September 4, 2002 9:00 a.m.
Where the Son Doesn’t Follow
Andrew Cuomo bows out of the New York governor’s race.

o one could have predicted it would end so ignominiously for Andrew Cuomo, scion of New York's leading Democratic political family.

In January, when the former Clinton Cabinet official announced he would run for governor of New York, he was widely expected to emerge from the September 10 primary as the Democratic standard-bearer to take on Republican incumbent George Pataki in the fall. In March, he upset his Democratic rival, state comptroller Carl McCall, in a nonbinding vote among upstate party leaders. And as late as April 16, a Quinnipiac University poll showed the bare-knuckled, energetic Cuomo leading the staid McCall among Democratic voters.







 

Then, on April 17, Cuomo tripped and fell on his own sword. The subject was Pataki's conduct in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Said Cuomo, "Pataki stood behind the leader. He held the leader's coat. He was a great assistant to the leader. But he was not a leader. Cream rises to the top, and Rudy Giuliani rose to the top."

His tasteless remarks were roundly condemned from all sides. For one thing, they weren't true; New Yorkers appreciated the low-key, decent way Pataki handled himself in public after the disaster, and saw the governor's allowing Mayor Giuliani to take the lead in managing the city's response as principled and honorable, especially given the bad political blood between the mayor and the governor. Many Democratic officials winced at Cuomo's attempt to politicize 9/11 in such a crude fashion, and distanced themselves from Cuomo.

His campaign never recovered. Cuomo's negative ratings shot up, and Pataki's polling lead over him widened. Suddenly, the slow, steady McCall, 66, began gaining ground over the temperamental Cuomo, 22 years his junior. As Cuomo demonstrated, the post-9/11 political environment, the usual crassness of New York politics and politicians can be a liability.

The catastrophic gaffe was by no means the only reason Cuomo's campaign did a slow collapse over the summer, but it is symbolic of the hubris of an ambitious, talented but untried Democratic candidate trying desperately to make his way across a political field studded with landmines laid by circumstance and the cunning of his opponents.

Regarding the latter, Republican-in-name-only Pataki has shrewdly moved so far to the left that he claimed ground that would normally have belonged to Cuomo, a Clinton Democrat. Among the governor's many canny political maneuvers was to structure the privatization of the state's Blue Cross/Blue Shield system in such a way so as to provide New York's powerful health-care workers union with a massive financial windfall.

"It was a transparent political move, but it won him the endorsement of one of the biggest unions in the state, and a union that's filled with Latino voters living downstate," said the Manhattan Institute's Steven Malanga. "When a Republican governor captures that kind of endorsement, what's a Democratic candidate like Andrew Cuomo supposed to do?"

For his part, McCall locked up the support of the Democratic-party establishment, including the popular U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and state Attorney General Elliott Spitzer (the state's junior U.S. senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, stayed out of the fray). When Cuomo realized he was going to be drubbed by delegates at the state-party convention in May, he decided to stay away and run as an outsider, on the force of his name recognition, Washington experience, and dynamic personality. As late as July 2, he was still leading McCall by 15 percentage points, but his negatives were four times higher.

Through most of the summer, the candidates battled on the airwaves with commercials. McCall's surprisingly effective television advertising played off his impressive personal history as a black man who worked hard in the public and private sector, and paid his dues; the implication was that he, not some wellborn scion of a New York political family, has earned the right to run for governor. The ads were so impressive that RFK son Douglas Kennedy told the Times, "I think Carl McCall's story would have moved my father greatly. I think the mix between his political and business experience was everything my father advocated. And I think Carl McCall's story would have touched him in his heart. I believe that if my father were alive, he would have asked Andrew not to run."

"Andrew" is Douglas Kennedy's brother-in-law.

Meanwhile, Cuomo's campaign was mired in confusing commercials that distorted his message and had him bragging, with a straight face, about standing up as HUD Secretary to the Ku Klux Klan. Toward the end of his ill-fated bid, both Andrew Cuomo and his father Mario were publicly regretting the ads and the campaign's tactics.

As silly as it was, the KKK line pointed to a serious problem Cuomo, for all his policy ideas, never came close to figuring out: how to run as a white Democrat against a black member of your own party? How do you criticize a candidate from a racial minority group without it coming across to minority voters as a racial attack?

The problem is potentially devastating for Democrats in New York, as the immolation of Mark Green's campaign for the New York City mayoralty proved. Green was mau-mau'd by supporters of Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, whose number included the Rev. Al Sharpton, who accused the Jewish candidate of being racially insensitive during the primary campaign. On Election Day, enough black and Hispanic Ferrer supporters stayed home to guarantee a Republican victory.

In the Cuomo-McCall showdown, the comptroller let leading black supporters speak more directly to the element of race. "The race issue worked well for McCall. He could let Charlie Rangel be a pit bull here and raise these issues in a way that would be very hard to tackle in a Democratic primary," says political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Ironically, McCall is the kind of stiff, bourgeois figure to whom black voters generally do not warm ("Sharpton told me years ago that if [black New York former mayor] David Dinkins has a cold in the black community, Carl McCall has pneumonia," a prominent Democrat confides to NRO). Cuomo tried making his ally and lieutenant-governor candidate Charlie King, who is black, his point man on going hard negative against McCall. That only got poor King grief from the likes of Sharpton, who last week subtly (for him) played the race card by suggesting in a Times quote that King is an Uncle Tom.

With McCall's lead in the polls spreading, the final blow to Cuomo's candidacy came Sunday, when the Times endorsed his opponent. Cuomo's top advisers huddled with McCall's advisers and tried to exchange Cuomo's exit for McCall's promise to support a future Cuomo bid. No deal, said Team McCall, which had no incentive to agree to anything the flat-on-its-back Cuomo camp suggested.

"Cuomo was 22 points down in the polls," says Democratic political consultant George Arzt. "He was going to take a licking in the election primary. His political career has already taken a hit, and would have taken a bigger hit if he were demolished. The only thing this does is save Cuomo the embarrassment of a drubbing on September 10."

McCall,who has all the juice of the 66-year-old banker that he is, will now lead a unified Democratic Party in what is likely to be a drubbing at the hands of Pataki. Cuomo's withdrawal spared him having to spend money and withstand potentially damaging attacks that would have left him weaker against Pataki (though some political experts were saying yesterday that McCall would have benefited from a clean, straightforward win over Cuomo, rather than the forfeit he got). For his part, Cuomo will no doubt be spending the next few weeks and months mending fences with party bigs, for this aborted run for statewide office will surely not be his last.

"But remember, we're talking about a very young guy," says Ornstein. "The way American politics works, there are other potential political lives down the road."

 
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