By Sean Kirst
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had shared the story before. In a State of the State speech earlier this month at the University at Buffalo, a speech in which the governor promised another $500 million in state investment in Western New York, Cuomo spoke of the late Tim Russert as “the first person who used to bring me out to Buffalo.”
That was in the early 1980s, Cuomo said, when he and Russert were aides to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father. He told his audience in Buffalo that Russert, a South Buffalo native who had become famous as moderator of “Meet the Press,” showed him Buffalo “in only a way that Tim Russert could show somebody Buffalo.”
The assumption, then, was that Cuomo’s specific attention to Buffalo – the flowing spigot of state money that came first through the Buffalo Billion and now through an initiative he calls the Buffalo Billion Squared – had its emotional beginnings in that friendship with Russert.
In a sense that’s true, Cuomo said in a recent conversation. But it began, he said, with something even deeper.
It began with a sense of being on the outside that he said he inherited, as a kind of emotional DNA, from his father.
Cuomo contended that in all of the focus on upstate and downstate, people miss the reality that the real in-and-out of power in the state starts within the boundaries of New York City.
“You had Manhattan,” he said, “and you had people from the outer boroughs. … My father was from the outer borough of Queens. I was from the outer borough.”
His father, he said, passed down the idea that being from Queens meant “you’re an ethnic arrival, you’re a new arrival, you’re part of the struggling masses, you’re not part of the rich establishment.”
So his father – whose own immigrant parents ran a corner grocery store – felt a kind of organic connection to Buffalo, Cuomo said, a sentiment enshrined in Mario’s landmark speech about American principles at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco. The speech is considered one of the great pieces of oratory in American history, and a thought about Buffalo was near the heart of it.
Speaking of a “family of America” that is “bound to one another,” Mario said: “The future of the child in Buffalo is our future.”
His son was there, as was Russert, who had gone to work for Mario after serving as chief of staff for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The two young men had listened to Mario’s speech as it began to come together, “and when you work in government … you go through such highs and lows together that you really bond or you wind up very distant from the other person, because you really get to see a person’s character,” Andrew Cuomo said.
He and Russert became friends.
“Timmy was a beautiful guy … brilliant, tough, funny … South Buffalo at its best but still South Buffalo. He never wanted to be anything [other] than South Buffalo,” Cuomo said.
Sometimes they would travel to Buffalo on state business, Cuomo said, and they’d go out in a city “where you didn’t end up sitting at a table next to an assemblyman.”
Cuomo said Russert helped him come to a realization: “He knew [South Buffalo] like the back of his hand, and South Buffalo was Flushing, Queens, a high concentration of Irish. … Same guys at the same bars, drinking the same beers.”
He said Russert’s driving passion was the great dream of any Western New Yorker: The return to glory of a once-booming American city that had gone through steep and relentless decline.
“We talked about it often,” Cuomo said. “If Buffalo just got a fair shake, any reasonable assistance in a situation they didn’t cause on their own – they got caught in an economic transformation – if anyone could put out a hand, Buffalo could pull itself up.
“And if we could do this, if we could beat this … there was nothing we couldn’t do.”
If you want the core of his Buffalo policy, from Cuomo’s point of view, there it is. Once he became governor, he said, he didn’t forget. If
Buffalo was a national symbol of industrial struggle, then Buffalo could be a template of recovery for Rochester, Syracuse and other staggered upstate communities.
“Buffalo was the greatest test case for upstate,” Cuomo said, “because to paraphrase the song, if you can make it work in Buffalo, you can make it work anyplace, right?”
Yet the initial surge of “Buffalo Billion” investment was clouded last year by federal indictments in a “pay to play” investigation led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office had registered high-profile corruption convictions against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
The statewide probe led to indictments against eight men, and again shook the foundation of political ethics in the state. Among those indicted were Joseph Percoco, who had been close to both Andrew Cuomo and his father; Alain Kaloyeros, former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute and a key economic adviser; and several top officials from LPCiminelli, a Buffalo contractor involved with millions of dollars in business as part of the state initiative.
Cuomo said the investigation will not derail the ascent of Buffalo. He said he just finished rereading a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about the way FDR initiated hundreds of programs during the Great Depression.
“Some of them weren’t going to work and then some things are going to go bad and some people are going to disappoint you,” Cuomo said.
He spoke of the Buffalo economy as “a phoenix that is rising from the ashes,” a statement based on “home sales, value of homes, jobs, young people coming back.”
The city still faces deep and formidable obstacles – a study last year indicated that 54 percent of Buffalo’s children live in poverty – but Cuomo predicted a civic upswing will continue. He compared his feeling on the indictments to the advice he gives his daughters about any obstacle:
“What do you do? You get up and you learn from it and you move on … If something happened that was wrong, fine. But that’s life. And it’s life in Buffalo and it’s life in Queens; once in a while you get knocked down … Once in a while, people disappoint you.
“Yeah, I know. But you don’t give up. Buffalo [doesn’t] and people from Queens [don’t] because you don’t have that choice; that is the experience people are having every day of their lives. They get knocked down and I mean, every time people get another bill from the bank … Life has thrown all kinds of curveballs at people, and you have to get back up.”
Cuomo turns 60 in December. He said he often thinks of Russert, “of the dreams we had” when they were in their 20s – and of the reaction Russert might have shown to the idea of such companies as Tesla and Panasonic agreeing to work together in South Buffalo.
Mario Cuomo once said that his son had to be a different kind of governor, that “every time he saw me make a mistake, it left a little burn mark on him” – a reflection some see in the younger Cuomo’s more guarded journey through the office.
Yet Andrew said his overriding purpose is always moving toward the same larger goals as Mario’s.
“My father’s my hero. My father was my best friend. His voice is still my [best] adviser,” Andrew said.
Mario Cuomo, he said, always felt a similar passion for Buffalo. He recalled how his father used a “pine rolltop desk from a vocational high school in Buffalo” at the executive mansion in Albany, how Mario felt a “natural affinity” for Buffalo and its people, a devotion forged by a shared perspective that began in his Great Depression childhood.
As for Russert, Andrew said: “I believe I honored my relationship with Tim. I believe he is smiling.”
The Buffalo Billion Squared was announced in the same month as the impending inauguration of Donald Trump, carried to the presidency by electoral victories in Michigan and Wisconsin, Great Lakes states with large and restless working-class populations. Cuomo said he was not shocked by that sudden turn, even if it was a punch in the chest to the political status quo. He has responded to questions about his own presidential prospects by saying his focus has to be on the governor’s race, in 2018.
He spoke last week of plenty of remaining challenges. All too often, he said, everyday people still face corrosive uncertainty: Go to any bar or restaurant, and you’ll find parents who are no longer sure they’ll be able to pay off their mortgages, parents fearful about whether their retirement savings will be enough, parents worried their kids will be eternally buried underneath student loans.
“People are scared, they’re frightened, they’re anxious,” Cuomo said, which he said underlines the meaning of the change in Buffalo. He described the city as “a different place,” as a national symbol of turnaround. Cuomo said there is now a tangible sense of “respect and hope and optimism,” and “the big engine is up and running.”
The great question goes back to the one his father offered the nation, long ago: Will that engine be powerful enough to lift the future of a child, any child, born today in Buffalo?
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. He can be reached at email@example.com.