My first employer after college was H.E.L.P., Inc, a not-for-profit organization that built and operated transitional housing facilities for the homeless in New York. I remember nervously sitting in the conference room at H.E.L.P.’s headquarters on 33rd Street for my interview with the organization’s founder and president, Andrew Cuomo.
It was 1991. No one had heard of the Internet. Fax machines that printed on real paper were considered high tech. The first George Bush was president. Mario Cuomo was governor of New York. And I had no clue what I was doing there.
I got connected with Andrew through a mutual friend and he was gracious enough to agree to meet with a naïve college graduate interested in politics and public service. It was undoubtedly the worst interview of my life. After the pleasantries, here’s how it started:
Andrew: So, what can I do for you?
Me: To be honest I’m not sure. Last summer after graduation I tried to get a job on the Rinfret campaign but that didn’t work out. I spent the next six months as a literacy tutor teaching ex-cons how to read. But now I need a job and our mutual friend thought you would be a good person for me to talk to.
Just for some context, Pierre Rinfret ran against Andrew’s father for governor and lost handily.
In hindsight I’m surprised Andrew didn’t walk out of the room. I mean how stupid an opening can one have to an interview? Andrew was his father’s closest confidante. But fortunately for me, either out of pity or loyalty to our mutual friend, he didn’t leave. We kept talking for another 30 minutes. I don’t remember much more of what I said but we ended up having a good conversation. I was impressed with what he was doing at HELP. Much to my surprise, he offered me an internship on the spot which after 6 weeks turned into a full-time job.
For the next two years I worked at H.E.L.P. Andrew was not my immediate boss. But the office was small, and I interacted with him practically every day. He gave me assignments and we spent a lot of time together.
My title was Director of Special Projects, which was completely ludicrous given how green I was. Basically, I was a glorified coordinator/gopher. I sat in on his meetings and phone calls, prepared summaries of the daily news clippings, helped organize events and, once he learned that I could read his handwriting, typed documents.
The best part of the job was how much access Andrew gave me. He liked to talk on the phone and read on his way to meetings, so I drove him everywhere. (It was the first time I’d seen a car phone, which blew me away.) I can still hear his voice now, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” urging me to drive faster as I maneuvered his Ford Bronco in and out of traffic during Manhattan rush hour, praying I didn’t kill someone in the process.
Often when we arrived (thankfully always in one piece), he invited me to join him. I sat in meetings Andrew held with New York City’s mayor at the time, David Dinkins, and other city leaders when he chaired the special commission on the homeless. I got a front row seat to observe how he managed a growing organization and navigated the challenging political terrain that surrounded the pressing homeless crisis.
Andrew taught me what hard work looked like and how to properly plan and prepare. “Roll the videotape” he used to say when planning an event or project. It was his way of teaching me to fully visualize the outcome you want in advance to make it happen, including imagining what the headlines and stories would be for the event in the press.
He would often start status meetings by asking “What do you know?” And if he sensed you weren’t prepared and just winging the answer his eyes would narrow and he’d respond, “Do you know that or are you just saying that?”
Andrew was highly intelligent, ferociously driven, charismatic and powerful. To top it off his wife at the time was a Kennedy and worked down the hall. It was heady stuff to be in his orbit for a highly impressionable young man like me.
Andrew made me smarter, tougher and more resilient. Working with him on documents made me a better writer. Listening to him give speeches and talk made me a better communicator. I learned how he framed complex issues simply and what it means to work with passion and commitment.
But at the same time working with Andrew also gave me perspective on how not to do things. No question he had a volcanic temper and could be a bully. Some of the things he said to me when I made mistakes (and I made plenty) and I witnessed him say to others in fits of rage would get you fired on the spot in a corporate setting, both then and now.
Like other political animals, Andrew was extraordinarily self-obsessed. His interest in you directly correlated to your willingness to put his needs in front of yours. You were either all the way in or out. There was no in between.
During downtime he liked asking about people’s personal lives, enjoyed playful, flirtatious banter, and certainly had a lot to say about what people wore. In my case I had to be sure to show up to work with a pressed shirt and freshly shined shoes. (Truth be told I needed this advice.) While some of the conversations I witnessed certainly would be considered inappropriate or over the line in any professional setting today, I never saw or heard about him crossing the line physically.
Friends who know I worked with Andrew have asked me my thoughts on recent events. The truth is I’m not sure how informed my perspective is. I’ve seen Andrew once or twice in the past 30 years. But for what it’s worth, like many things in life I think it’s possible for multiple things to be true at the same time. People are complex, Andrew more so than most.
Unquestionably even if only half of the things in the state attorney general’s report are accurate (and I believe a lot what I’ve read), he long ago forfeited his right to be governor. I’m glad that the women who were victimized finally have been heard and believed. And most importantly that Andrew has been properly held accountable for his actions. Justice is served by his resignation.
At the same time there is sadness for me in this outcome. Not because he didn’t deserve it, he did. But because a career of much achievement that made the world better for many people comes to an end this way. Andrew certainly wasn’t an easy man to work for. As I said, I learned a lot from him, both what to do and what not to do. But I remain grateful that he didn’t walk out of that interview way back when and gave me a chance. The experience of working for him changed my life. I hope he learns from this and finds some measure of redemption in whatever he does next.