Warren Wilhelm Jr. has changed his name three times during his lifetime, finally settling, relatively late in his life, on Bill de Blasio. Andrew Cuomo has forever been, and always will be, Andrew Cuomo.
This simple fact about the names of New York City’s mayor and the governor of New York reveals multitudes about the two men, who on the surface would seem to share a common interest: public service. Yet they are aggressively competing in pursuit of that goal in ways that have led them toward a cold and calculating, take-no-prisoners feud.
And as we count down to their respective State of the State and State of the City addresses, we see something else: that Andrew Cuomo is the New York native who visibly thrives in and enjoys this blood sport, because getting power, using it and holding onto it is a game we learn growing up in central Queens, the way Pete Hamill told us that kids in Brooklyn once used to learn to play stickball on the streets with pink Spaldeens.
The core differences between Cuomo and de Blasio begin with their relationships with their fathers.
Warren Wilhelm Jr.’s evolution to Bill de Blasio started as a way to sever a painful connection with his patrician father, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, and whose own father graduated from Harvard. De Blasio himself has revealed that his father struggled to cope with the trauma he experienced as a veteran of World War II, where he fought at the Battle of Okinawa. That battle scarred a lot of GIs for life, including my own dad. De Blasio’s father abandoned his family when he was seven and committed suicide in 1979. Understanding those circumstances, it’s no surprise that de Blasio embraced his mother’s immigrant family in Boston, where he was raised, and eventually took their name.
In sharp contrast, Andrew Cuomo adored and is proud of his father, Mario, who played professional baseball to help pay for college and for an engagement ring for the woman who would become his wife. There were no Ivy League castles in their history, just a shop in South Jamaica, Queens. Few men have been as close to their father as Andrew Cuomo was to his. Andrew roomed with Mario when his father was New York’s secretary of state and he was in law school, plotted with him and ran his campaign for governor, was his father’s top adviser, and followed his footsteps to become elected governor himself.
Even how they were taught to value their given names is another extreme difference between de Blasio and Cuomo.
Mario Cuomo loved to tell the story of how just out of law school he was encouraged to change his name to something more American to be able to land a job at a Manhattan law firm. Instead, he took a job at a firm in Brooklyn.
He was equally, fiercely, proud of his ethnic Queens identity. When I was an Albany correspondent for the New York Daily News, he once overheard me identify myself to someone I had just met as Edward. From across the room, he yelled, with a huge grin on his face, “He’s Eddie Borges from Jamaica, Queens.” Only as I wrote that sentence did I understand for the first time the lesson about identity that Mario Cuomo was taking the time to impart to me, a lesson he clearly taught to his own children.
Among the other things the Cuomos learned is how to target political campaigns, how to win, to call for votes in meetings only when you’re sure of the count, and that it’s a good thing to lose a couple of elections before you win the big one so that you understand hubris in a way that will stick with you for life.
De Blasio might have avoided a lot of embarrassment last month if he had learned that lesson about knowing the count before calling for a vote on his affordable housing plan.
Mario Cuomo also taught his son to love his work. He could rarely be wrenched free of his office at the Capitol or his study in the governor’s mansion on Eagle Street in Albany, rarely leaving the state where he was born, raised, worked and died, for overnight visits. He liked to wake up in his own bed and fall asleep there at night. His son adheres to the same philosophy. Except for one 24-hour trip to Los Angeles and another to Washington, D.C., and day trips to visit his twin daughters in boarding school in Massachusetts, Andrew Cuomo hardly left New York in his first term. It was only in year four of his first term that he finally left the nation’s borders to take the obligatory trip to Israel in an election year, and later to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. All three trips had a clear New York-centric angle, given that the respective ethnicities make up a significant portion of the state’s population.
De Blasio has taken more trips out of state and out of the country, and used more vacation time, than any mayor in recent history – almost always at taxpayer expense, including six months into the job, when he hired a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz to drive his family around Italy. Indeed, he took more trips out of state in the first quarter of his first term than Andrew Cuomo took his first year in office.
And while de Blasio has had a testy relationship with the media, Andrew Cuomo loves talking to reporters, just like his father – when a reporter’s telephone rings, it could be the governor, just calling to tease and torment you or share the political gossip of the day.
Too bad de Blasio never learned to play and enjoy the game. It’s clearly not coded in the original Warren Wilhelm Jr.’s DNA, which he can never change as easily as he changed his name.
Eddie Borges is directing a documentary about Mexican and Puerto Rican childhood poverty in New York City.