Cuomo strides outside Housing to fight battles

Fans see success, foes note ambition beyond Cabinet post

June 03, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Telling his audience he will be brief because he's got a plane to catch - "and Air Force One waits for no man except one" - Andrew M. Cuomo steps to the podium to accept the "Champion of Justice" award from a public interest group.

This spring has brought a rush of such accolades for this man on the move. But the 42-year-old secretary of Housing and Urban Development is not being heralded for any new housing program. The issue that has put Cuomo front and center these days is guns.

Cuomo has become the lead player in the Clinton-Gore team's effort to curb gun violence.

A gun owner who often shoots waterfowl on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Cuomo has been the chief cheerleader for the administration's HUD-funded gun buy-back programs, such as the one today in Baltimore's Pleasant View Gardens development.

He has attacked presumptive Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush on his gun record. And, threatening to bring a lawsuit on behalf of some of the nation's 32,000 housing authorities where gun violence has been especially rampant, Cuomo took the lead in negotiations with gun manufacturers that resulted in a landmark settlement with Smith & Wesson.

In the process, the aggressive, ambitious Cabinet secretary has thrust HUD into the spotlight, elevating the typically glamourless second-tier department to a place of prominence within the administration. To the surprise of no one, he has polished his image at the same time.

Cuomo's headline-generating activities have served to make one of the capital's more polarizing figures even more polarizing. His brash, combative style and at times brazen self-promotion have at once emboldened his department and created enemies in high places - and made it clear he has big plans.

"Andrew is a very aggressive player," says Cuomo fan F. Barton Harvey III, chairman and CEO of the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit housing and community development organization. "He's rankled a number of people - Democrats and Republicans are suspicious of his motives, especially as elections come near."

A top aide acknowledges that Cuomo's high-profile endeavors, including his gun agenda and his campaign activities for confidant Al Gore and New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, have sparked a flurry of speculation about his next move: vice president or chief of staff in a Gore administration or, as is more likely, a New York gubernatorial run in 2002.

"You should keep your eye on Andrew," his father, former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, said at Harvard University last year.

Although Andrew Cuomo and the vice president have become close, playing pool and plotting political strategy, the Cabinet official said recently that he was "seriously considering" a run for the New York governor's seat in 2002, a seat his father held for three terms until losing it in 1994 to George E. Pataki. And with a famously unapologetic ego, Cuomo warned that any attempt by state Comptroller H. Carl McCall to sew up the Democratic nomination early would fail.

"If Andrew Cuomo says, `I want to run,'" Cuomo said recently, "the party will listen."

With such soaring self-confidence, closeness to Gore and a double dose of liberal Democratic family ties - his wife, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, is the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and sister of Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - the eldest son of Mario Cuomo is a favorite target of Republicans and well known for what Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski calls his "volcanic interactions" with foes.

Even Democrats are quick to note his prickly, some say vindictive, nature. "I've had an uneven relationship with Andrew Cuomo," Mikulski says diplomatically, explaining that Cuomo coordinated a telephone campaign against her when she opposed funding for one of his pet projects. "He literally was out there organizing against me as if I were the problem."

But the senator, as do most Democrats, has nothing but praise for Cuomo's effectiveness as an advocate for the homeless and poor. "He's brought a good deal of commitment to eliminating poverty and to promoting home ownership," says Mikulski, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees HUD's budget.

Many applaud Cuomo's willingness to tackle the gun issue. Washington lobbyist Brad C. Johnson, a longtime Cuomo family associate, says that, with the department running more smoothly in Cuomo's fourth and final year as secretary, Cuomo has had more time "to expand his mandate" to deal with issues such as guns and crime. "It's not just housing," he says.

But some think housing should be - including Susan Gaffney, HUD's Clinton-appointed inspector general, with whom Cuomo has feuded for nearly his entire term. Gaffney has criticized the secretary for what she's called an "eagerness to ride currents of public opinion that lead the department away from its core mission."

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