When he was a young henchman for his father in Albany, Andrew Cuomo gave intensity a bad name.
Now that he is New York’s governor himself, Cuomo gives intensity a good name.
In the old days, that dark zeal was scattered around, directed at anyone who insulted or crossed him. Now he channels it more narrowly on the handful of things he wants to get done that he thinks the public wants.
“I was 23 years old then; now I’m 55 years old,” he says with an air of the Stephen Sondheim classic “I’m Still Here.” ”I was a linear, focused person. Then I got knocked on my rear end. I went through professional and personal hell. So now I keep it very simple. One day at a time. I’m killing myself to do the best job I can as governor. I do what I’m supposed to do and forget about the unhealthy things that used to distract me. I put one foot in front of the other. We take on big problems. And to say there’s no solution to the problems is not an option.”
Following the grotesque murders of children in Newtown, Conn., and firefighters in Webster, N.Y., the governor bellowed “Stop the madness” and shoved through tough gun-control legislation so blindingly fast that some state senators had scarcely read the bill, and the NRA conceded that it had no time to thwart it.
Cuomo, who worked the phones every day for a month, straight through the holidays, to drum up support, dismisses criticism of rushing and secrecy: “Everyone said, ‘You did it so quickly.’ That perspective is skewed. We’re years and years late. The federal assault weapons ban had lapsed. The state assault weapons ban was on the books, but everybody knew it wasn’t working. Government just failed to perform, and people died. So it’s all bittersweet because I have to say to myself, maybe if we had done earlier what we were supposed to do, figured out how to overcome the politics of extremes, we could have saved all those lives.
“We should have done it as a prophylactic, but maybe it’s human nature to tend to respond to an emergency. You have to sniffle before you get a flu shot.”
You could say it’s not so hard to pass such a bill in a left-leaning state with a popular governor (he is floating at a 71 percent favorability rating), and that it’s a far easier achievement than the gay marriage bill.
But with the president privately signaling some pessimism on new gun laws, as his domestic policy aides take a slower, less stringent approach, it’s bracing to see somebody, anybody, actually make government hum.
Cuomo doesn’t spend much time on TV baring his soul or hustling to get name recognition. (He doesn’t need to.) He focuses-focuses-focuses on the matter at hand, and on proving that government can work – if you apply the proper intensity at times of intense awareness.
“You have to try to hit a home run,” he said. “Home run hitters also have notoriously high strikeout rates. But it’s like when we tried to pass marriage equality. You have to be willing to fail.”
On BuzzFeed, Blake Zeff said “the latest unachievable triumph” shows that Cuomo has “a seemingly superhuman mastery of legislative politics.” And The Daily News christened Cuomo “America’s Sheriff.”
“I’m psyched,” Sheriff Andy said in a call from Albany, not Mayberry, joking, “But I never really saw myself in a big cowboy hat.”
And there is always suspicion swirling: What is Andrew up to? He is always up to something, but is he really deserving of the ever-present assumption that self-advancement trumps his true beliefs? On gun control, was he driven to beat the White House to the punch – or perhaps to beat a fellow governor and 2016 prospect, Martin O’Malley of Maryland? Was he pandering to the left to make up for centrist moves?
“Even when we’re building a bridge,” the governor noted dryly, “opponents say, ‘You’re only building a bridge to run for president.’ People are cynical about politicians. I’m the son of a politician, and I grew up in the political world, so people think I must be that – on steroids.”
The NRA and Greg Ball, a Republican state senator, denounced the New York law as a product of the governor’s 2016 ambition, although it could hurt Candidate Cuomo in places like Nevada, Colorado and Florida.
The governor doesn’t have the president’s public magnetism. But Cuomo, who devotes a lot of time to wining, dining and wheedling legislators, is far more deft at carrots, sticks and baby-talk than President Barack Obama is. It’s a fascinating – and open – question about whether those skills could work the same way to jolt comatose Washington.
“It’s more nuanced than carrots and sticks,” the governor explained. “People are complex. It’s about the full panorama of relationships, the positive and negative. There’s love, fear, desire to please, fear of reprisal. It’s not a fist. I would much rather be home watching a ballgame. But it takes time. It takes effort. It’s the job.”
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.