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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Mike Groll, Associated Press

Love, marriage and voters

  • Article by: FRANK BRUNI
  • New York Times
  • January 19, 2013 - 7:35 PM

Andrew Cuomo doesn't dally. If he deems something important, he pounces on it. Last week he did that with gun control, signing sweeping new legislation.

He's also ambitious. A 2016 presidential bid may be in the offing, especially if Hillary Clinton doesn't jump in. And the national profile that he's forging -- trailblazer on gay marriage, guardian of public safety -- almost surely reflects his sense of where the country is heading and what voters will and won't reward.

How, then, are we supposed to read his romantic situation?

He's unmarried, but has been living with the irrepressible food celebrity Sandra Lee for years now, most recently in her Westchester house. "Public concubinage" is what one Catholic official once called their cohabitation, generating a flurry of articles that mentioned "living in sin." The couple made no apologies. And they've never signaled any plans to wed.

That wasn't a factor in Cuomo's successful New York gubernatorial campaign, but whether it would be a liability in a national race is hard to say. Political strategists told me yes, no, maybe. I'm rooting for no, because that would be an affirmation that we, as a voting public, have wised up to the frequent lack of any correlation between a tableau of traditional family life and the values, character and skills it takes to govern effectively. And I'm intrigued by politicians who are writing fresh scripts and handling their personal situations in surprising ways.

Recently I visited Colorado, whose governor, John Hickenlooper, is another prominent Democrat sometimes mentioned in connection with 2016. I met up with him just a few hours after his State of the State address. Its distinctions included this: When he thanked his wife, Helen Thorpe, for coming to hear it, he was reminding Coloradans that the two had separated midway through 2012, less than two years into his first term.

"I greatly appreciate Helen being here today," he told the gathered lawmakers. Then, mentioning their 10-year-old son, he added, "Even with the changes in our life, she remains a beacon of light to me and Teddy."

Hickenlooper has handled the separation not with terse acknowledgments and speedy pivots to the next topic but with a transparent emotionalism. It's arresting -- and refreshing. The couple announced that he was moving out of their Denver house and into the governor's mansion in a joint statement that the governor's office emailed to their friends and to journalists last July. Half news release, half personal letter, it was unlike any political document I'd seen.

In it he and Thorpe wrote that they remained "close friends," that they and Teddy would still take vacations and spend holidays together and that acquaintances should "feel free to include both of us in social gatherings, as we will not find it awkward." They also said that neither of them had had an affair.

During my recent conversations with Hickenlooper, he brought up Thorpe readily and repeatedly. She's a journalist, and he proudly described her progress on a new book. He expressed sorrow that the public eye and the whirl of his political life had never really suited her. When they married in 2002, his political career had really yet to begin.

He said that over the last few years, as he rose in political prominence, they were careful to carve out private time, thinking that that would do the trick. He was sure to be home with his wife by 7 p.m. at least four of every seven nights, he said.

But, he said: "There was just always somebody interrupting. She's someone who just thinks so deeply and feels so deeply -- it was just so distracting for her. I didn't appreciate that properly."

If he hadn't run for governor, I asked, would the marriage have survived? "It's conceivable," he said. Then he volunteered that when they discussed separating, she had told him: "If you want to run for president, I'm in. We'll stay married. I'll figure it out and I'll be fine."

He shook his head. "It was amazingly generous," he said. He turned down that offer, he told me, because he didn't want to prolong her unhappiness and had "pretty much made my mind up to focus on Colorado and not to spend time imagining any national campaigns." There are few signs that he's gearing up for one.

"I never considered how a voter might respond," he said. "Marriage 'status' still matters to some people, but it seems like less and less."

Is he right? Could he or Cuomo run for national office without a spouse at his side? Could Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, another rising Democratic star? He's steadfastly single. What about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, whose marriage unraveled messily in 2007? Although Jerry Brown strode unmarried onto the national stage -- and sought the Democratic presidential nomination sans bride -- decades ago, that was a different thing. He was a decided iconoclast, and his stubborn bachelorhood was part and parcel of his outre political appeal.

There's certainly no divorce taboo in contemporary presidential politics. Ronald Reagan demonstrated that, and then came Bob Dole and John McCain, with one divorce apiece, and Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, with two each. Gingrich last year won two Republican primaries in socially conservative Southern states, including South Carolina, where another messily divorced Republican, Mark Sanford, the state's former governor, announced a candidacy for Congress last week.

Lucky for him and Gingrich and others, there's no infidelity taboo, either. Bill Clinton demolished that. Lewinsky or no Lewinsky, most Americans have come to see his presidency as a bright one and Hillary as an estimable public servant, yet none of those supporters mistake the Clintons' marriage for the stuff of storybooks, unless maybe we're talking about Rona Jaffe or David Baldacci novels.

We've seemingly moved away from conventional and naive expectations, if we ever really had them, and in the years to come we'll surely see, on the national stage, more proof of that: candidates without partners, candidates with partners they haven't wed, candidates with partners of the same sex.

And my guess is that many of them will do just fine, as long as they aren't defensive or opaque and they permit enough of a view into their lives and hearts for voters to see -- and identify with -- a bedrock of common longings, a braid of recognizable frailties and frustrations.

Hickenlooper is doing that, and if Cuomo does likewise, he could find that an outspoken, aggressive support of regulations on firearms is a bigger political problem in much of the United States than, er, concubinage is. Ours is a peculiar land, growing saner in some regards even as we remain absolutely bonkers in others.

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