Cuomo and TV host form unusual power couple; will they move in together at governor’s mansion?

By Michael Hill, AP
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cuomo and TV host form an unusual power couple

NEW YORK — He battles Wall Street fat cats, wants to drain New York’s political swamp and is the favorite to be the state’s next governor. She makes chili dogs on the Food Network, dispenses recipes for “semi-homemade” meals and has clutter-free closet tips.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and TV lifestyle celebrity Sandra Lee have been a couple for five years, highly visible in their respective fields but largely under the radar as a couple.

With Cuomo now running for the job once held by his father, they remain discreet about their live-in relationship. But the intriguing possibility remains: If Cuomo wins in November, New York’s incoming first family could be uniquely nontraditional: two experts in statecraft and kitchencraft, living together without benefit of marriage.

Cuomo and Lee might seem like a peculiar power couple.

Lee, 43, is the host of two Food Network shows: “Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee” and “Sandra’s Money Saving Meals.” A product of the West Coast and the Midwest, she grills banana S’mores and chops parsley on camera with animated charm. Her trademark phrase, “semi-homemade,” describes her philosophy of adding fresh ingredients to packaged food (Don’t have time to whip cream? Take a tub of Cool Whip and add vanilla extract).

Cuomo is a 52-year-old from Queens and the elder son of Mario Cuomo. Like his father, he is lawyerly and playfully combative (Don’t want to answer a reporter’s question? Start a Socratic dialogue). He works on old muscle cars for fun, and is more at home with a wrench than a whisk. Like his girlfriend, he is divorced. He was married to a member of another distinguished Democratic family, Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.

“We have a wonderful, supportive relationship and we both are always there to help the other,” Lee said in a statement to The Associated Press. “I leave the law enforcement and the politics to him, and he stays away from any recipe development (though he is impressive on the grill).”

They met at a party in 2005 at a mutual friend’s house in the Hamptons and now live in suburban Westchester County, where they spend time with Cuomo’s three teenage daughters.

“In a sort of sea of celebrity,” said Food Network President Brooke Johnson, the couple’s relationship “seems like a little island of realness and calmness.”

Though Cuomo and Lee court publicity as individuals, they are leery of drawing back the curtains on their relationship. Neither would agree to an interview with the AP.

Aides to Lee also said it is too early to say if the couple will move into the Executive Mansion in Albany should he win. (Not all New York governors have lived full time in the mansion.)

During an appearance by Lee last week on a Fox morning show, the hosts steered the conversation away from the topic of tuna to Cuomo. After offering that Cuomo is “very heart-healthy,” thoughtful and kind, Lee joked that she hopes people ask Cuomo about her Food Network shows when he is interviewed.

Lee appeared on stage with the Cuomo family during his campaign launch and at the party convention, and she is in some family photos on her boyfriend’s campaign website. But she is not mentioned along with his parents and his daughters in the “About Andrew” section.

Analysts say there could be political as well as personal reasons for Cuomo to tread gingerly on the subject of his long-term relationship as he runs for higher office, even though it’s not exactly uncharted political territory.

Actress Debra Winger reportedly slept over at the Nebraska governor’s mansion when Bob Kerrey was governor in the 1980s. Closer to home, New York City’s popular mayor, Mike Bloomberg, lives in his Upper East Side townhouse — he never moved into the official mayor’s mansion — with his girlfriend, Diana Taylor.

(If Cuomo wins, would it be OK to call Lee the first lady of New York? No, according to protocol guru Letitia Baldridge, who was Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary. Baldridge said that while it is common to call governors’ wives “first ladies,” there is only one, and she is married to the president. Her suggestions: Ms. Lee or Sandra Lee.)

Bella DePaulo, who wrote about single adults in the book “Singled Out,” said that while attitudes about relationships have become more liberal, mores are still in flux and politicians are often afraid of crossing the line.

“We’re feeling our way,” she said, “and I think for a high-profile person in politics, the stakes are higher for them to guess wrong when there is no established consensus.”

Still, several political analysts said the couple’s live-in relationship is unlikely to be a big issue.

Political science professor Robert McClure of Syracuse University said the people who would be bothered by it would probably not vote for the Democrat anyway.

Some New York voters said they weren’t even aware of the relationship between the politician and the cook. And they said it didn’t make any difference to them.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” Kyle Lavorgna said in Albany, “as long as it’s not another reality show starting.”

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