Remember Old Cuomo? He’s Working Phones For His Boy Andrew

From his corner office in midtown, on one of the 10 floors

that make up the law firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, former Governor

Mario Cuomo does the things former governors do: He writes speeches, works on

books and, yes, performs the chores associated with his first profession, law.

But there is one task, friends say, that supersedes everything else-the

election of his son, Andrew, to the very job he held for a dozen memorable

years.

Revenge, some might call it. (Something else, a shrink might

call it.) Andrew Cuomo, after all, is setting out on a mission to dethrone

George Pataki, the man who toppled his father.

Then again, maybe it’s much simpler. Maybe, as one former

aide put it, “Mario just thinks Andrew has the capacity to be a great

Governor.”

Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that the elder Mr. Cuomo

is no ordinary bystander in this wonderful political drama. “I never made one

fund-raising call when I was Governor,” Mr. Cuomo told The Observer , in one of his frequent sermons on the flaws of the

campaign-finance system. “I’m doing them now, but you do things for your kids

you don’t do for yourself….” he added, his voice trailing off.

“Mario Cuomo is doing things for his son he would never do

as Governor,” said Tonio Burgos, who was Governor Cuomo’s appointments

secretary. “He hated the political process. He hated fund-raising. He would

rather get locked in a room and do the business of government.”

The former Governor’s involvement isn’t restricted to

fund-raising calls. The elder Mr. Cuomo is reassembling his political operation

as the younger Mr. Cuomo prepares for next year’s campaign. Pitching in for

Andrew Cuomo are such blasts from the Cuomo past as John Marino, the former

chair of the state Democratic Party; Mr. Burgos, now a lobbyist; and former

fund-raiser and adviser Meyer (Sandy) Frucher, now president of the

Philadelphia Stock Exchange. “The retirement list,” Mr. Burgos calls this cabal.

That list may grow longer in the months to come, as the

elder Mr. Cuomo continues to call the political machers who were around when he was Governor, asking them to

consider supporting his son’s candidacy. This is not always easy to do. In

fact, it can be downright humbling.

“There is nothing as cold as yesterday’s political porridge,

and that includes former governors,” said political consultant Norman Adler.

“Once you’re a former governor, the question is not ‘What have you done for me

lately?’ but ‘What can you do for me now?'”

But Mr. Cuomo is no ordinary former Governor. He also

happens to be the well-known father of a prospective Governor, and it will be

no easy assignment to get out from his shadow.

“He is my father, first and foremost,” said Cuomo fils of Cuomo père when asked, in a late-evening telephone interview, of his

father’s role in the campaign. “And he is the former Governor, the most

intelligent person on the issues of any person I’ve ever encountered.” In the

next breath, however, he added: “But I’m a different person. People understand

that. If they don’t, that’s an unreasonable position, and there’s nothing you

can do with unreasonable people.”

The famously loquacious former Governor declined to talk in

detail about the work he’s doing on his son’s behalf. “I’m not going to be

talking to you,” he told The Observer .

“You can talk to the campaign. They prefer it that way. This is his campaign,

and I’m a distraction.”

Most of the former Governor’s work on his son’s behalf is

taking place behind the scenes, to allow the younger Mr. Cuomo time to develop

his own persona as a candidate. Only once, several months ago, did Mario Cuomo

emerge as a public voice for his son’s candidacy, when he criticized Andrew

Cuomo’s Democratic rival, Comptroller H. Carl McCall, for being too friendly

with Mr. Pataki. (Mr. McCall will face Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary

next year for the right to face Mr. Pataki.) After the criticism appeared in

print, Andrew Cuomo reportedly told friends that he had tried to rein in his

father, to no avail. “For years, out of office, [Mario Cuomo] could say

whatever he wanted,” said one family friend.

But that’s not the case any more. The former Governor isn’t

calling reporters; he’s calling Democratic Party insiders and contributors -

people he kept at arm’s length during his own political career.

Still, Andrew Cuomo’s

campaign staff believes that the

former Governor is still an extremely popular figure in New York and plans to

remind New Yorkers of their fond memories of the elder Mr. Cuomo-when the time

is right. “He’s in the Jimmy Carter phase,” one insider said of Mr. Cuomo’s

post-career popularity. “What people didn’t like, they’ve forgotten. They think

of him as a conscience. When it comes to hard work, focus, devotion to the job,

he gets a pretty damn good response.” A poll by John Zogby for the Buffalo News a month ago gave the

former Governor a favorable rating of 57 percent. Mr. Pataki’s was 72 percent.

Based on the perception

that New Yorkers are still fond of the former Governor-despite the pasting he

got from voters in 1994-the Cuomo camp intends to “look for opportunities to

bring Mario Cuomo forward,” according to one campaign source. “Everybody

remembers the intelligence, the eloquence. The thinking is, ‘Let us remind

people of that before we engage with Governor Pataki,'” the source said.

Republicans snort with glee when they hear this. “They’re

running in the Democratic primary. Mario Cuomo is very popular in the Democratic primary,” said a Pataki adviser.

“You get the elder-statesman effect. But that is not the sum total of this

election. If they want to run Mario against George Pataki, that’s fine by me,

but it doesn’t help Andrew to be seen as his dad’s son.”

 

Pataki’s Ready

Mr. Pataki is already using the specter of Mario to raise

funds; a recent G.O.P. fund-raising letter used the word “Cuomonomics” to pry

cash from the wallets of the faithful. To be sure, likely Republican

contributors are just the type to be whipped up by anti-Cuomo rhetoric. But

G.O.P. strategists argue their research shows that while Mario Cuomo may have

surface popularity, it doesn’t take much to put a dent in it.

“You have to remind people,” said the Pataki adviser. “It’s

easy to forget what it was like in New York in 1994. Crime was horrible, the

economy was really bad, businesses were fleeing New York in droves, taxes were

way out of control-it’s a no-brainer.”

“By that logic, Al Gore is President of the United States,”

Andrew Cuomo retorted. “Because Bill Clinton defeated George Bush for leaving

the largest deficit in history and failing on the economy. Eight years later,

we had the best economy in history. You couldn’t have a more direct parallel.

The argument-why would you want to elect the son when he’ll do just what the

father did?-doesn’t work. Different times, different people. They didn’t blame

George W. Bush.”

It is that ability to

remember, and yet forget, that both Cuomos are now counting on.

If Mario is the source of all good things for Andrew-would

the younger Mr. Cuomo have been a Cabinet Secretary and a prospective

gubernatorial candidate if not for his father’s fame?-he is also the root of

many difficulties. There is the lingering legacy of the former Governor’s

thorny relationship with some members of the state Democratic Party apparatus.

Though just a small portion of the state’s registered Democrats, they are the

people whose early support is crucial, especially in a Democratic primary.

When Mario Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term in 1994, the

Democratic Partywasabout$500,000indebt.The Cuomo campaign, by contrast,

actually finished with a surplus of roughly the same amount. Mr. Cuomo could

have turned over his campaign money to the state party. He didn’t.

The former Governor said he chose not to bail out his fellow

New York Democrats because he no longer shared the party’s views on the death

penalty and tax cuts. (He opposes both.) But party leaders were enraged. Many

felt it was the final insult from a man who, they complain, did little during

his 12 years in office to help other Democrats win statewide office.

Andrew Cuomo shrugged when asked about resentment towards

his father. “He was never a party guy-in any sense of the word,” he said with a

chuckle. “He ran against the party when he took office. He ran against Ed Koch

[in a Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1982], and every county chairman was

in favor of Ed Koch. He was a reformer. That’s pretty much

his milieu.”

But Democratic politicians aren’t quite so forgiving. “A lot

of Democratic officials are disappointed in Mario Cuomo,” said Democratic

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx. “At the end, people felt he was a

bit of an ingrate.” Mr. Dinowitz said he is neutral in the forthcoming

Cuomo-McCall primary battle. But, he added, “we do focus on the things we’re

annoyed about. It’s hard to erase those annoyances.”