he has been able to dominate debate in New York state.

An Appealing Personality

“He has a personality that appeals to a lot of people. He is ubiquitous. He is all over the state,” said Charles Dumas, a spokesman for the Republican majority in the state Senate. “He goes on every little radio call-in program. He delivers sermons in churches. He answers letters. . . . He sees everything, he goes everywhere. He talks, talks, talks. He radiates caring and true-blue sincerity. . . . He talks about his roots as the son of immigrant parents. A lot of people identify with that and say, ‘Good for him. He has made something of himself.’ ”

Cuomo’s emphasis on ethnic pride is mirrored by his anger at anything he regards as ethnic prejudice. Recently, he said, he was so angered at the suggestion that a public official of his Italian-Catholic heritage could not be elected President that it might cause him to decide to seek the White House. He referred to statements by an unnamed Southern Democratic leader quoted in one political column as saying that “there aren’t many Marios in the South” and another by columnist Joseph Sobran, charging that Cuomo looks “like a guy from ‘The Godfather.’ ”

By publicly airing ethnic stereotypes that can be hurled against him, the governor has apparently decided even before the pre-primary process begins to follow a strategy used a quarter of a century ago by John F. Kennedy when he ran for President. Kennedy addressed the issue of his Catholicism in an electrifying speech to a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Assn., emphasizing his complete separation of church and state.

Cuomo, who spoke out at Notre Dame during the 1984 presidential campaign on abortion and the role of religion in politics, is now planning a major speech on prejudice.

Over the years, the red brick governor’s mansion in Albany frequently has served as an incubator of presidential ambitions. Alfred E. Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas E. Dewey, Nelson A. Rockefeller and even Hugh Carey, Cuomo’s predecessor, all dreamed of a political life beyond the Catskills, but only Roosevelt reached the White House.

Cuomo is well aware of the pitfall that Rockefeller faced during his two presidential campaigns--he was out of step with his party. Increasingly conservative Republicans viewed him as too liberal. Cuomo does not want to be perceived merely as a spokesman for the “old politics” in a Democratic Party that may be moving away from Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

‘Progressive Pragmatism’

Although he concedes that “Mario Cuomo is extremely bright,” Richard B. Wirthlin, President Reagan’s pollster, says that Cuomo’s “negatives would associate with his being the best spokesman for the Democratic agenda of the 60s and 70s.”

In an effort to deal with such criticism, Cuomo calls his political philosophy “Progressive Pragmatism”--a campaign button designed to be shifted easily from the left to the right lapel. In speeches, he often attacks political labels as simplistic and unfair.

He argues that one important political fact “is the enormous gap between the poetry of politics and the prose of governance. When politicians govern--as distinguished from when they campaign--they come to understand the difference between a speech and a statute. And it’s here--in the actual governance, in the palpable, sweaty, real world--that we’re forced to come to grips with complexity, that we’re required to look beyond labels and grapple with hard choices.”

Own Best Advocate

Reading the personal diaries Cuomo has published is helpful in understanding him, but equally helpful is studying a law school text in trial procedures. Cuomo has learned to be his own best advocate. He displays absolute recall of his positions and what others have said about him over the years.

One room in the governor’s suite contains floor-to-ceiling bookcases with large black loose leaf binders to jog his memory when necessary. The notebooks are filled with just about everything Cuomo has said or written during his 11 years in state offices. Elaine Ryan, the aide who is nicknamed “the encyclopedia,” has a recurring nightmare. She is standing helpless in the room with the black books, but labels have fallen off all the volumes.

Cuomo keeps his own big, black loose-leaf book containing his daily schedule, people to be phoned, the day’s tasks neatly numbered in order of importance. He doesn’t sleep a lot and is often on the phone early in the morning to aides and friends still in bed.

“He is very organized about what he does, and his planning and thought process is usually much advanced from where he is at any given time,” his son Andrew said.

Constant Self-Critique

Cuomo also has never forgotten the basic rule of successful trial lawyers: always prepare your opponent’s case. By stepping into an opponent’s shoes you are in a position to steal his thunder and learn the weakness of your own case.

He dislikes praise and conducts a constant self-critique that can be disheartening to staffers who arrive full of accolades, only to be asked what could have been done better.

New staffers also can be disconcerted by Cuomo’s constant use of the Socratic method, one of the pillars of legal education.

On Mondays the governor and his senior staff gather in the old Court of Appeals room on the second floor of the Capitol to discuss what’s ahead for the week. Cuomo will spark debate on issues, take one side simply to draw out the other.

‘A Lot of Questioning’

“Nobody dares walk into the door after 8:30,” said Dr. David Axelrod, New York state’s health commissioner. “He does a lot of questioning, Socratic, sometimes philosophical, sometimes debate on issues. He will sometimes say where government should be headed. You never know when he will turn to you. It’s like being in law school.”

Cuomo can be very much the professor in other ways. “He loves smart people. He has a tremendous intellectual grading system,” a confidant of the governor says. But critics, while they praise his staff as competent, say he must continue to broaden his group of advisers to include those who can criticize him freely, not just people who have made their lives an extension of his. The Socratic method, they charge, can stifle bright people not skilled in debate.

During Cuomo’s successful opposition to Reagan Administration efforts to end federal income tax deductions for state and local taxes, he offered a pep talk to Martin Steadman, his communications director, that showed a deeper side of the governor’s personality. “We were talking about how to win when you’re not as smart as the other people, when you’re not as good looking as the other people, when you’re not as rich as the other people, when you don’t have the troops the other people have. How do you win?

‘You Out-Scratch Them’

“I said: ‘Marty, the way you win is you outwork them, you out-scratch them. That’s where we come from, that’s what we are, that’s what our stock is; we’ll outwork them.’ I said: ‘In the morning when the other guy is shaving, you’re shaving and thinking about how to beat them.’ ”

Within his party nationally, Cuomo faces the challenge of younger Democratic candidates who are looking toward Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House and of the Gary Hart vote--younger Democrats who don’t respond readily to the New Deal and the Great Society.

The other day as he sat in his office, Cuomo was asked to try a bit of role playing, to pretend that he was Wirthlin, President Reagan’s strategist and pollster, running a presidential candidate against Hart in 1988.

Playing the part of Wirthlin, the governor said he would run an executive such as a governor against a legislator like Hart. He said President Reagan will always be regarded as beloved by the American public; the President will be remembered for his apparent kindness, his magnificent gifts of communication. After Reagan, he said, the American people will want competence--not charisma.

“And how do you prove competence? You can’t do it with a speech, you can’t say here are my good ideas,” said Cuomo, taking up Wirthlin’s role with vigor. “One of Gary’s problems is that he has been a legislator.” The governor pounded on his desk. “A legislator (only) gives speeches.”

For a brief moment, one could almost see the corn fields of Iowa and the neat, white church steeples of New Hampshire in the background.

Also contributing to this story were Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington, and researchers Siobhan Flynn and Tony Robinson in New York.