In Governor’s Race McCall Tags Cuomo As The Field Levels

The Democratic primary for Governor began for the second time on Nov. 27. This time, it was neither a shoe-store party nor a stuffy fund-raiser, but a speech at New York University by State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, with stops at similarly weighty venues in Albany, Buffalo and Rochester.

A somewhat stiff-looking Mr. McCall took the podium at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, repeatedly licking his lips and sounding a little breathy as he faced a vastly different electoral landscape from the one that greeted him when he first entered the race.

That time, last February, at a rather canned-feeling event at the Plaza hotel, everyone thought the race was his to lose. He handed out lists of hundreds of public officials who were supporting him, most of whom showed up for photo ops with the Comptroller and comedian Bill Cosby. Congressman Charles Rangel, fresh from electing Illinois native Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate from New York, warned against incursions by “outsiders”-that is, Andrew Cuomo, who had just spent eight years in Washington as an undersecretary and then secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mr. Rangel was greeted with wild and warm applause.

By contrast, a few nights earlier, Andrew Cuomo-the son of Hamlet on the Hudson-had stunned even his supporters by saying outright that he would run for Governor. The word came at a “Welcome Home, Andrew” party thrown at the Kenneth Cole flagship store at Rockefeller Center. Hardly any Democrats who weren’t Mario Cuomo loyalists showed up.

But then, over the next several months, Mr. Cuomo displayed the ferocity and tenacity characteristic of his family. Mr. McCall’s supporters were worked, over and over again. Mr. Cuomo began picking them off one by one-a district leader here, a state committeeman there. With his national reputation and connections (not only was he a U.S. cabinet secretary, but he’s married to Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy), he managed to attract glitter, big names and especially money. By July, he had essentially caught up with Mr. McCall in fund-raising. There were gasps.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCall was beset by a series of problems: He lost his media man, David Axelrod; his daughter was arrested for credit-card fraud; his wife, Dr. Joyce Brown, was lambasted for lavish spending on an apartment supplied by the Fashion Institute of Technology, of which she’s the president.

By the end of July, the whispers were becoming audible: It had been Mr. McCall’s to lose, and he was losing it.

But then came Sept. 11, and the Governor’s race was put on hold-never a great thing for the one with the momentum. “There is an even playing field now,” insisted State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a McCall supporter. “On Sept. 10, Andrew Cuomo had the advantage. He can’t say that anymore.”

Cuomo supporters scoff at this logic. “If he was doing so well,” snorted one, referring to Mr. McCall, “how come he had to start his campaign again?”

Still, for two months, everyone forgot about the Governor’s race-until, that is, outgoing Democratic Party chairwoman Judith Hope suggested that either Mr. McCall or Mr. Cuomo drop out to avoid the racial polarization that characterized the Mayoral primary. Both vowed not to do so.

To make sure people understood he meant it, Mr. McCall relaunched his campaign before a not-quite-full house at N.Y.U. (The press release, photocopied before the event, called it “packed.”)

“If you doubt my commitment to this cause,” he said towards the end of the speech, ” you do not know me .” The printed version of the text helpfully italicized the latter part of the sentence.

The speech, however-read from a teleprompter-was delivered in a sober style that seemed uncomfortable, even stifling, for the Comptroller, who is also a preacher and tends to be a man the Democrats pull out to rouse the troops in the days immediately preceding an election. The 30-minute address was interrupted only nine times by applause-most of it warm, none of it over the top.

It was a speech short on a broad over-arching vision, one whose vaulting rhetoric tended to stumble into rather dull specifics. The part of the speech that began “Let history show that in these times, New York put nothing on hold-not our children, not our economy, not the security of our state or the safety of our people,” ended with this: “Instead, let history show we chose a prudent course, one of fiscal responsibility … that we set our priorities and worked together to meet them …. “

Mr. McCall did make a number of specific promises: to dismantle the state’s school-funding formula, which the courts have ruled is unfair to New York City; to raise English and math test scores to a 75 percent passing rate by the end of his first term; to ensure that new high-wage jobs outnumber new low-wage jobs within four years; and to reform the budget process in his first term in office. If he didn’t, he said, “let the voters hold me accountable.” At 66, Mr. McCall seemed to be inviting a single term as Governor.

Of course, to even get there, Mr. McCall has to win first the primary, then the general election, and neither is an easy task.

McCall supporters will tell you how he’s going to do this. They start with the fact that he has won statewide twice-in 1998, getting 400,000 more votes than Governor Pataki did. Then they’ll tell you that he has spent the last eight years traveling to places like Hornell, N.Y., and holding town-hall meetings. They’ll tell you about his relationship with the one million participants in the state pension fund, whose retirement dollars he oversees.

And they’ll tell you how their guy will get to 51 percent of the primary vote: by winning at least 80 percent of the African-American vote, splitting the Jews, getting two-thirds of the Latino vote and just under 40 percent of the white non-Jewish vote (known in electoral parlance as “white ethnics”).

Cuomo supporters laugh at this, saying that because of his work at H.U.D., Mr. Cuomo is the Democrat who has a warmer relationship with Latinos. Further, they say Mario Cuomo always polled well with the Latino community and that Andrew will, too. And they say that any attempts on the part of the McCall campaign to forge a black-Latino coalition will “scare the piss out of” white ethnics.

In fact, this is exactly what happened in the Mayoral runoff, where Mark Green-never a friend of white ethnics-nevertheless pulled support from the likes of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the New York Post editorial page and all their followers. Unlike Mr. Green, Mr. Cuomo is a white ethnic.

As if to underline this point, no less a symbol of the polarization that characterized the Mayoral primary than Fernando Ferrer himself showed up at the N.Y.U. speech. As he stood next to Mr. McCall, the two were peppered with questions about how the Comptroller would avoid a racial divide akin to the one in the Mayoral runoff.

“The Democratic Party has always been fractured,” an exasperated Mr. McCall answered after the third or so question of this sort. “But we always win. Eliot Spitzer”–who stood to his right-“stands here as someone who won with a fractured Democratic Party; I’ve won several times with a fractured … you know, everybody-people are not going to all come together at the same time. But we will have the kind of broad support from the Democratic Party and others. I just want to remind you, the last time I ran, I received 2.9 million votes from people of all parties, 400,000 more than the Governor.”

After the press conference, Mr. Ferrer was more blunt. “It is bullshit! Bullshit! Are people going to ask him about Latino support forever? Spitzer was next to him! Why didn’t anybody ask about that?”

Mr. McCall is clearly trying to breathe life back into his campaign, and he may yet succeed. There is, after all, plenty of time before the primary, and his support remains broad. But then there’s that fierce and energetic Cuomo style, the one that has already brought him from nowhere to being the man to beat. Several McCall supporters even called him mean. In an interview with The Observer after the speech, Mr. McCall was asked if he worried about Mr. Cuomo’s style.

“I don’t pay much attention to Andrew Cuomo,” Mr. McCall said, sounding a good deal more confident and relaxed than he did in his speech. “I’m focusing on my record, my vision and what I can do for the people of the state of New York. I think that’s much more important than some kind of psychological profile of my opponent.”

Indeed, in his speech, Mr. McCall made no reference to Mr. Cuomo, but many to Governor Pataki, who he implied was neither “active” nor “engaged.”

But is he worried about the upcoming Democratic battle? “I’m not worried about anything,” Mr. McCall said. ” I’m only concerned about how I’m going to get my message out. If I get my message out, I think they’re going to support me.”

As for the race against Mr. Pataki, who in recent polls leads both Democrats by the widest margins yet: “That,” acknowledged one McCall operative, who’d just delivered an impassioned spin about why his candidate is going to defeat Mr. Cuomo, “will be a race.”