One of the few things Andrew Cuomo talked about publicly during his stealth campaign for New York governor is how he rebuilds things — his '68 GTO, for example, among other muscle cars.
Yet his greatest restoration has been of the '02 Andrew, and before that, his vintage 1980s self.
When Cuomo, who finally announced his campaign on Saturday, accepts the Democratic nomination for governor next week, the transformation will be complete, including the revived dream of a Cuomo in the White House.
But at the state Democratic convention next week, New Yorkers won't see the ruthless 20-something "Prince of Darkness" campaign commando from his father's three runs for governor — the kid who was part of a law firm questioned in the 1980s for using political influence with the new governor to attract clients.
They won't see the housing secretary who was part of the Clinton White House's role in pushing questionable mortgages that some say contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis. And they won't see the 2002 candidate for governor who ridiculed then-Gov. George Pataki as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's coat holder after the 9/11 attacks — an offhand remark that cost him support, even among Democrats.
For nearly 30 of his 52 years, Cuomo, often referred to by the princely "Andrew," was the elbows-out enforcer for his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, himself a driven, micromanaging politician who leveled opponents and left them cursing in his wake. Andrew, the old line went, was "just like Mario, but without the charm."
What New Yorkers will see next week is a new Andrew Cuomo, the most popular politician in New York, the attorney general who took on Wall Street and corporate America, and the embodiment of the future of a Democratic Party that has stumbled after gaining full control of state government two years ago for the first time in decades.
Even running amid an unprecedented anti-incumbent wave, a guy named Cuomo is running as an outsider to clean up Albany.
"He's definitely grown, and he's an intelligent person," said Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari, an Albany County Democrat. "I'm sure he has been able to learn from his mistakes and move forward. ... It's gratifying, and exciting, too."
In four years, Cuomo turned from brash to learned, liberal to pragmatic, political to proven. At least that's what New Yorkers will see next week at his coronation by a party that adhered to his schedule to announce his candidacy, while keeping the stage clear for his entrance. Yet some in New York politics who have known or feared Cuomo for three decades wonder, quietly, if a leopard can really change his eating habits.
The only Democrat to challenge Cuomo's long-presumed campaign was Gov. David Paterson, despite his comparatively low polls and funding. But days after Cuomo started an investigation into Paterson's administration, the governor ended his campaign.
"It's likely he has learned from experience," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Poll. "I don't know if he's shed his skin, but certainly he appears to be much more aware of his role, and what works and what doesn't."
What has worked is the smile, the quick wit, the tireless work ethic and — as opposed to his past politicking — showing himself as little as possible. Coyly, teasingly, he campaigned for months as above it all by not even acknowledging his candidacy.
In opening his campaign last week, Cuomo's operatives released the first policy goals of a candidate who says he'll end politics as usual and Albany's notorious pay-to-play atmosphere, in which lobbyists and special interests can wag the politicians to drive spending to unaffordable levels.
One of those goals would ravage Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch's widely respected, long-term plan for fiscal recovery and accountability: Cuomo would keep the governor and Legislature in control of spending, rather than an independent board Ravitch said should be created to make the tough choices that politicians so far haven't.
Inside his guarded attorney general's staff and in his very small inner circle, Cuomo is known for calling staff members before 8 a.m. He's constantly on the phone to employees, reporters and others. He knows the office's hundreds of cases well enough to call low-level attorneys on details, and he goes home each night with an armload of papers. He's collegial, but focused.
But there is also a whole different Cuomo. He's the fun Dad when his daughters visit him at work. Staffers and reporters also know that if you need to reach him on Saturdays, when his girls — Cara, Mariah, Michaela aged 12 to 15 — are with him at home, "forget about it." It's part of the arrangement after a nasty 2002 divorce from Kerry Kennedy.
The Andrew Cuomo of old lived politics, so his marriage to Kennedy, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, was little surprise. When "Cuomolot" ended in 2002, the demise was dragged through the tabloids. For the past five years, Cuomo has dated Sandra Lee, a Food Network TV host and food entrepreneur with little apparent interest in politics.
Wayne Barrett, investigative reporter for The Village Voice, has covered Cuomo for 30 years, naming Andrew among the "Cuomo Sleaze team" in 1985. He covered Andrew Cuomo's six-figure gig with a law firm back then; it was long questioned over whether it used his political connections with Mario Cuomo to land clients.
After his '02 loss, Cuomo made millions working for a developer of luxury marinas who was caught up in a kickback-fee sharing scheme in 1997. The company had also managed affordable housing projects for HUD that even Cuomo criticized while at the agency. He later said there was nothing inappropriate about going to work there.
But Barrett and others close to Cuomo see the Democrat as evolving from that time.
"When you suffer a tremendous and humiliating and embarrassing loss, you really become a recluse for a couple of years to figure out what went wrong," Barrett said. Yet the rough street basketball player from Queens is still in Cuomo, and Barrett said it's a trait Albany needs.
"Do I think he still has a hard edge? Yes," Barrett said. "Am I disturbed by it? No."
Polls show that New Yorkers beset by a languid economy, entrenched partisanship and leadership void sorely want another champion.
"Is he a new person or has he learned? I don't know," said the Marist Poll's Miringoff. "But I don't know in the world of politics if it really matters."
Michael Gormley is the Albany Capitol editor for The Associated Press and has covered New York politics for the AP for 10 years.