Democrats Revving Up For ’02 Governor’s Race

The next gubernatorial election is more than two years away, and New York’s Democrats are fully engaged in the business of trying to elect a President and a U.S. Senator. Nevertheless, as Cassius may have said to Brutus, it’s never too early to find a warm home for a cold knife.

State Comptroller H. Carl McCall recently has been sending messages through the press that he’s preparing to run for Governor in 2002. This news may not have disturbed the sleep of sane individuals, but among the state’s political class, it sounded like the cannonade that precedes a frontal assault.

For there is in New York a group of battle-hardened Democrats determined to restore the Cuomo name to the state’s Executive Mansion, which a pretender named George Pataki has occupied since his defeat of Mario Cuomo in 1994. Andrew Cuomo, the former Governor’s 42-year-old son and currently President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is thought to be eagerly awaiting a chance to do in New York what George W. Bush is seeking to do nationally, i.e., avenge a father’s defeat and carve out an electoral niche of his own.

Mr. McCall’s machinations, which include the imminent formation of a gubernatorial fund-raising vehicle, would seem to present an obstacle to Cuomo the Younger’s plans. And, on the other hand, Cuomo the Younger poses a problem for the 64-year-old Mr. McCall, who would like to become the first African-American to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination in New York. For Mr. McCall, election to the state’s highest office would be the climax of a successful career in the private and public sector; for Mr. Cuomo, it could be a stepping stone to further glories. Each is in the path of the other’s ambitions.

And so the skirmishes have begun, even as the would-be antagonists work together on behalf of Vice President Al Gore and Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

News of Mr. McCall’s moves was greeted with a carefully placed item touting a draft-Cuomo movement orchestrated by the Housing Secretary’s various relatives. Meanwhile, a knowledgeable source has told The Observer that after former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin agreed to put together a fund-raising event for his friend Mr. McCall, he received a telephone call from a midlevel Clinton Administration official who told him he should drop the idea.

The source, who is familiar with conversations between Mr. McCall and Mr. Rubin, complained privately that there was little doubt who was behind the call: Mr. Rubin’s former colleague in the Clinton Cabinet, Mr. Cuomo, who is close with both the President and his would-be successor, Mr. Gore. “[Mr. Rubin] knew Andrew was the source of it,” the source said.

Both Mr. McCall and Mr. Rubin declined to comment.

When asked about the call made to Mr. Rubin, Mr. Cuomo told The Observer that “what I might or might not want to do three years from now is less important than” the current campaigns. “But that having been said, I don’t want to be foreclosed, either, and I want to keep my options open.”

The potential for a divisive split in the Democratic Party after this year’s elections is real, if the surprisingly bitter comments of various partisans and allies are any indication. For example, one Cuomo ally charged that Mr. McCall “is afraid of Andrew,” while one McCall adviser said with a sense of finality: “If [Mr. McCall] decides to run, Andrew Cuomo will not challenge him in a primary,” implying that it is Mr. Cuomo who fears Mr. McCall, New York State’s highest-ranking Democrat. Partisans for both men assert privately and with some contempt that the other side expects to be handed the nomination based on past services rendered.

Any feud between Mr. McCall and Mr. Cuomo is likely to be played out, subtly at least, in the Gore and Clinton campaigns in New York. The two Democrats have allies and supporters in both camps, and political insiders will be watching the dynamics and will track who seems to be in favor and who is not.

No Time for Speculation

Mr. Cuomo, who is one of Mr. Gore’s key strategists and is considered to be one of the state’s top young Democrats, insisted that he hasn’t had time to contemplate an election that is so far away, and seemed puzzled that Mr. McCall already has begun a behind-the-scenes campaign. Mr. Cuomo said of Mr. McCall’s exploratory committee, “It’s one of the earliest starts to a political campaign that I can remember, but that’s his decision. It’s his business. It’s not for me to comment on.”

Some of Mr. Cuomo’s allies, however, have plenty to say about Mr. McCall’s fledgling effort. Privately, they question the Comptroller’s political courage, noting that he turned down a chance to run against Mr. Pataki in 1998, and insisting that Mr. McCall hasn’t been critical enough of the man who turned Cuomo the Elder out of office.

“Did you notice that Pataki and McCall did a joint press release the day after McCall’s gubernatorial aspirations were made public?” one Cuomo supporter asked disdainfully. “Pataki and McCall have a cozy relationship, and all McCall is doing [by talking about running for Governor] is hurting the Democrats’ chances of unseating Pataki.”

That, in a nutshell, seems to be the emerging Cuomo line on Mr. McCall: that he is, in essence, too cautious to take on Mr. Pataki on public policy issues, and that for all the noise his exploratory committee may generate, he simply doesn’t have what it will take to challenge the Governor’s bid for a third term in 2002. One Cuomo adviser said the Comptroller’s political strategy has been “pro-Republican and pro-Pataki.” (A top adviser to Mr. McCall called the Cuomo camp’s charges of coziness with Mr. Pataki “absurd.”)

Mr. Cuomo himself doesn’t seem to share his allies’ private sentiments: He told The Observer he considers Mr. McCall to be a “good and decent man, a nice fellow, and I have nothing negative to say about him. Period.”

Mr. McCall’s supporters, who include Representative Charles Rangel of Harlem, clearly expect to benefit from a Cuomo backlash that occasionally finds its way into discussions of the junior Mr. Cuomo’s years as his father’s chief political whip and campaign manager. And other observers note that not all the bruises of the Cuomo years have healed. Steve Pigeon, chairman of the important Erie County Democratic Party, noted: “Andrew’s going to have to work harder than most candidates because of the past role he played–he was the man behind the scenes for his father, the tough guy.” Though older, wiser and with a Cabinet seat on his résumé, Mr. Cuomo still has a reputation as a confrontational political infighter–indeed, it is that reputation that provides the subtext for the Cuomo camp’s “McCall-isn’t-tough-enough” argument.

Waiting for Cuomo?

There is another part of the Cuomo legacy that some of Mr. McCall’s supporters are glad to resurrect: the Hamlet-on-Hudson factor. Governor Cuomo quite famously took himself out of the 1988 and 1992 Presidential campaigns after what seemed like an agonizing round of reflection. And Andrew Cuomo has been talked about as a candidate-in-waiting for more than a decade. He, like Mr. McCall, turned down a chance to run for the Democratic Senate nomination long before Mrs. Clinton discovered the Empire State’s charms. Indeed, it was because of the reluctance of Mr. McCall–who was retiring Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s choice for the job–and Mr. Cuomo that the state Democrats turned to Mrs. Clinton.

“McCall is serious,” said Mr. Rangel. “Carl has been crystal clear in asking people if they’d support him if he is a candidate. I don’t think Andrew is prepared at this time to indicate his concern about running for statewide office … I am just not prepared to deal with wannabe candidates, because I’m busy enough with people who are actually seeking my support.”

Mr. Cuomo, however, would argue that he is pretty busy, too. “This is why there is a danger in people starting campaigns too early, because if they start to get divisive, they start to raise questions which can distract from the Presidential and the senatorial races,” he said.