The Cuomo Way: Hands-On Persistence

The son of a grocer, New York's governor rose to high office by getting involved - and getting others to follow; despite the disturbing trend to TV sound-bite campaigning, he says, a dogged politician can still be a force for change

GOV. MARIO CUOMO of New York sees leadership as engagement ... physical, intellectual, and social engagement. He once played center field; today he is fielding a hard-driving issue like abortion and firing to second; his opponent on this one is a cardinal of his own church. A. Bartlett Giamatti's recent treatise on baseball is the Democratic Governor's favorite current reading, along with Robert Bork's book on the temptations of the law. Public life, in its simplest elements, is family. Influence is the proper exercise of power. Management is not delegation, it is getting involved - with everything.

The media speculate on a Cuomo presidential future, but by summer he is expected to announce that he will run again for governor. The native New Yorker, whose intellectual stirrings began with reading amid cases of pasta and sacks of coffee in his father's grocery store, here discusses his work as a leader in state government. He talked in his Albany, N.Y., office with the Monitor's editor, Richard J. Cattani.

You've had differences with your church - with Cardinal O'Connor, for example - on government issues. Does a religious person face a unique discipline in public life?

One of the most interesting, most difficult, most significant issues of the last 10 or so years has been how you accommodate religious commitment - that's too heavy a word - religious belief and attachment - and public service in elected officials. That's the abortion question - it's still not resolved. I am writing a piece on it now. It's a very, very difficult question when you have a whole top of a church like the one here in New York pounding away at people saying, ``You've got to do this thing on abortion or you might not get communion.''

It takes you back to the fundamentals: What is the rule of democracy? How does it treat religion?

Are you struck by an absence of serious discussion about government today - serious writing like the Federalist Papers of two centuries ago?

We're not dealing with fundamental governmental issues. I have had the opportunity to touch on some - my speech to the American Bar Association in 1986 was fundamental. It dealt with the whole question of the judiciary, the legislature, what the Founding Fathers had in mind, what is the best way to make a court.

[David] Stockman wrote in his book that Reagan deliberately bought huge deficits in order to drive the federal government out of social enterprises. He said, ``We knew what we were doing with the deficits. We knew they were huge, and what we were trying to do is to reverse the trend since Roosevelt of the federal government helping women and children, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and people who need housing. We were going to return to a hands-off government.''

But that's not been talked about, except maybe that [Sen.] Pat Moynihan does an essay and he writes it in Harvardese and nobody knows what he's talking about.

The social security issue should be an opportunity to stop this process cold. The president should stand up and say, ``Mr. and Mrs. America, let's not vote on a capital gains tax cut yet; let's not vote on the IRAs; let's do nothing about gas taxes or user fees; let's leave social security where it is; let's not transfer any more burdens to the local government. Let's take a look at how we're doing, how we are distributing the burdens of government.

``And before that, let's take a look at what the burdens of government are and to whom they should be assigned.'' And before we do that, we have to get back to the federal government: What is it, what is it supposed to be? Is it to give everybody an equal playing field? In which case, government is an instrument that gets out of your way and says, ``Good luck, we'll make the rules fair: If you're bright you win, if you're dumb you lose.'' Is that what it is?

Is it an instrument used to take the fullest strength out of the whole collectivity and then redistribute it to help people who are left out? Is that what it is? Is it a mixture of these things?

Now, these are all tremendously fundamental notions. Bush got afraid of them because Reagan was too stark about them. And so Bush has invented another approach. He says, ``I'll talk about social agenda, child care, environment, even drugs and education, but then we won't put a lot of money there. We'll just do it rhetorically.''

It's fascinating when you look at the whole thing. It involves tremendous philosophical changes!

Many Americans have walked away from the system. What they've said is, ``Hey, look, they have a different America, those people. They live in houses. We're going to live on the streets. We're going to do numbers. We're going to do drugs. We'll do prostitution. We're not going to vote; we couldn't care less.'' That's America today. And it needs to be re-rationalized.

Your father spent all of his time in the grocery store. Do you run state government the way your father ran his shop?

My father and I had different motivations. I work very, very hard - probably harder than any governor who ever came here. I am not boasting of it; I enjoy it. I don't sleep a whole lot, but it's not because I'm worried. It's because I am eager. It's like telling the kids you're going to take them to camp at 6:00 a.m. They get up at 4:00 a.m., and they'll start packing.

My father was ignorant and illiterate in both Italian and English. He had never gone to school a day in Italy. He was a laborer on my mother's father's land. And my mother never went to school. And in the Depression, a nice Jewish man by the name of Kessler gave him a store virtually free - a grocery store, but my mother couldn't count and my father didn't know anything about how you buy goods, sell goods. Kessler taught him how to do it. He lived in the building - Kessler. And Mrs. Kessler and Mr. Kessler liked my father and mother and three kids and helped them. So they were open seven days a week, 24 hours a day in the beginning, because there were two factories in the neighborhood. If you stayed open, you might get lucky - somebody might come for a loaf of bread, or a bottle of milk, or a sandwich. And so, I was behind the store - locked behind the store because my older brother who worked in the store had gone on out on the street to play once and got hit by a car and nearly killed. So I stayed in the back of the store with macaroni boxes and hundred-pound sacks of coffee, listening to ``The Shadow'' and ``Mandrake,'' and reading books.

You have a private study - is that like the back of the shop?

Yes, it is like the back of the shop. I keep the shades down. I keep it dark. It's cell-like. I discourage people from coming in and chatting. You want to read. How are you going to read if people are walking in and out and you are getting phone calls?

How do you make sure your state government is ably managed?

First of all you have to be there. You have to be both involved and knowledgeable. And be perceived as involved and knowledgeable. They have to know you're there. It's not just leadership by example. It's a confirmation to them that the work they are doing is extremely important - so important that you would show it the respect of knowing about it, participating in it.

I talk to my people all the time. I call them at 7:00 a.m. I read all their memos. I try very hard to astound them with the speed by which I can get the memos back to them. They talk about it, they joke about it, they tease about it, they make fun of me, but they like it.

So you engage them?

Absolutely. And you have to be involved. All this garbage about the guy doesn't know how to delegate because he does all these details. They don't know what they're talking about. They've never run a business. Never run a government. I have run businesses, governments, ball teams, and there's only one way to do it. Vincent Lombardi couldn't run the Packers from the [TV] booth. You have to be in the locker room, you have to be there, on the line.

You have to get people who are two things: competent and committed. And I would put committed before competent.

How do you keep up standards? Do you call your staff on the carpet?

I don't make rules. I am constantly reviewing and critiquing the important work. I write all the big speeches. There's no state of the state that gets delivered except that I do the first draft. So, all the important work I'm a part of. It just doesn't get done unless I participate in it.

You have a lot of influence on a lot of people. Power - are you conscious of it?

Influence, let's say influence more than power. You're aware of it. It's difficult for me to think of Mario Cuomo, governor. Those are two very distinct concepts for me. Mario Cuomo is one concept and I'm very comfortable with that. I don't take it terribly seriously. Governor is another thing, which I take very seriously. Putting the two together was very hard in the beginning. I'd get embarrassed when kids would come up and say they wanted your autograph. I usually would make jokes about it: ``Now who do you think I am, Al D'Amato?'' And everybody would laugh. Governor is a different thing. Now I understand it a little better. Now, I'm very aggressive about using that identity. I love the idea that women will come up to you with their children and say, ``Would you take a picture with the two of us? I'd like to save it for him for when he grows up.''

In using influence, there are some rules. I'm a very strong believer in rationale. All this talk about being eloquent - not in this time and place. This is a rule that every trial lawyer knows. You can't move a jury with histrionics. You can dazzle them for a moment. When they deliberate hours and hours, they don't remember your fancy moves, they remember the ideas, the thought, the common sense of the argument.

Don't ever use your influence on a dumb idea. Because once you do, you're gone.

You see communication as a part of influence?

Political influence? The need to be able to manage communications politically is one of the great weaknesses in the system.

In order to make policy as president, Congress, even the governor, in order to argue about policy in a campaign, it is necessary to use television, to a lesser extent radio, to a lesser extent still limited portions of the press, print press. That means you have to communicate in 28 seconds. If you communicate live, you have to do it in nine seconds. And that is distortive. It has changed all of our politics.

Is that why you hang in there day to day on some of these subjects?

You have to. Persistence. You have to repeat what Roger Ailes knows so well, and all of the consultants who do campaigns do know. That repetition is the thing. You have to say it and say it over and over again. That's when you have a simple message. Imagine when you have a complicated message - but it can be done.

If you go back and look at this allowance of deductibility - I guess it was 1985. It's a worthwhile study. President Reagan went on television and said in order to do tax reform, we have to disallow your state and local taxes as deductible items on your federal return. Now, whom will that punish? That will discourage high-tax, high-spending states like New York State from spending all that money. And everybody gets cuts, well, that's good, because everybody hates New York - at least they are suspicious of New York or jealous of New York or resentful of New York, but they're certainly not cheering for New York, and they certainly will accept that this is kind of what you can call a neosocialist state.

The first polls were like 68 percent to 20 percent in favor of the president of the United States. Two Democrats, whose names I will not give you - one a very, very well-known Democratic senator, the other a very, very well-known Democratic governor who went on to great prominence - called me after the president made his television appearance and I said, New York will fight this. We have to raise taxes to spend it on poor people. What he's saying is you shouldn't be able to spend on poor people. They call me and they say, Mario, you can't make this fight. I said, Why not? The one, the senator said because we need the tax reform and we need the $50 or $45 billion from deductibility to do the tax reform. I said I can't believe I'm hearing you correctly. The governor said, You can't win, Mario, because you know everybody's going to be against us. I said I believe the American people will hear the facts. We will win. Three months later the polls were reversed. They were about 70-30.

What happened in the interim? [I] got Pat Moynihan, got the labor unions, got the teachers, went all over the country - debated it, op-ed pieces. In the end we won. They said, ``This is a done deal; we need this money for reform.'' They never got it. All they got was sales tax. Now, that wasn't me. I was part of it, and I was the first. There's no question about that. But that was the logic of it.

The American people are like a jury. If you get their attention, and you keep them free of distraction, and you give them the facts, their judgments are excellent.

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