Housing official uses political skill to help homeless ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


November 20, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- There are those who say Andrew M. Cuomo's high-level appointment was a political thank-you note from President Clinton to his dad for delivering the state of New York.

There are those who say that the eldest son of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was the logical choice to be the administration's point man on homelessness.

To a White House studded with the relatives of famous Democrats, the younger Cuomo has brought a political pedigree -- one further gilded by his marriage to a Kennedy -- a supremely aggressive style and seven years of experience developing innovative housing for the homeless in New York.

At 35, with the same Queens-laced voice, dark features and passion for basketball as his father, the assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development has already become a presence here -- praised for his political savvy and for shining a light on an issue the White House has not paid much attention to, or criticized for what some call a brusque, roughshod management style.

At HUD, one hears stories about how the deeply committed assistant secretary once left a tedious meeting to drive around the poor sections of Washington and remind himself of the people he was there to serve. But one also hears sneering whispers of "Prince Andrew."

Yesterday, testifying before a House subcommittee hearing on welfare hotels, at least one member of Congress was impressed with his political showmanship.

"You learned well at the feet of the honorable governor of New York," joked New York Democrat Floyd H. Flake after listening to a somewhat evasive, yet undeniably eloquent, response.

Indeed, the confident political operative learned the game early through the hurly-burly of New York politics where, as a teen-ager, he got his political start tearing down the posters of his father's opponents to make room for Mario's.

At 24, he managed his father's first gubernatorial campaign, going on to the state capital after the victory as a $1-a-year special assistant to his father before moving on to a law practice and then the nonprofit housing program he began.

"I think I bring a good perspective, frankly," says Mr. Cuomo, in an interview in his HUD office, decorated with awards and citations, photographs of housing projects he's shepherded, a framed letter from his father and a painting of Sir Thomas More that was a gift from the elder Mr. Cuomo. "I think most people who sit here, who make the laws, who make the policy . . . they design laws and programs in a vacuum. I've built, I've operated, I've advocated, and I've been in local government."

Strategy for homeless

In his $115,700 job, since June, the graduate of Fordham University and Albany Law School oversees the division of community planning and development, with more than 1,020 people and a budget of $6.6 billion.

He is a frequent visitor to the White House, working with Vice President Al Gore on urban redevelopment, and also a member of White House task forces on urban violence and welfare reform.

Recently, Mr. Cuomo coordinated a $20 million homeless program for Washington, one intended as a model for the nation and one similar in approach and philosophy to the Cuomo Commission report, the program he developed in New York as head of the mayor's committee on homelessness.

The D.C. Initiative shifts the emphasis away from building emergency shelters for the homeless and toward providing social services -- drug treatment or job counseling -- and finally permanent housing, the same "continuum of care" that is a hallmark of his approach.

Although his New York projects are considered successful, well-run programs -- and some credit Mr. Cuomo for changing the way homelessness is addressed in his home state -- his approach is still somewhat controversial among advocates for the homeless.

"There's a real emphasis on providing services to homeless families," says Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "Not everyone needs services, and you don't want to be compelling someone to receive services if all they really need is housing, or if all they really need is a job."

But Mr. Cuomo counters that the predominant school of thought on homelessness for the last decade -- that the solution is housing, housing, housing -- is "simplistic and short-sighted."

He argues that advocates for the homeless have failed to focus on the true problems and root causes of homelessness for fear of appearing unsympathetic or politically incorrect.

"You have a lot of homeless families who were placed in housing and are now coming back," he says. "They're homeless again. Why? Because there was something else going on that we refused to recognize or didn't want to admit, and we didn't treat."

Mr. Cuomo -- who has been living at Hickory Hill, the Robert F. Kennedy estate in McLean, Va., with his wife of three years, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo -- also catches criticism for his style, which some describe as autocratic and uncooperative.

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