Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Andrew Cuomo has spent his career seeking to step into big shoes. The former HUD secretary has long wanted to avenge his father's 1994 defeat after three terms as New York governor, but the younger Cuomo ran a disastrous campaign for the office in 2002. He won the job of state attorney general last year, but in following Eliot Spitzer, his notably controversial predecessor, Cuomo again finds himself faced with the task of proving that he can make his own mark.
Spitzer's activism as attorney general, particularly his crusades against Wall Street corruption, won him both friends and enemies, but propelled him to the governor's office. In order to make a similar name for himself as AG, Cuomo will have to come up with his own set of dragons to slay.
He hasn't wasted any time in looking for them. New York's attorney general has the job of signing off on earmarks--the local pork-barrel projects known euphemistically as "member items" in the legislature. Most AGs have simply rubber-stamped the items, but Cuomo has embraced the task as an opportunity to bring new scrutiny to the question of how public money gets spent. Toward that end, he also has pledged to lend staff to the Albany County district attorney to investigate corruption cases.
This appears to be a nice fit all around. The DA has jurisdiction in such cases, but the AG's office has the resources to push the investigation. And legislative corruption issues, while they open up a front different from Spitzer's Wall Street focus, dovetail nicely with the new governor's current calls for state government "reform."
Cuomo is borrowing or adapting other familiar Spitzer strategies, such as latching on to little-used laws as prosecutorial weapons. He's taking advantage of a federal law regulating "vapor intrusion" to sue oil companies in hopes of forcing them to clean up a decades-old spill along a waterway between Brooklyn and Queens. Also in the Spitzer tradition, he isn't overly concerned about staying within New York borders: Cuomo is investigating the activities of college lenders who do business in New York--and just about everywhere else in the country as well.
Given all this activity, it's clear that the new attorney general thinks he can leave his own stamp on the job--even with his predecessor watching closely, not too far away. He may find that, for all the complexities of New York politics, trying to be the next Eliot Spitzer might be a better springboard to power than trying to be the next Mario Cuomo.