Meanwhile, his top rival, tea party-backed Republican Carl Paladino, sought to display a passion for the work he says career politicians like Cuomo have failed.
Cuomo repeatedly criticized the government now run by his party, and harkened to a time past when he said New York state government was considered a model for other states. He praised past leadership, although he didn't specifically note his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Cuomo spoke in detail with confidence on every subject, appearing more composed than Paladino and playing to the crowd more than the others at the Hofstra University debate, which included five minor party candidates.
"I know this state like nobody else on this stage," Cuomo said. "I understand the disgust with Albany, and I share it."
But the former federal housing secretary then added: "No state has anything on New York, and we're going to make this the Empire State again, don't make any mistake about that."
Paladino, a Buffalo developer, said state government doesn't need tweaking, but rather a major overhaul that scares career politicians like Cuomo.
"My critics," Paladino said, "want to say I'm crazy."
"No, I'm passionate," he said. He then ticked off his platform: cutting spending by 20 percent, cutting taxes by 10 percent, term limits of eight years for state officials, disclosure of all outside income to identify conflicts of interest and the appointment a special prosecutor to investigate the Legislature.
"My plan scares them to death," Paladino said. "You tell me if I'm crazy."
In the first and only scheduled debate of the nasty campaign, neither Cuomo nor Paladino targeted the other, although some of the minor party candidates took shots at both major party candidates.
Paladino, in his first public debate, stumbled early in his answers. At one point he referred to the state Board of Regents as the state school board, which doesn't exist. He struggled with some statistics while Cuomo rattled off others.
But Paladino became more confident halfway through the 90-minute debate, striking his fist to his heart at times and leaning into the camera.
"Jobs are the No. 1 concern of our young people today," Paladino said, citing how taxes and over-regulation of businesses are forcing an exodus of young New Yorkers.
"They don't have that grounded feeling anymore," he said. "They want a government of the people, by the people and for the people and that's what we will give them."
Cuomo elicited the first laughs of the night while providing statistics that defined New York's problems and his solutions.
"I think the question in this race is who can actually do it? Who can get it done?" Cuomo asked, a stab at Paladino, a novice politician whose temperament for office has been questioned. "I have gotten a lot of legislation passed."
Also participating in the debate were Charles Barron of the Freedom Party; Kristin Davis, the former "Manhattan madam," of the Anti-Prohibition Party; Howie Hawkins of the Green Party; Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is 2 Damn High Party; and Warren Redlich of the Libertarian Party.