The Cuomo Family: A dynasty built on more than politics

By Paul Ziek

Since the democratization of America, the political landscape has been littered with both local and national dynasties. Although political dynasties come in many forms, there is no doubt they have played a crucial role in shaping American policy. Moreover, even though family names such as Adams, Roosevelt and Rockefeller are commonly known, the recent ascent of the Kennedy, Bush and Clinton and Romney families has propelled the idea of the political dynasty into more of a spotlight. Indeed, reams of paper, and air time, have been dedicated to debating the pros and cons of America’s fascination with political families. One of the more powerful families that does not receive as much fan fair as the others is the Cuomo family. Yet, the Cuomo family, which are often considered one of the most influential families in American political history (Alfaro, 2015: Dangremond, 2015) certainly deserves more attention. The current paper will discuss the American political dynasty in general and the Cuomo family in particular.

Political Dynasty

A political dynasty is simply defined as families where multiple members have held elected office (Feinstein, 2010). With two family members serving as governor of one of the largest and most powerful states in the nation, the Cuomos are certainly deserving of the title. Mario, born and raised in Queens, spent over 20 years on the political scene of New York. After losing several early elections, he was elected to lieutenant governor, which propelled him to eventually win the governor’s seat, an office he held from 1983 to 1994. Andrew, his eldest son, was also born and raised in New York. After briefly spending time in private law, he held the offices of United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and New York State Attorney General. This experience later helped him rise to the governor’s office in 2011. Even though it is rare to have two family members hold such a powerful office, there is not much academic literature on the Cuomo family, especially as a political dynasty. What does exist, details the elements of their policies and political behaviors as governors.

What follows is a short review of some of the academic work both Mario and Andrew Cuomo. Goldstock (1991) describes the way Mario successfully combated corruption in the construction industry in the 1980s through his creation of the Construction Industry Strike Force. Perrow and Guillen (1990) discuss what they perceive was a failure in how Mario reacted to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Hursh (2013) illustrates Andrew’s role in promoting mayoral control over New York City schools and the implementation of high-stakes standardized testing.

Of all the topics, Andrew’s decision to adopt a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, has certainly received the most academic attention. New York State sits on the Marcellus Shale Field, which holds untold amounts of natural gas, all of which must be extracted through fracking. For years, the topic of fracking has been debated among dozens of organizations and Andrew’s decision is certainly controversial (Aakhus, Ziek & Dadlani, 2014; Simonelli, 2014), especially as he pushes the state toward more sustainable policies and projects (Dodge, 2015).

Although a small sample, the articles covered here show the breadth of academic writing that focuses on either Mario or Andrew. Yet, considering that the Cuomo family has been shaping New York politics for over 40 years, what seems to be missing is an overall discussion, and understanding, of the dynasty.

There is a growing body of academic literature that tries to explain how the phenomenon of the family dynasty persists in American politics (Fiva & Smith, 2018). Although there are many theories that attempt to explain the political dynasty, they all center around the notion that elite families have more access to the wealth, privilege and power necessary to run for office (Parry, 2005; see also Putnam, 2005). It is the self-perpetuation of the family that increases the probability that heirs can attain political power in the future regardless of individual characteristics (Dal Bó, Dal Bó & Snyder, 2009). In this case, the access gave Andrew specifically a reputational advantage that allowed him to take advantage of recognition and social capital (Fiva & Smith, 2018). However, in today’s media dominated society, there is another narrative that can help explain how political dynasties emerge. Political dynasties of the past 70 years can certainly be viewed through a celebrity lens. The Cuomo Dynasty certainly fits the bill – they, like the other political dynasties, rely on celebrity to attract and retain a certain level of interest in their political aspirations.

Political Dynasty and Celebrity

The truly fascinating part about the Cuomo Dynasty, and that which allows the current paper to integrate celebrity studies, becomes apparent when one considers the entirety of the family or those involved in the family at one time or another. The Cuomo family is not just a political dynasty but a political dynasty that is driven and supported by celebrity. First and foremost, Andrew was formerly married to Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and is currently involved with Sandra Lee, a television chef and author best known for her Food Network programs. Next comes Maria Cuomo. Although Maria is typically not in the public eye, her marriage to uber-clothing designer Kenneth Cole certainly draws attention to the family’s connections in and out of politics. Then comes brother Christopher. Christopher Cuomo is currently a CNN host, but has also worked at ABC News, 20/20 and Good Morning America. His work on television has garnered him national Emmys and a spot in People Magazine’s 50 Sexiest People. In the end, the Cuomo Dynasty is not simply made of individuals that have a prominent profile but individuals that command a certain degree of public fascination.

Obviously, when most of us think of a celebrity family, the Kardashian-Jenner family comes to mind. As strange as this may sound – comparing the Cuomo and Kardashian-Jenner family is not so farfetched. In fact, comparing the Kardashian-Jenner and any political dynasty falls in line with the idea that attaining status large enough to create a generational empire like the Kardashian-Jenner family, approximately $2 billion (Friedman & Gonzales, 2019), is not as different as the status needed to win multiple major elections.

According to Rojeck (2004), one of the more conventional forms of celebrity is ascribed celebrity. Ascribed celebrity is when interest in an individual, or individuals, is gained through lineage. The contention here is not that the Cuomo dynasty is simply a product of fame but there is an undeniable aspect of their ascension that is related to bloodline. Even Rojeck makes the point that “individuals may add to or subtract form their ascribed status by the virtue of their voluntary actions, but the foundation of their ascribed celebrity is predetermined (p. 17)”.

More to the point, the ascribed nature of the dynasty is in part beholden to the celebrity recognition attained and maintained by the entire family. The Cuomo family is a celebrity brand that has infiltrated many aspects of the public sphere and this brand has been built upon and across multiple generations. There is an inseparable nature to the individual members no matter what sphere they inhabit. For example, Chris and Andrew are often referred to by Fox News as the brothers from Dumb and Dumber, or when Andrew added brother-in-law Kenneth Cole to a delegation, the family was lauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for supporting Israel in its conflict with Hamas. The end result is a legacy of power that resides within the families and goes a long way to helping propel members.

Conclusion

Politics is subject to the trends and phenomena that emerge relative to the pressures of democratic society. In very recent years, America has seen waves of politics that has been stylized through professionalizing imperatives, anti-elitist populism and changes in how the public receives politics (Blumler & Kavanagh, 1999). One of the more recent trends is the intersection between celebrity and politics. The celebrity politician has grown in popularity as individuals look to traffic between the two spheres (Ziek, 2017). Given their influence within multiple worlds, the political celebrity dynasty isn’t a fleeting concept. As Wheeler (2013) explains, the consistency and scale of the impact that the celebritisation of politics has, should not be dismissed as an erosion of politics but instead viewed as a change in political aesthetics. So, although using a celebrity lens to describe the Cuomo dynasty may seem fantastic, consider the current media banter about the children of prominent politicians. There have been countless stories about Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Jenna Bush and Sasha and Malia Obama. These stories often go beyond their political aspirations to cover human interest. Furthermore, what these stories do is create a celebrity that will begin their political career two or three steps ahead of any other individual that wishes to run against them for office.

Paul Ziek is chairperson of the Media, Communications, and Visual Arts Department at Pace University. 

References

Aakhus, M., Ziek, P., & Dadlani, P. (2016). Argumentation in large, complex practices. In. H.V. Hansen, C.E. Hundleby and C.W. Tindale (Eds.) Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation. Ontario, Canada: University of Windsor.

Alfaro, M. (2015, December). From the Adamses to the Clintons: The most influential US political families in history, ranked. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/americas-most-influential-political-families-ranked-adams-clintons-kennedys-bushes-2018-12

Blumler, J. G., & Kavanagh, D. (1999). The third age of political communication: Influences and features. Political communication16(3), 209-230.

Dal Bó, E., Dal Bó, P., & Snyder, J. (2009). Political dynasties. The Review of Economic Studies76(1), 115-142.

Dangremond, S. (2015, April). Do Americans Dislike Dynasties? Town & Country. Retrieved from https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/g1262/american-political-dynasties/

Dodge, J. (2015). The deliberative potential of civil society organizations: framing hydraulic fracturing in New York. Policy Studies36(3), 249-266.

Feinstein, B. D. (2010). The dynasty advantage: Family ties in congressional elections. Legislative Studies Quarterly35(4), 571-598.

Fiva, J. H., & Smith, D. M. (2018). Political dynasties and the incumbency advantage in party-centered environments. American Political Science Review112(3), 706-712.

Friedman, M., & Gonzales, E. (2019, March). Here’s How Much Every Member of the Kardashian-Jenner Family is Worth. Harper’s Bazaar. Retrieved from https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a22117965/kardashian-family-net-worth/

Simonelli, J. (2014). Home rule and natural gas development in New York: civil fracking rights. Journal of Political Ecology21(1), 258-78.

Hursh, D. (2013). Raising the stakes: High-stakes testing and the attack on public education in New York. Journal of Education Policy28(5), 574-588.

Parry, G. (2005). Political elites. ECPR Press.

Perrow, C., & Guillen, M. F. (1990). The AIDS disaster: The failure of organizations in New York and the nation. Yale University Press.

Putnam, R. (1976). The comparative study of political elites. Prentice-Hall.

Rojek, C. (2004). Celebrity. Reaction Books.

Simonelli, J. (2014). Home rule and natural gas development in New York: civil fracking rights. Journal of Political Ecology21(1), 258-78.

Wheeler, M. (2013). Celebrity politics. Polity.

Ziek, P. (2017). Twitter and the Political Celebrity: Cory Booker. Paper presented at the 28th Annual Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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