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.
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