Defiant Carl McCall Vows Gritty Race Vs. Andrew Cuomo

Carl McCall’s face grew tense when a reporter asked him if he has

the stomach to do battle with Andrew Cuomo, his Democratic rival in the

Governor’s race.

“I’m being positive,” he said, leaning slightly towards his

interviewer. “But listen: If it gets down to hand-to-hand combat, I can do

that, too.”

The comment seemed out of

character for Mr. McCall, a man who has earned a reputation as a consensus-builder

and, above all, a gentleman in the ruffian’s game of state politics. But the

Comptroller is facing the most formidable challenge of his political career in

the form of Mr. Cuomo, a politician with a distinctly less gentlemanly

reputation-and one who is at once younger, slicker and more aggressive than Mr.

McCall. A nagging perception that the 66-year-old Comptroller is being

out-hustled by his more youthful (by more than 20 years) opponent seemed to be

borne out in mid-January with the release of the latest fund-raising numbers, which

showed that Mr. Cuomo has raised twice as much money as Mr. McCall over the

last six months.

Cuomo surrogates in the state party, far from showing respect for

the state’s highest-ranking Democratic official, are publicly suggesting that

Mr. McCall should make life easier for the party by simply dropping out of the

race. Meanwhile, Mr. McCall’s reputation is pricked

on a seemingly daily basis by unflattering column items in the tabloids

generated by the well-oiled Cuomo media operation. Suddenly, the quiet man who

was once regarded as the future of the Democratic Party seems in real danger of

being relegated to its past.

Mr. McCall professes to be unworried. “I don’t think most voters

pay a lot of attention to what they read in the gossip columns,” he said. “I

think voters are going to focus on my record and what I’ve achieved.”

On that score, Mr. McCall would seem to be in good shape. He has

already made history by becoming the first African-American elected to

statewide office in New York. He was re-elected in 1998 with far more votes

than any other candidate, including Governor Pataki. And his list of titles and

qualifications earned over the years is so long that it has become a running

joke wherever he’s introduced.

Past accomplishments aside, though-voters have notoriously short

memories-there are signs that Mr. McCall has yet to hit his stride in this

race, the biggest of his life. “At some point, he’s going to have to

crystallize his message,” said pollster Lee Miringoff of the Marist College

Institute of Public Opinion. “There’s not a unity to his message right now, and

I detect an uneasiness about how they’re doing in these early stages.”

In the absence of coordination from the top, supporters and well

wishers have been crafting their own arguments for Mr. McCall’s candidacy. One,

inevitably, is that because of his seniority and his prior achievements, the

nomination should simply be his to refuse. Many Democratic insiders subscribe

to this view. Mr. McCall has been considered a gubernatorial or Senatorial

candidate-in-waiting ever since he was appointed State Comptroller in the early

1990’s, succeeding Edward Regan, a Republican who resigned before his term

expired. He was widely touted as a possible Democratic challenger to Senator

Alfonse D’Amato in 1998, but declined to run. When Senator Daniel Patrick

Moynihan announced during a television interview in 1999 that he would be

giving up his seat, he let it be known that he favored Mr. McCall as his

successor, saying that no “New York Democrat has anything like his standing.”

But Mr. McCall has meticulously avoided any suggestion that he

is, in any sense, owed a chance to run for the state’s highest elected office.

“It’s not a question of it being anyone’s turn,” he said, reiterating what he

has often said in the past.

Mr. McCall is equally uncomfortable with another argument

sometimes made on his behalf: race. The fact is that he could become the first

African-American Governor of New York, a possibility that has not escaped

notice in New York’s minority communities, who make up a powerful force in

Democratic primaries. But the introduction of race into a Democratic political

contest can backfire-and did during last year’s Democratic Mayoral primary. All

of this leaves Mr. McCall trying to manage a delicate and slightly awkward

balancing act. “It’s difficult for Carl,” said a Democratic operative who has

worked closely with him. “He can use his race when he needs to, but to date, to

be successful, he’s had to avoid being ‘the black candidate.’ But as a result

of that, he doesn’t always do a very good job of talking to his base. He’s

afraid of any perception that he’s emphasizing race.”

At a Martin Luther King Day political forum on Jan. 21 in the

headquarters of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, that careful attitude

was very much in evidence. At the first mention of race from a panel of press

and celebrity questioners, Mr. McCall replied emphatically: “This isn’t about

race. I’ve never asked anyone to vote for me because of what I look like; I

want you to vote for me in terms of what I’ve done and what I plan to do.” The

audience applauded politely.

But later on in the forum, Mr. McCall made it clear that the

contest will have some racial implications. “They tell us that if we are good

and we have the qualifications, then we get in …. I have done everything they

have asked me to do. And if you do it all, it means you’re supposed to get

ahead. And I just want to test that.” At that, the crowd cheered wildly.

Mr. McCall’s sensitivity to racial politics extends to a comment

that Mr. Cuomo made several months ago. Shortly after city Democrats

self-destructed during the racially charged Mayoral race, Mr. Cuomo was

overheard talking about the dangers of any “racial contract” in state

politics-a remark that Mr. McCall found sufficiently egregious to continue to

raise as an issue.  At the Sharpton

event, Mr. McCall wondered why other Democrats had not protested more strongly

at the time. In the interview later that day, he reiterated his

“disappointment” that the comments had not received more scrutiny. “Whatever

the ugliness of the Mayoralty, I wasn’t involved in it,” he said. “I would hope

there would not be any attempt to introduce a divisive racial angle.”

It’s not the first time that Mr. McCall took offense at comments

coming from Mr. Cuomo’s camp. Early comments from Cuomo supporters-he’ll “take

a job in Washington,” said one source “close to Andrew Cuomo” to the New York Post ‘s Fred Dicker during the

2000 Presidential campaign-infuriated Mr. McCall, according to a prominent New

York Democrat who has had several conversations with the Comptroller on this

topic. Mr. McCall was similarly displeased with reported comments from Cuomo

supporters that he seemed ungrateful to former Governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father,

for appointing him Comptroller after Mr. Regan resigned. “Carl really got his

back up about those comments,” said the Democrat. “He said that he’d worked too

long and too hard to be manipulated, and that he wasn’t going to be treated

like some kid.”

“Those comments are certainly patronizing,” said Mr. McCall.

“They’re patronizing, and I think anyone who has heard them would know that

they’re patronizing.”

Raked Over the Coals

In the meantime, Mr. McCall is bracing for the next round of

buffeting. When he was running for re-election back in 1998, he was raked over

the coals by The New York Times for accepting large contributions from several law

firms that he’d hired to do litigation on behalf of the state’s massive pension

funds; the litigation carried huge fees for the lawyers involved. Several of

those same donors have contributed to Mr. McCall in recent months, according to

his latest filings. Reporters-no doubt with help from Mr. Cuomo’s aides-will be

urged to pay close attention to the issue this time as well.

Mr. McCall was never accused of doing anything illegal, and he

pointed out that the controversy was a non-issue when he ran for re-election.

“It didn’t matter in ’98,” he said.

For now, Camp Cuomo seems to be growing more confident by the

day. “We are extremely happy with where we are in this primary right now,” said

spokesman Josh Isay.

Whatever problems Mr. McCall faces in the Democratic primary,

there is also the small matter of a general election against Mr. Pataki, who,

thanks to a surge of civic pride following Sept. 11-and despite a hard-time

budget-has enviable approval ratings. Mr. Pataki is also sitting on a war chest

in excess of $16 million, dwarfing the treasuries of both Mr. McCall ($5

million) and Mr. Cuomo ($7 million).

Publicly, anyway, Mr. McCall doesn’t seem concerned, and he

remains focused on the task at hand. “I’ve never really taken a job from the

standpoint of ‘Where does this job lead me?'” he said. “Every job I’ve taken

has led me somewhere else …. I want to be the best Governor. That’s my

ambition. I’m ready to do this.”