Michael Shnayerson’s “The Contender” opens with a highly entertaining account of how Andrew Cuomo, Democratic governor of New York, convinced a few squirming senators from both sides of the aisle that they had been put on this earth in Albany in 2011 to pass a marriage equality bill.
Two previous votes had failed, so it’s quite an achievement, secured after 12 days of weeping, wrangling and handholding. The ditherer in the White House takes note and evolves his view to full acceptance.
History is made, lives are changed.
Shnayerson is incredibly good at illuminating how laws are extruded, especially in Albany, not exactly a sunny citadel of ethical comportment. “The Contender” is a fascinating study of money and power -- and the politicians who love both.
Andrew, adoring son of Mario Cuomo, who also resided in the governor’s mansion, is vividly described as a master strategist and an interesting bully who needs better advisers.
How did such a smart politician do something as dim as dissolve the Moreland Commission, which he had created to look into unethical conduct and corruption?
I spoke with Shnayerson, a Vanity Fair writer, at the Manhattan town house he shares with his wife, Gayfryd Steinberg.
Will He Run?
Hoelterhoff: Did your title -- “The Contender” -- ever have a question mark?
Shnayerson: The original title was “The Son Also Rises,” and, yes, that was hokey and it became “The Contender” by 2013 when Andrew was certainly being talked of as a presidential contender. But then there were some misfires and growing doubt.
Hoelterhoff: Does he think he’s a contender in 2016 or 2020? He’s 57 now. I guess he has some time to work on the charm. He scowls a lot in your book and isn’t eager to kiss babies.
Shnayerson: He’s never acknowledged an interest in running for president, which might be a bit disingenuous. But he can’t control fate. He can’t stop Hillary from running. All he can do is wait and see if she makes more mistakes, which is not inconceivable. If he finishes his second term, he can make himself more impressive -- whether likable is something else.
Hoelterhoff: He struggled against the unknown Zephyr Teachout last fall and spent something like $47 million to get re-elected.
Shnayerson: The strength of her candidacy was unexpected. But Andrew had so alienated the left wing of the party by then. He’d mumbled something about campaign finance reform and that didn’t happen. He banked on the Democrats having nowhere else to go.
Hoelterhoff: This is a big biography -- 529 pages! What convinced you he was worth the time?
Shnayerson: In late 2011, I heard his predecessor, David Paterson, give a talk filled with admiration for Andrew. It got me thinking: Here’s a guy who had a great first year and might run for president. And what a backstory. The immigrant grandparents, marriage to a Kennedy, explosive divorce, rise and fall and comeback.
Hoelterhoff: You describe a clever strategist. So how to explain dealing himself the disaster of Moreland?
Shnayerson: Andrew had slid into hubris. He was surrounded by yes men and made the mistake of thinking Moreland was a commission like any other.
He said as much. It’s my commission and I can form it and disband it. He lost his political judgment.
A lot of people in Albany were said to be nervous. The darkest theory would be that maybe Andrew himself had something to hide and the commission was becoming too energetic. But I doubt that. We will have to wait for Preet Bharara’s report.
Hoelterhoff: “The Contender” was written without the contender’s cooperation. Why did he never talk to you after one early lunch in Manhattan?
Shnayerson: That was it, though his advisers kept saying that he would absolutely speak to me. He was wary that the book would be to negative. The irony is that I was thus driven to outsiders and critics.
Hoelterhoff: He does have his own clunk of a book, which reads like a press release.
Shnayerson: It’s a mystery. As smart as he is about politics, he isn’t savvy about publishing. He had a pretty big day job. Actually two jobs: governing and running for office. If he had been more trusting, he would have had a smart young journalist to write the book for him and blow me out of the water.
Hoelterhoff: The way he extracted the necessary votes for the gay marriage bill shows how skillfully bipartisan he can be compared to the current White House resident. And finally coming out against fracking -- those are real accomplishments.
Shnayerson: Huge. And I’d add the gun control bill - albeit flawed -- knocking out a ten billion dollar deficit and putting the state back on a better economic track.
Hoelterhoff: Mario Cuomo has just died as your book closes, a big and adored presence in Andrew’s life, someone he always wanted to please. Liberating?
Shnayerson: It seems to me that his father’s passing may free him up to feel less competitive in a very deep way and be more generous of spirit. It’s just a guess.
Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor for Global Cities at Bloomberg. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.