D’Amato Offers McCall His Financial Support If He Runs for Mayor

Comptroller H. Carl McCall’s office on the 31st floor of 633

Third Avenue commands the kind of sweeping view you’d expect from the state’s

second-highest elected official. You can see the East River and, in the early

twilight of a winter’s evening, the twinkling lights of lower Manhattan. But

Mr. McCall is hinting that he wants to swap this view for the one eight floors

up, in the office currently leased to Governor George Pataki.

There are people who would prefer that he remain where he

is. One of those people, apparently, is former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato, a

Republican. Mr. D’Amato paid a visit to Mr. McCall, a Democrat, in

mid-December, according to three sources familiar with Mr. McCall’s schedule.

Mr. D’Amato reportedly made a suggestion to Mr. McCall: Why not skip the

gubernatorial race next year in favor of a Mayoral race this year? Mr. McCall,

with his preacher’s cadence and his support from the labor and black

constituencies, could easily dominate the field and raise the money, Mr.

D’Amato suggested. The former Senator and forever power broker “indicated there

would be help,” said a source.

That would be no idle promise. Two years out of office, Mr.

D’Amato’s fund-raising empire remains intact-most of it went to work for former

Congressman Rick Lazio, who raised nearly $40 million for his failed U.S.

Senate race in just six months.

Sources familiar with the meeting take it as a sign that Mr.

Pataki, a friend and ally of the former Senator, would like to avoid a race against

Mr. McCall, who was the leading vote-getter in the 1998 statewide elections.

Mr. McCall would be the first African-American to be nominated for

Governor  and would therefore attract

national publicity.

So if Mr. Pataki doesn’t want to run against Mr. McCall,

that must mean he’d prefer to take his chances with a Democrat named … Cuomo.

Mr. Pataki became an instant national figure in the Republican Party when he

trounced three-term Governor Mario Cuomo in 1994. If Mr. McCall were out of the

picture, Mr. Pataki very likely would face son-of-Cuomo: Andrew Cuomo, the

outgoing U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The junior Cuomo is

planning a Restoration drama of his own next year, and reportedly has begun

calling friends and allies of his father to sign them up for another

gubernatorial campaign in 2002. Some of those old friends are helping plan a

swanky “Welcome Home, Andrew” party on Jan. 29 in the home of singer and

fund-raiser Denise Rich.

The prospect of re-runningthe1994 race-Pataki vs. Cuomo-has

some G.O.P. operatives salivating. Chortled one: “Running against Andrew would

be so much fun.” Referring to a famous magazine story that ran during the

depths of the early 1990’s, when the senior Cuomo was in power, the operative

said: “We could just show the whole Time

magazine ‘Rotten Apple’ cover all over again!”

Mr. D’Amato, now a lobbyist and pundit, would certainly

benefit from Mr. Pataki’s continued presence in Albany. And if he could help

Mr. McCall mount a successful Mayoral race (except for Queens Councilman Thomas

Ognibene and Michael Bloomberg, there are no serious Republican prospects for

Mayor this year), then Mr. D’Amato would have a friend in City Hall, too. Not

bad work for a busy lobbyist and power broker.

Mr. D’Amato did not return calls seeking comment on the

meeting. Mr. McCall’s office would neither confirm nor deny that the meeting

took place. “The comptroller meets with lots of people, and we don’t comment on

the comptroller’s private conversations,” said Steven Greenberg, Mr. McCall’s

communications director.

The Cuomo forces, for their part, are watching these

developments with a certain degree of detachment. Many Cuomo loyalists are

convinced that Mr. McCall will decide not to challenge Mr. Pataki next year,

and are happy to explain-in detail-why (he has backed off running for U.S.

Senator and Governor in previous campaigns, and, at the end of the day, they

believe he simply doesn’t have the stomach for such a battle).Team Cuomo

brandishes polls showing their man losing to Mr. Pataki by a smaller margin

than Mr. McCall. (In political circles, this is considered a positive.)

Another Odd Couple

The D’Amato-McCall meeting, strange though it may seem,

isn’t the only example of odd political coupling as next year’s gubernatorial election

nears. One of the reasons political insiders know so much about the Cuomo

camp’s deliberations is that they are given frequent airing in the pages of the

New York Post , a seemingly unlikely venue. The Post is not known for its friendly attitude toward liberal

Democrats, particularly those who have served in high-ranking positions in the

Clinton administration, as Andrew Cuomo has. And yet, the newspaper has become

Mr. Cuomo’s preferred method of getting out his messages, burnishing his image

and talking to the state’s political insiders. While the paper’s editorial page

has not hidden its hostility for the younger Cuomo, Page Six and the Neal

Travis column have served him well, whether chronicling his travels in

Manhattan’s power elite or swatting down would-be rivals. In addition, Albany

columnist supreme Fred Dicker has made Mr. Cuomo’s imminent gubernatorial

campaign part of his weekly serving of political news.

For example, over the usually quiet Thanksgiving weekend,

Mr. Dicker had an interview with Mario Cuomo in which the former Governor

accused Mr. McCall of cozying up to Mr. Pataki. The senior Mr. Cuomo told Mr.

Dicker that he didn’t think the comptroller would take on Mr. Pataki next year.

Then, the day after Christmas, Mr. Dicker had a front-page

exclusive reporting that Andrew Cuomo was about to announce his gubernatorial

campaign. As developments go, this was not particularly earth-shattering-“What

was the news in it?” sniffed Mr. Greenberg, speaking for many political

observers-but it certainly reinforced the impression that Cuomo-ologists are

well-advised to read the Post every

day.

McCall sources say the Cuomo forces timed their leak to the Post to overshadow a Daily News story reporting that Mr.

McCall was planning to raise $1 million at a fund-raising gala on Feb. 1. (The

timing of the “welcome home” party for Mr. Cuomo-Jan. 29-no doubt is a

coincidence.) The Post story, running

on a slow news day, was picked up around the state.

Why is the Post

the beneficiary of pro-Cuomo leaks? Some political insiders note that Governor

Cuomo worked hard to save the newspaper in the early 1990’s, when it almost

folded before being rescued by its former (and current) owner, Rupert Murdoch.

Although the paper supported Mr. Pataki in 1994, Governor Cuomo built up a

reservoir of good will by helping a news organization that was never friendly

to him.

So much for the

touchy-feely explanation. Hard-boiled types prefer another explanation: that

the Post , like Alfonse D’Amato, would

prefer to see Mr. Pataki face Mr. Cuomo and not Mr. McCall next year.

The Dicker Factor

Then there’s the Cuomo-Dicker connection, a complex,

sometimes tortured relationship of long standing. Unlike Mr. Pataki, who likes

to stay home with his family on weekends and not spend time yakking with

reporters via telephone, Mario Cuomo has never forgotten the power of chatting

with Mr. Dicker on a Sunday, the day before his widely read column is

published. If you say something newsworthy, you can be sure political insiders

and other journalists will read about it in Mr. Dicker’s column on Monday.

That’s why Mr. Dicker is one of the most influential journalists in New York, a

fact not lost on the Cuomos.

Another influential character-one with frequent and friendly

access to the Post ‘s Travis column-is

Bill O’Shaughnessy, who owns two radio stations in Westchester County and is

one of very few station owners who still broadcasts editorials on the air. (A

collection of them was published two years ago by Fordham University Press.)

Mr. O’Shaughnessy was, and remains, a friend of Governor Cuomo and has not been

shy in promoting the Governor’s son. “If you sent to central casting and said,

‘Send me a dynamic guy who can get something done as Governor,’ I think they

send you Andrew Mark Cuomo,” he said, with characteristic flourish. Mr.

O’Shaughnessy is a regular fixture and source for Mr. Travis, and when

political insiders read a Neal Travis item about Mr. Cuomo, they see the tall,

white-haired Mr. O’Shaughnessy behind it. For example, on Jan. 5, Mr. Travis

ran an item about state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer based on an interview

Mr. Spitzer did with Mr. O’Shaughnessy, a hands-on station owner. The item

suggested that Mr. Spitzer was having second thoughts about his support for Mr.

McCall and quoted him making a favorable reference to the younger Mr. Cuomo.

The item read: “Spitzer did seem to signal that his support for state

Comptroller Carl McCall in next year’s gubernatorial election is not as total:

‘I publicly endorsed Carl,’ he said. ‘He came to me early on, before I really

knew that Andrew [Cuomo] was interested … so we’ll see.'”

In a measure of just how closely these items are read, the

proverbial spit hit the fan when political insiders turned to Mr. Travis’

column. Mr. Spitzer’s spokesman, Darren Dopp, insisted that when his boss said

“we’ll see,” he was not signaling a change in direction, but was speculating on

whether or not Mr. McCall and Mr. Cuomo will fight a primary for the

gubernatorial nomination. “Eliot believes more than anyone else Carl helped him

win [the 1998 Attorney General] race,” Mr. Dopp said. “So this is personal.”

After energetic calls from Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Spitzer

himself, Mr. Travis printed a clarification from Mr. Spitzer on Jan. 8.

For the time being, all of this posturing and tea-leaf

reading is being done behind the scenes. That will change once the campaign

begins in earnest. And that is imminent, according to insiders, several of whom

reported that Mr. Cuomo has been making the rounds. Indeed, according to State

Senator Eric Schneiderman, who had less than flattering things to say about the

H.U.D. Secretary in The Observer last

summer, Mr. Cuomo called him to find out “if we had issues.” Mr. Cuomo even

paid a visit to the state senator in his Manhattan office. “He’s out there

stroking people and doing what a potential candidate should do,” Mr.

Schneiderman told The Observer . After the meeting, Mr. Cuomo

sent Mr. Schneiderman a handwritten note with a pair of H.U.D. cufflinks.

“Well,” said Mr. Schneiderman, “I’m sure they weren’t made up just for me.”

Perhaps Mr. Cuomo should also send a pair to Mr. D’Amato.