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
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
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.”
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
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.”