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Andrew Cuomo and the presidency: A son nears the same crossroads as his father

This is a call I wish I could make, right now. Mario Cuomo, almost certainly, would have had plenty to say about the election of Donald Trump. For many years after he served as governor, Mario was a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York City. His assistant was a patient woman named Mary Porcelli, and if you caught her at the right moment, when Mario was at his desk ….

He would talk.

These conversations weren't really political. They were almost musical. I was a columnist at that time with the Syracuse Post-Standard, and Mario – I'll use his first name in this piece to differentiate him from his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo – would get on the phone and reflect at length about almost anything you'd ask him about.

Maybe it was his childhood, and his reverence for the way his parents did their best when they owned so little, and how he’d listen to the New York Yankees on the radio in the back of a little grocery store in Queens.

Maybe it was the making of his speech at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco, the one he said turned into a “riff” where he felt “magnificent coincidence” with the crowd.

Or maybe it was another turbulent point in the republic, the moment in 1998 when revelations about President Bill Clinton’s sexual involvement with  a 22-year-old intern were shaking the White House, and I heard the one time in our conversations, over the years, that Mario expressed regret about presidential choices made, or never made.

He died on New Year’s Day, 2015. And yes: I wish I could pick up the phone right now and reach Mary Porcelli, and that she could cheerfully say the governor – always the governor – could get on the line.

Because I’d love to hear Mario elaborate about his impressions and interactions involving Trump, and whether he saw any corollary in national history to what’s happening right now, and his thoughts on the future direction of the nation.

Including any presidential choices faced by his son.

That is, of course, impossible. Still, I remember how Mario said, more than once, that he tried to give strategic advice to Andrew only if and when he sought it out.

The point Mario made was that Andrew was astute enough politically that the son didn’t really need to ask those questions.

He'd seen every mistake his father made, and each one left a "little burn mark" on Andrew's skin, Mario said. He watched as Andrew, as governor, used those scars to carefully avoid some of the same errors.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo with Howard Zemsky, president and chief executive officer of the Empire State Development Corp. (Buffalo News/file art)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo with Howard Zemsky, president and chief executive officer of Empire State Development. (Buffalo News/file art)

Mario said he admired, above all else, Andrew’s tenacity. The son’s lost duel with state Comptroller Carl McCall to be the Democratic candidate in the 2002 gubernatorial election seemed to pretty much shatter Andrew’s political trajectory. It was Eliot Spitzer who became the bright Democratic star, Spitzer who rose to governor as a reform candidate in 2006, Spitzer who was mentioned as a presidential prospect ….

And Spitzer whose career was blown to smithereens in 2008, when it was revealed that he'd been a customer in a high-priced prostitution ring. Andrew, the attorney general, capitalized. He was elected governor in 2010 and re-elected four years later.

Now there will be a new and unforeseen Republican president, and the Democratic field is barren, burned away. Hillary Clinton’s moment is almost certainly gone, and Sen. Bernie Sanders is 75, and what comes next for the stunned and reeling Democrats is a question mark.

As Tom Precious reported in Sunday’s Buffalo News, many observers believe Andrew is already turning his thoughts toward 2020. Without doubt, this is one of the countless moments when the son must dearly miss the father, when it seems as if Mario's advice might matter, above all.

But the truth is, in a clear way, it already exists.

The moment I read the Tom Precious article, I remembered that 1998 conversation with Mario. The nation was jolted by accusations that Bill Clinton, the president, had been sexually involved with an intern in the White House, and then had lied about it. I asked Mario, amid it all, if he had second thoughts about his own opportunity, in 1992, to run for president.

Many people thought he'd take that shot. He didn't. Harold Holzer, a writer and historian who served in Mario's administration, once said the governor wrote two speeches: One that announced his candidacy, and one rejecting it.

Mario chose to go with the second one. He said his obligations as governor had to come first.

The late Mario Cuomo, when he served as governor of New York: He stepped away from a chance to run for president. (Buffalo News/File art)

The late Mario Cuomo, when he served as governor of New York: He stepped away from a chance to run for president. (Buffalo News/File art)

When I asked about that choice, Mario initially batted down the question, saying what he always said: He did not believe he was qualified to be president.

But then, quietly, thoughtfully, he offered the one glimmer of regret I ever heard from him.

Look, he said: If he could do it again, maybe he wouldn’t have run for a third term, in 1990. Maybe he would have stepped back and spent the next two years preparing for a run for president, and then he would have felt ready for a campaign in 1992.

I’ve spoken to close friends of Mario’s who say that was the musing of a guy upset by national turmoil, that Mario loved being governor, that he never really wanted to seek the White House.

Still, if there’s an advisory for Andrew, there it is. Mario was elected to a third term in 1990, but it was one term too long. Four years later, much of the state was weary of him and ready for someone else, and Republican George Pataki won the election and the office. In two years, Andrew will confront a crossroads similar to the one his father once encountered, a potential race for a third-term two years before a presidential election, with a roiling electorate that makes the one in 1994 look mild.

He is saying now, point-blank, that he will run again. As we’re witnessing, some things are staggeringly different and some are very much the same.

Many factors will come into play, particularly the nature and path of the Trump presidency. Where the governor seeks advice is anyone’s guess, but one thing, almost certainly, is guaranteed:

Whatever he does, he will remember any burn marks from his father.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.




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