Shall I Run for Governor? Mario-Like Musings From Andrew Cuomo

Stop the presses. Andrew Cuomo, son of another Cuomo, spouse of a Kennedy, hyperattentive political nephew of two Clintons and a Gore–and, of course, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development–is thinking about running for governor of New York.

“Make no mistake about it,” Mr. Cuomo said by telephone from his office in Washington, D.C., “I’m seriously considering it.”

Of course, no one has made any mistake about this since about 1982, but lately it has been harder to tell Mr. Cuomo’s “seriously considering” from his “seriously strategizing.” In part, as Cuomo loyalists have taken to insisting, this is because State Comptroller H. Carl McCall has so accelerated the calendar by formalizing his own intentions to run for governor remarkably early. In part, it is because, to the audible chagrin of Team McCall, the recent Presidential primary in New York afforded Mr. Cuomo the opportunity to do political good for Mr. Gore while doing politically well for himself across the state.

But, whether he is acting or reacting, there is no doubt that Mr. Cuomo has been pumping up the volume on his own aspirations. As of Monday, March 21, he will have officially replaced Bill de Blasio, the highly political, regional representative who left H.U.D. in December to become Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign manager, with Charlie King, a Manhattan attorney and Cuomo–particularly Mario Cuomo–protégé who ran for lieutenant governor in 1998. Replacing one political appointee with another is hardly the stuff of shock. In fact, in many ways the salient point to Mr. Cuomo’s current moves is not so much what he is doing, but how. It’s not just that he has been showing up at Democratic events up and down the state with an Alec Baldwin-like reliability. It’s that he’s staying at them, and shaking every last hand, evincing amusement at every last anecdote–and following up, by telephone, on every last point of possible aggravation, whether it be his concern that the Democrat on the other end of the line doubts the seriousness of the possibility that he will run, or that he or she doubts the sincerity of his claim that his seriousness about his own political prospects is nothing next to his seriousness about the prospects of Mr. Gore and Mrs. Clinton. (“He’s a phone person,” said a political friend, which is like calling George Hamilton a sun-lamp person.)

In his attempt to reclaim some home territory for himself, Mr. Cuomo has been making love with some big-deal Democrats (State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) and war with others (Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Senator Charles Schumer). He has been calling kitchen-cabinet meetings to map out the immediate future; though the one in February, at the Westchester home of his sister, Maria Cuomo Cole, seems to have been marked as much by absentees (old Cuomo hand Al Gordon, Rick Ostrov, an Albany lobbyist who is viewed as a link to Mr. Silver …) as by attendees (Mr. King, Mr. King’s interim predecessor Alison Lee, diehard Cuomo operative John Marino …). He has been feeling for any loose bricks in the wall of McCall supporters: Next month, for instance, Mr. Cuomo will be hosting the chairman of the Westchester County Democratic Party, David Alpert, in Washington, D.C. Mr. Alpert has declared his support for Mr. McCall, but that’s no reason why he and the H.U.D. Secretary can’t get together to chat about “how to elect the Vice President and Hillary and discuss ways to strengthen the New York Democratic Party both now and in the future,” as Mr. King put it. For God’s sake, Mr. Cuomo has even gone hunting in upstate New York with Syracuse-based Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman; an experience that did not, alas, deter Mr. Bragman from joining Assembly member Roberto Ramirez, Representative Charles Rangel and a Long Island town supervisor, May Newberger, on the letterhead of Mr. McCall’s advisory committee stationery.

It was the sending of that letter, in January, that set off Mr. Silver–or perhaps gave occasion, to run the gamut of galloping theories on this, for the Speaker to signal that his historically hot-and-cold relationship with Mr. McCall is officially cold; that he regards any forays into the Assembly that are not led by him as intrinsically evil; or that, for a variety of reasons, including Mr. McCall’s 67-year age and his reputation for being less than a political firebrand, for the Democratic Party to nominate him would be to tantamount to signing on for Peter Vallone: the Sequel.

In any event, the sense is abroad in Albany that Mr. Silver has been out-and-out working for Mr. Cuomo, albeit through his spokesman–and, in the eyes of many, political body double–Patricia Lynch. A for-instance given by several sources: In a recent conversation with Mr. Alpert, Ms. Lynch reportedly stated that Mr. Silver had no horse in the governor’s race, but that she was supporting Mr. Cuomo and would like to know where he stood.

“You’ll have to ask Pat Lynch what she said,” Mr. Alpert told The Observer .

“The Speaker is neutral, period,” said Ms. Lynch, who declined to comment on her own leanings.

Hmm.

McCall: ‘Bring It On’

Not that such stuff really matters to you when you are a busy Cabinet Secretary and a tireless foot soldier in the armies of the Vice President and the First Lady, in light of which roles in life you just can’t work up any real interest in your own political future.

“This has caught the political fancy of some in the brief intervals where they don’t have real political contests to worry about,” demurred Mr. Cuomo by way of insisting that his current focus really, really is on securing the successes of Mr. Gore and Mrs. Clinton and on running H.U.D. The scion doth protest too much, but he has got a point. Countless developments, from the election of a President to the potential cross-defection of every player involved, are bound to spring up on the landscape of 2002, rendering all current conversations on the subject speculative at best. That said, even this zygote of a political contest does carry a fairly definitive genetic code for the race that is likely to materialize.

Already clear is the contrast that Team Cuomo is dying to draw between its candidate and Mr. McCall, should it come to a primary between the two. (Both sides, for different reasons, express a strong sense that it won’t.) As apparent, and potentially more problematic, is the balance, or rather series of balances, that Mr. Cuomo must strike, on his own, regardless of his eventual opponent.

The hoped-for contrast with Mr. McCall is the contrast between youth and age; between vigor and languor; between the politics of sticking around and the politics of star power. Those around Mr. Cuomo don’t come out and say that they could knock over Mr. McCall with a feather, but they certainly seem to think it. “Herb Lunden doesn’t count,” snickered one, evoking the sense among McCall detractors that the Comptroller, while he can rightfully claim to have polled more votes in his statewide races than anyone else on the Democratic ticket, has only done so in the context of relatively easy races that are supposedly all his stomach–or rather his allegedly fire-free belly–can handle. In fact, part of Mr. Cuomo’s current revving-up undoubtedly reflects a desire to scare Mr. McCall out of the primary.

Mr. McCall is having none of that. “I’m prepared for whatever comes,” the Comptroller told The Observer . “Hey, bring it on.”

“I believe that the current rule of politics is that of the three M’s: You have to have message, you have to have a messenger, and you have to have the money,” said Mr. Cuomo. “Without those three, nothing else matters.” Translation: In the end, the sum total of McCall endorsements, even if they hold fast to the finish, won’t add up to half a TV commercial or a single wet kiss from a Times columnist. (And, besides, in another instance of something that no Cuomo adherents say but that all Cuomo adherents think loud and clear: “If you’re talking political alliances, whose buddy would you rather be: Mike Bragman’s or Al Gore’s?”)

In the case of the three M’s of Mr. Cuomo, the messenger will, of course, be himself. The message will be at least twofold: (1) “I saved H.U.D., and Joe Upstate should be glad I did.” (What he actually says is, “What I have been working toward is taking the poster child for failed government and transforming it … if you can fix H.U.D., you can fix anything,” followed by an explanation of the Erie Canal corridor, but you don’t need all that to get the gist.) And (2) “I will not run the State Democratic Party into the ground like my dad.” (What Cuomo people actually say is that they hope that their candidate can emerge as an evocation of Mario I, not Mario III; that the younger Mr. Cuomo’s reappearance on the scene will stir memories of the first administration, when the political shop was run by the canny likes of Tim Russert, and leave mercifully repressed those of the third one, when the political shop was run by the indifferent likes of … well, no sense pointing fingers now. “He has to say to the party, ‘I’m not going to neglect you,'” said a political ally.)

And the money, to hear these guys talk about it, is going to come pouring in like seawater through the portals of the Titanic .

“Fund raising is not really a concern of the Secretary’s because he has a national base,” said Mr. King, evincing the habit of all H.U.D. folk, including ones who are on their third beer and off the record, to refer to their boss as “the Secretary.” “He has enormous and extraordinary resources. He has the Kennedy family and their network, he has the [Democratic National Committee] reach, he travels around the country all the time.”

As for the balances he must strike, they are several: the balance between being his father’s son and his own man; between his image as a public servant and as a political animal; between the emanation of energy and that of arrogance. Given Mr. McCall’s establishment claim as the senior elected Democrat statewide, and his insurgent claim as, potentially, the first African-American governor of New York, that last one acquires a particularly delicate dimension. Mr. Cuomo must rally the Democratic base without embittering voters of color.

“My sense is that Andrew Cuomo is playing this whole scenario out perfectly,” said State Senator David Paterson of Harlem–an assessment that will delight Mr. Cuomo, until it becomes clear that Mr. Paterson is describing what he views as Mr. Cuomo’s intent to become “the Nita Lowey of the gubernatorial race.” It drives Mr. Cuomo’s friends insane to hear this, but African-American political types are saying it left and right: In the view of many in the black political community, for Mr. Cuomo to position himself as the alternative to Mr. McCall if Mr. McCall chooses not to run is brilliance. For him to position himself as an advocate against Mr. McCall is betrayal. Now, Mr. Cuomo may have a fair case that, as H.U.D. Secretary, he has a record of accomplishment on issues of concern to African-Americans at least as strong as that of Mr. McCall. But he will have to make that case, and if he has to do so in the course of thwarting the making of history, that will not be pleasant.

It is, of course, possible that young, white Mr. Cuomo could topple older, black Mr. McCall without engendering more animosity than would any victor in any tough primary. But at the moment at least, few African-American leaders seem to think such a thing is probable. In that event, “I don’t know who wins the primary, but I know who loses the general election,” said Mr. Paterson. “We do.”

The Schumer Hurdle

Not that potential political resentment at Mr. Cuomo is limited to the black leadership. Mr. Cuomo may be right in his obvious, if unstated, conviction that in modern politics a moneyed messenger can and perhaps should go it alone. Already, though, one sees indicators of just how lonely he might get. A good illustration of this lies in the current spat with Mr. Spitzer. The spat is related to Mr. Spitzer’s endorsement of Mr. McCall, and that is, in turn, related to the Attorney General’s recent efforts to become exactly the same sort of high-profile, high-cost nemesis to gun manufacturers that attorneys general had become to big tobacco. Largely the Spitzer-world translation of events, this may or may not be the gospel truth, but it is a useful picture of New York politics. Over a period of time, a number of governments across the country had been suing gun manufacturers on a series of grounds, such as negligence and marketing to high-crime areas. Rather than join the suit, Mr. Spitzer advocated for settlement talks with the manufacturers, toward establishing a voluntary code of conduct, compliance with which would forestall the ever-present threat of litigation. Sources close to Mr. Spitzer said Mr. Spitzer met with Mr. Cuomo to brief him fully on the effort, in which Mr. Spitzer had taken the lead. Sources close to Mr. Cuomo said that no such conversations ever took place and that Mr. Spitzer has been exaggerating his own role from the get-go. Then, before Mr. Spitzer could say, “You stole my issue!” Mr. Cuomo had, it seemed, done just that. In no time, H.U.D. announced its own gun initiative, along with President Clinton himself–at a press conference about which Mr. Spitzer knew nothing. Again, those in Washington strongly dispute this version of events, but cannot deny the fact that an item soon appeared in the New York Post concerning Mr. Spitzer’s having behaved babyishly at a White House meeting related to the gun matter. Team Spitzer blamed Mr. Cuomo for planting it.

All of this would be lost in the great vacuum of political ego–but for the fact that this was all occurring at about the same time that Mr. Cuomo’s acolytes were calling upon Mr. Spitzer, as upon so many Democrats around the state, to hold off on endorsing Mr. McCall. Soon after the Post item, Mr. Spitzer endorsed Mr. McCall.

And while Mr. Cuomo may claim he cares little who endorses whom this far out from the election, the same cannot be said of some of his nearest and dearest. John Marino, a consultant to Mr. Spitzer in 1998, has been heard to say that he is never speaking to Mr. Spitzer again.

As for Mr. Cuomo’s relationship with Mr. Schumer, it is known to be mutually frosty, as opposed to fiery, but therein, too, might lie a caveat to Mr. Cuomo’s super-independence. The recent difficulties centered around Mr. Schumer’s rather predictable pique at not being in the loop on announcements of H.U.D. monies upstate, so as to share in the publicity wealth. (Although both on the front of headline-hogging and inveterate glad-handing, one must say that it is amusing to hear Mr. Cuomo being criticized now on the selfsame grounds for which Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Schumer were derided by their respective enemies, en route to their respective victories.) Anyway, that little problem seems to have been straightened out. Still, when Senator Kit Bond, Republican of Missouri, called for an investigation into Mr. Cuomo’s politically explosive decision to withhold H.U.D. funds from New York City, it did not go unnoticed that Mr. Schumer not only failed to jump to the defense of his fellow New York Democrat, but that he basically seconded Mr. Bond’s sentiment. This is not to suggest that Mr. Schumer was acting out of political payback. It is just that if he wanted to, he could.

But then he would definitely have to watch his back.