New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo delivers Abrams Lecture

Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general of New York, displayed both candor and self-deprecating humor when he delivered the 13th annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture, “Pursuing Public Service,” co-sponsored by the Public Interest Law Center and Law Democrats, on September 14.

Introducing Cuomo, former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams ’63, who had worked with Cuomo for more than two decades and served as chair of the transition committee when Cuomo became attorney general, recounted a litany of public service positions that Cuomo has held: lawyer in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office; policy adviser to his father, then-Governor Mario Cuomo; founder of Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged; and U.S. secretary of housing and urban development during Bill Clinton’s administration. No sooner had Cuomo taken his place at the lectern than he said, to general laughter, “You heard that I’ve had a number of positions during my career. That’s because I can’t hold a job.”

Cuomo also put a gently wry spin on the sensitive matter of investigating fellow public officials. His office has looked into the actions of not just members of the state legislature, but also the state police and even New York’s chief executive. In 2007, Cuomo released a report accusing then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s office of using state police for its own political ends; the ensuing scandal was dubbed Troopergate. Of investigating his own boss, Cuomo remarked, “I would not recommend anyone else doing that, especially in the position of attorney general.”

He quickly adopted a more somber tone, however, as he described the rewards of a public service career. When Cuomo was HUD secretary, Clinton had told him that working as an attorney general is the purest form of public service. “I understand now what he meant,” Cuomo said. “The AG’s office is pure public service. The entire job description is, I represent the people of the State of New York.... Justice in the fullest expanse. Social justice and racial justice and economic justice. That’s the mandate of the office.... Make this society a more just society, and use the body of law as a powerful sword and a powerful shield on behalf of the people of the State of New York. Beautiful! What else could you want to do with your life?”

During his time in office, Cuomo has tackled areas as diverse as health, the environment, Wall Street, student loans, and restructuring government. Regarding the latter topic, he made a forceful case for holding a state constitutional convention as a tool to achieve that aim, as an alternative to a legislative process he characterized as dysfunctional. A combination of plummeting state revenues and bloated state government, he argued, makes the status quo untenable: “You simply can’t afford that much government, that many levels, that many employees.” A constitutional convention, Cuomo said, could address flawed legislative district lines, implement reform of “one of the most obscene campaign finance systems in the nation,” and reengineer a court system that is “a tremendous bureaucratic, Byzantine mess.”

One of the most crucial elements of a reformed state government, he told an audience full of NYU Law students, is a pool of dedicated and talented employees. Urging those in attendance to consider a public service path, Cuomo said: “This is a time when [public service] is more important than ever before. Because today, my friends, government matters.... The decisions we are making in government today will decide the trajectory of this nation and this state for years to come, possibly for the rest of your adult life. I believe that’s how profound these discussions are.”

Watch the full video (49 min):

Posted on September 17, 2009