Andrew Cuomo, Clinton’s Trump antidote in New York

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Cuomo stumps for Clinton. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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ALBANY — When Andrew Cuomo mocks someone, his voice drops deeper and gains a darker texture. He raises his back a bit, and moves his head from side to side. His inflections stretch wider. And even though he didn't say Donald Trump's name earlier this month at a rally for Hillary Clinton in Manhattan, his target in parroting the Republican position was unmistakable.

“We make a long list. We write down all the immigrants on the list and then we kick them all out,” Cuomo said. “And then to make sure they don’t come back, we build a wall. The wall. The big wall, a long wall, a thousand-mile wall, like a China wall but wider but higher, but nicer. A good-looking wall!”

The crowd roared before Cuomo, who has been governor for five years but has been involved in the political rough and tumble for four decades, introduced Clinton. He's become a strong ally for her in the Empire State, working to prevent any real contest with Bernie Sanders in next month's primary.

But with Trump's rise on the Republican side, Cuomo is poised to become a more valuable asset for Clinton in the general election: a surrogate attack dog who is capable of being as loud, abrasive and combatively New Yorky as Trump himself.

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“The Democrats need someone who will be unafraid to tell Donald Trump to walk off the top of a building; there's a guy who fits that, and it's Andrew Cuomo,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who has worked against Cuomo in the past, and advised Cuomo's 2014 re-election campaign. “You have two fierce New Yorkers, neither of whom will show any pity. That's one of the reasons why Andrew Cuomo makes such sense as a surrogate, because this is going to be among the most vicious, nasty campaigns in American history.”

Cuomo's surrogate duty has so far been fairly light, but he's expected to hit the road for Clinton soon and at one point last week was in talks to speak at a rally for her today in Florida, according to two sources familiar with the governor's plans. (Cuomo ended up not going.)

According to Sheinkopf, he's a perfect demographic fit for the very people Clinton will be fighting against Trump for: working-class Catholic voters in the Midwest. And we've already heard in recent weeks how Cuomo hopes to appeal to them.

“The middle class is angry because the middle class, the working families, have been going backwards for a long, long time in this economy. … The political question becomes, what do you do with that anger? You have some people and some theories that are using the anger politically. They’re fanning the flames of the anger and they’re directing the anger and the anxiety,” the governor said last week at a rally with House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi. “We come from the exact opposite school and our message is the exact opposite. We don’t want to fan the flames and make it negative; we want to make it positive. We want to make a change. Address the problems of the middle class.”

So paid family leave along with a minimum wage increase are Cuomo's antidote. But Trump's candidacy has been less about substantive policy than strong man bombast, and here Cuomo can also be a counterpoint.

The two men from Queens have known each other for decades, after all. Donald Trump urged Mario Cuomo, the current governor's father, to run for president, and when Trump was seeking favors from state government, he hired a law firm where Andrew Cuomo would soon become a 27-year-old partner. Over the last 10 years, Trump has contributed $64,000 to Cuomo's campaigns.

According to Cuomo's 2015 biography, Trump sent a video to Cuomo's bachelor party where he warned about the dangers of cheating on a spouse. (Both men are now with different women.) Cuomo successfully fought and beat Carl Paladino, Trump's upstate archetype, in 2010; four years later Trump denounced Cuomo at a gun rights rally near the Capitol.

“Cuomo can say, 'I know Donald Trump,' Then he pivot back to his core messages: government works when it listens to other people — all the stuff he's been saying,” said one Democratic operative. “But the best way to take on a brash New Yorker is with another one. You gotta fight asshole with asshole.”

Cuomo's natural state is to go after people. He was a go-to hatchet man for his father, Mario Cuomo, and, in unguarded moments, on his own behalf, too. Think of his 2002 comment about how George Pataki simply held Rudy Giuliani's coat on Sept. 11.

The governor has been doing his best to suppress his darker impulses for the last decade; the last time it shined through during the 2014 gubernatorial debate, when he was given leash to go after his opponent Rob Astorino. Cuomo told reporters after, “I had fun.”

If there's one guy who can get under Trump's skin, perhaps it's Cuomo. 

It will be interesting, then, to see what temperamental balance Cuomo strikes. His critics already brand him a bully, and he's certainly capable of not just going there against Trump, but staying there. But will he?

“Both Andrew Cuomo and Trump are tough. But Cuomo is tough — let me put it this way: Cuomo can be tough but still evoke class. He will come across as fare more credible, and he is exactly the antidote for Trump's base, negative, bellicose ranting,” said Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs, one of Hillary Clinton's top New York bundlers and a former chairman of the Democratic State Committee. “He's another adult in the room, which is exactly what Trump is not.”