Racial Retread: Mad McCall Hits a Cuomo Visit

Last week, Andrew Cuomo, who is white, went to South Carolina to

give a paid speech at a university. It’s something he does every once in a

while to make some extra cash. State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who is black,

cited an NAACP tourism boycott of South Carolina and attacked his opponent for

going there, implying that Mr. Cuomo lacks racial sensitivity. It was the first

time Mr. McCall had done this.

Just like that, the faint hopes of New York Democrats that the

gubernatorial primary of 2002 would be different from the ugly, racially tinged

Mayoral primary of 2001 look dimmer than ever. It’s March-eight months from

Election Day-and it’s already starting.

“This definitely introduces a racial component into the

campaign,” said veteran consultant Norman Adler.

“I think it’s a mistake, and could be terrible for the Democrats. But it’s the

kind of thing that, once it comes out

of the candidate’s mouth, can’t be disavowed.”

Given the delicate balancing act that has been his campaign until

now, Mr. McCall’s comments were somewhat surprising. (“I wouldn’t have gone,”

he said.) The 66-year-old Mr. McCall has scrupulously avoided making his race

an issue throughout his career, including the early stages of his campaign

against the 44-year-old Mr. Cuomo.

Many of his top supporters, however, have made Mr. McCall’s race

a central part of their appeals for support, and have implicitly criticized Mr.

Cuomo for standing in the way of Mr. McCall’s attempt to become the first

African-American to become New York’s Governor. Mr. McCall already is the only African-

American ever to win statewide office in New York.

In a sense, a certain amount of racial sparring is to be

expected. There’s always an ethnic component to New York politics-especially

Democratic politics-and it’s perfectly normal that a healthy contest include

some discussion of race. And Mr. McCall’s effort to make history is a

legitimate selling point, for minority voters as well as for white liberals who

might take pride in helping to break a longstanding racial barrier.  

“Every group has its own reason to be proud,” said Hank

Sheinkopf, a spokesman for the McCall campaign. “You have a chance to make real

history in New York. Carl McCall is the most qualified and competent guy to

come along to run for Governor, and he happens to be African-American.” Hence

the tagline on a recent McCall handout: “H. Carl McCall. The Right Man to Make

History.”

But it has not gone unnoticed that Mr. McCall’s senior campaign

personnel bears an uncanny resemblance to the team that ran Fernando Ferrer’s

Mayoral campaign: former Bronx Democratic Chairman Roberto Ramirez, Ferrer

spokesman Allen Cappelli, consultant Bill Lynch. During last year’s Mayoral

primary, the Ferrer campaign attempted to build a coalition of black and Latino

voters-to the exclusion, it sometimes seemed, of other Democratic voters. In

talking about “the other New York,” the Ferrer campaign scared many white

voters out of their wits. As a result, voting in the hotly contested primary

runoff between Mr. Ferrer and Mark Green broke down very sharply along racial

lines.

Now, in the Governor’s race, some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting

of uncommitted supporters has taken on aspects of the blatant ethnic

politicking that characterized the 2001 Mayoral race. Talking about some of Mr.

McCall’s supporters, one Congressional staffer noted, “They basically say, ‘The

African-American community was with you; now its time for you to be with us.'”

Some Democrats, still shell-shocked by the internecine ugliness

that led to the election of Republican Michael Bloomberg as Mayor, see Mr.

McCall being pushed in a similar direction by the same people who devised Mr.

Ferrer’s strategy. “Carl McCall is like the least threatening guy in New York

politics,” said Richard Schrader, who managed Mr. Green’s Mayoral campaign.

“He’s so moderate on economic and civil-rights issues, and such a gracious guy.

But now these Ferrer campaign people are taking over, and they’re so over the

top that everyone who is captured by them becomes scary.”

Mr. Cappelli, the former Ferrer spokesman who is now Mr. McCall’s

campaign manager, disputed the notion that his candidate was being pushed in

any direction. In addition, he said the Comptroller’s criticisms of Mr. Cuomo’s

trip to South Carolina were not about race per se. “There are a lot of people

who feel strongly about the symbolism of the Confederate flag [which is

incorporated into the design of the South Carolina state flag],” said Mr.

Cappelli. “Carl’s comments support that way of thinking and criticize Andrew’s

lack of sensitivity to it.”

Mr. Cappelli also defended the methods Mr. McCall’s backers have

used to rally support for him. “We have lots of supporters-over 650 elected

officials and party officials who have endorsed his candidacy,” said Mr.

Cappelli. “There are also hundreds of people from the business community, and

labor leaders. Each of them will try to sell the candidate based on their own

constituency and how they relate to him. There’s intense lobbying going on, on

the basis of a variety of reasons to be with Carl. All of it is legitimate,

because it represents the broad appeal that he has.”

Mr. McCall often seems genuinely uncomfortable being touted as

the “black candidate.” This uneasiness was illustrated most recently by a

conversation that Representative Charles Rangel had with Mr. McCall before the

Comptroller addressed the state’s Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus

earlier this year. According to someone who was with Mr. Rangel at the time,

the Congressman was desperately trying to persuade Mr. McCall to talk about his

remarkable personal story-and in particular about his father, a railway porter

who abandoned his family when Mr. McCall was still a child. Mr. McCall’s

inspiring personal history, after all, was the sort of stuff that prompted Time magazine to call his life story “an

American dream.” But Mr. McCall, not wanting to make an issue of his beginnings

as one of six children of a single black mother, demurred, delayed and changed

the subject, frustrating Mr. Rangel to the point that he finally exploded:

“Damn it, Carl, you’re going to have to talk about your father!”

According to people who know Mr. McCall well, this reluctance

comes naturally. “Carl doesn’t want to have these kind of conversations,” said

one close colleague. “He’s just not comfortable doing it, and I think that some

of his African-American advisers are going to keep coming up against that

resistance.”

Confusion in Ranks?

The fact that this same Carl McCall, the anti-racial everyman,

has now fired the first shot in a racial debate by calling attention to a

facile non-issue-on the day that Mr. McCall made his accusation, an NAACP spokesman

said that Mr.

Cuomo’s trip did not violate the terms of the boycott-is indicative of a

general confusion within the McCall campaign. After all, the campaign recently

announced the hiring of yet another media consultant. Aides sparked a debate by

sending Mr. McCall on a taxpayer-subsidized trip to Israel, ostensibly to check

on the state’s investment in Israel bonds. And they have yet to provide a full

explanation for-of all things-some apparently sloppy bookkeeping: Mr. McCall’s

generous per diem from the state for food and lodging continues to be the

subject of some speculation in the media.

But whatever Mr. McCall’s problems, any ugliness in the primary

could turn out to be far more damaging for Mr. Cuomo, who is only at the

beginning of what he no doubt expects will be a long and illustrious career in

elective politics. If the McCall campaign casts its candidate in the role of

Fernando Ferrer, then Mr. Cuomo will be Mark Green-a white civil-rights liberal

who emerged from the election with his reputation in tatters among many black

and Latino voters.

“They’re going to do to Cuomo what they did to Green,” said one

independent operative who’s in frequent touch with Mr. McCall’s inner circle.

“The people around McCall have already begun to make it impossible for Cuomo to

offer criticism without it being suggested that he’s a racist. It’s to the

point where he’s better off not getting the nomination, because if he does,

they’ll destroy his career.”

Cuomo supporters are doubtless aware of that risk. “It’s very

important that both campaigns stay on the high ground of issues and ideas,”

said Josh Isay, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo. “If not, then there’s a great

downside for both campaigns. Andrew is committed to talking only about issues

and ideas, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

If there is one person who hopes that South Carolina remains the

subject of vigorous debate among the Democrats, it’s Governor George Pataki,

who’d like a third term in Albany. “If race becomes an issue in this primary,

then it won’t matter who wins,” said Mr. Adler. “The general election will go

to George Pataki.”

 

-Additional

reporting by Andrea Bernstein