Big-Shot Consultants Besiege McCall, Cuomo in Race for Governor

Only a few weeks ago, the nation’s top media consultants

were convinced that there would be no Democratic Party primary in next year’s

gubernatorial campaign in New York. On this, if nothing else, these potential

competitors agreed. Somehow, they said, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall would

find a gracious way out. Or Andrew Cuomo, the former federal housing secretary,

would decide against taking on New York’s only African-American in statewide

office. No, they decided, this great battle would never take place. It would be

too nasty. Too divisive. Better to troll for clients elsewhere.

Of course, that was before Mr. Cuomo suggested that Mr.

McCall would be “sued for malpractice” if the state were a private corporation.

And that was before the Reverend Al Sharpton, a McCall supporter, asserted that

a loss by his man would constitute “the worst kind of racial profiling.”

Taking note of these events are the very same consultants

who were convinced that either Mr. Cuomo or Mr. McCall would back down from a

primary. Now they are convinced that the 2002 New York Governor’s race will be

one of the nation’s hottest races.

And that means they all want a piece of it.

“The level of interest is extraordinary,” said a source

familiar with the Cuomo camp. “People want this. This is going to be a major

battle.” And at least two consultants-Hank Morris and Bob Shrum-seem to want it

so badly that they’re pitching both sides.

Part of it is simple mathematics. Mr. McCall has predicted

that the race will cost $30 million, a number Mr. Cuomo has not disputed. This

means $20 million or so will be spent on television ads. Media consultants get

10 to 15 percent of the ad buy, which means there could be $2 million to be had

by the consultants who win the favors of Mr. McCall and Mr. Cuomo.

The consultants, of course, aren’t in it just for the money.

Oh, no-there’s the prestige, too! Democrats despise the idea of a Republican

running things in New York, especially a Republican like Governor George

Pataki, who confounds stereotypes with his strong environmental positions. “The

office [of New York Governor] is obviously very, very important to us,” said

Richard Hess, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

“The New York Governor’s race is near the top in terms of

important races in 2002,” added Bill Knapp, media consultant to Al Gore’s

Presidential campaign. ” The New York

Times -the national paper-will cover it every day. Texas will get attention

because it’s George W. Bush’s former job, and Florida because of the way

Governor Jeb Bush handled the post-election period. But New York has a

contested and interesting primary between a nationally known Democrat and the state’s highest-elected African-American. There’s

a huge amount of interest in this race.” Mr. Knapp said he “might” try to get a

piece of the action, but wouldn’t discuss it further.

One man who clearly wants the job is Hank Morris. The

sweater-adorned workaholic is talking with both the Cuomo and McCall camps,

sources close to both men say.

Mr. Morris’ statewide reputation largely stems from his work

on Charles Schumer’s well-financed 1998 Senate campaign. He was able to pilot

Mr. Schumer from almost nowhere in the early polls to a primary victory, and

then to an astoundingly easy trouncing of three-time incumbent Alfonse D’Amato.

But he’s also had some stumbles, losing the 1994 state Attorney General’s race

with Karen Burstein, who led until the last few weeks. And in 1997, the Morris

candidate for Manhattan borough president, Assembly member Deborah Glick, lost

badly to C. Virginia Fields.

Mr. Morris answered a

media query about the race the way he’s answered all media calls in the last

few years: “I’m fine. I’m not on the record.” After a considerable amount of

arm-twisting, Mr. Morris, who is working for Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s Mayoral

campaign, agreed to say this for attribution: “I’m totally focused on 2001.”

But Mr. Morris was not so totally focused that he couldn’t

pick up the phone, shortly after hearing from a reporter, to alert aides to both

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. McCall that The

Observer was inquiring about his work on the race.

Mr. Morris is said to be at the top of Andrew Cuomo’s wish

list, but at least two McCall advisers-Jerry Finkelstein and his son, former

City Council President Andrew Stein-are arguing for Mr. Morris with their own

candidate, sources familiar with Mr. McCall’s campaign say. “They feel Morris

is a real bomb-thrower and will go at it toe-to-toe,” said one source.

But Mr. McCall already has a consultant-David Axelrod, who

is popular among the candidate’s kitchen cabinet. The mustachioed former Chicago Tribune reporter worked for Mr.

McCall in his two successful races for state Comptroller. In both races, Mr.

McCall was the leading statewide vote-getter. Mr. Axelrod is currently working

for the Mayoral campaign of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and he has

also worked for the New York State Democratic Party.

Mr. Axelrod’s chief liability is the fact that he lives in

Chicago. But in addition to Mr. McCall, he has worked for a number of

African-American clients, including former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

Mr. Axelrod is said to be

deeply troubled by the prospect of losing his blue-chip client, but he was

tight-lipped about the possibility. “I’m proud to have worked for Carl McCall

for the last eight years,” he said. “I consider him a friend as well as a

client, and I will work for him in whatever way he decides will be most useful

because I want to see him elected Governor.”

Shawn Thompson, executive director of Mr. McCall’s campaign

organization, Friends of Carl McCall, would not discuss the choice of a

consultant. “We have not yet finalized the selection of the consultant,” he

said in a statement. “We are in the process of doing so.”

Also talking to the

McCall campaign is Bob Shrum, a wizard with words, the man who wrote the Monica

Lewinsky apology speech that Bill Clinton didn’t

deliver, the one that was actually contrite. Mr. Shrum has worked for former

Mayor David Dinkins-getting credit for his 1989 win and blame for his 1993

loss. He also worked for losing candidate Geraldine Ferraro in both of her U.

S. Senate bids. But he is best known for his work for the “checkbook

candidates”-Al Chechi, who spent millions for the privilege of losing the 1998

Democratic primary in California to Gray Davis, and New Jersey Senator Jon

Corzine, who ran the most expensive self-financed race in history, costing

upwards of  $63 million.

But if he is to work for Mr. McCall, Mr. Shrum will have to

resolve a potential conflict: He is very friendly with the Kennedy family (it’s

hard to be in his company for more than 10 minutes and not know this). And Mr.

Cuomo is married to Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Robert F.

Kennedy.

One way to resolve this problem, of course, would be to go

to work for Mr. Cuomo. As it happens, Mr. Shrum is also playing footsy with the

Cuomo campaign. He is a particular favorite of Mark Penn, who has the inside

track to be Mr. Cuomo’s pollster. “I expect to be working on the campaign,” Mr.

Penn, who worked for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, told The Observer . Mr. Penn and Mr. Shrum worked together on the Chechi

and Corzine campaigns.

Mr. Shrum, alone among

the candidates, did not return several phone calls. His partner, Mark Donlin,

did call to say that Mr. Shrum was traveling on business. “There is no status

right now,” Mr. Donlin said. “I’m sure we’re interested, but if Bob’s talking

to anyone, I don’t know.”

Also in the mix is Hank

Sheinkopf, the tough-talking ex-cop who is to Hank Morris what Gimbel’s was to

Macy’s. Mr. Sheinkopf has worked for many New York candidates, much of the time

doing radio ads while someone else handles TV. He is currently working for

Public Advocate Mark Green’s Mayoral campaign. “It would be a great

challenge-it’s always great to work on a statewide campaign,” Mr. Sheinkopf

said. He confirmed that he was actively seeking a role with one of the two

Democratic hopefuls, but wouldn’t say which one. Sources familiar with Mr.

Cuomo’s thinking, however, indicate that Mr. Sheinkopf is a top contender for

their job, possibly in conjunction with a Madison Avenue advertising agency.

(Though not, a source insisted, De Vito/Verdi, who did the bland ads for

Hillary Clinton last year.)

Still, “Andrew has not done anything officially,” insisted

Mr. Cuomo’s top P.R. man, Dan Klores. (Mr. Klores’ firm also represents The Observer .) “There have been no

official meetings. Andrew has met with lots of people.”

Mr. Cuomo reportedly

wants to put off the decision, but that may not be possible. “Ever since Bill

Clinton in 1995, the timetable has been moved up,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “People

are booking business for 2002 now. Would I like to have a horse? Sure. Anyone

would like to have a horse.”

The question for some people, of course, is this: Will any horse

do?