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."
What's more, the president of the association that represents the nation's public housing authorities wrote to Cuomo last year to express bewilderment that HUD was threatening to bring suit on its behalf against gun manufacturers. The membership, said James R. Tabron, "is concerned that this is a politically charged and highly controversial matter in which most housing authorities do not desire involvement."
Cuomo declined to be interviewed for this article. But HUD officials maintain that a key part of the department's mission is to ensure that the communities where the government has made an investment are safe. "Housing isn't just a roof over your head," says HUD spokesman Lee Jones. "It's also making sure the neighborhood is a safe neighborhood."
The HUD secretary, who is extremely close to his father and, in fact, "sounds more like Mario Cuomo than Mario Cuomo," as one Capitol Hill aide said, has been a forceful spokesman for the public housing industry, say admirers.
In Baltimore, he impressed housing chiefs recently by forming a national task force on predatory lending practices - high-interest loans made to the working poor - after meeting with the heads of nonprofit housing groups at the behest of Mikulski.
"I'd have to rank him as one of the more effective HUD secretaries," says housing lawyer Charles Edson. "He's been quite effective in getting legislation through in the last three years and has tried to raise the department's visibility."
Still, HUD's programs remain "high risk" for waste, fraud and abuse, according to the General Accounting Office, because of a lack of internal tracking of where and how money is spent. Although Cuomo has been unable to erase the designation, given in 1994 and reviewed every two years, the GAO has noted "credible progress."
But Republicans have been highly critical, calling Cuomo's effort to stem the decline in affordable housing "a record of failure" and charging the secretary with politicizing the department.
Cuomo's most notorious continuing battle has been with his department's inspector general. Since 1995, when Gaffney raised questions about a program run by Cuomo, who was then assistant HUD secretary, he has been trying to discredit her. Gaffney, in turn, has kept up a drumbeat of attacks. Generally praised by Democratic and Republican lawmakers as a by-the-book bureaucrat, Gaffney told Congress in 1998 that Cuomo "is uncomfortable with the concept of an independent inspector general who is not subject to his control."
Even Cuomo's fiercest fans say he is zealously concerned with control and image - in at least one case to the possible detriment of the taxpayers.
A Boston-based energy conservation company, run by two Democratic fund-raisers, brought a lawsuit against HUD in 1997 charging that the secretary wrongfully canceled a lucrative HUD contract after a Wall Street Journal article implied that the company won the contract through political connections. Even though the newspaper ran a correction three days later saying there was no evidence of impropriety, HUD officials told the principals it was canceling the contract because the Journal article "potentially creates the appearance of an impropriety."
HUD admitted liability for canceling the contract (which would have saved the government millions in energy costs, the company contends). A judge is deciding whether the government must pay the $13.7 million in damages that Energy Capital Partners is seeking or the about $1 million that HUD lawyers argue the department owes.
The lawsuit paints an unflattering portrait of Cuomo, saying he threatened one of the Boston businessmen in an effort to get him to drop the suit, warning of "potential adverse ramifications to him and his business interests from any failure to do so."
Cuomo's admirers are resigned to the secretary's tactics and personality as part of the package.
"His confrontational style doesn't always get the best results on some of the smaller things," says Harvey of the Enterprise Foundation. "But if that's the price you have to pay for putting housing front and center, the rewards far outweigh some of the style issues."