Albany Follies: McCall Has Hit in Nebbish Bit

It was Andrew Cuomo who created all the buzz but, in the end, Carl McCall who stole the show. During a reception before the annual Legislative Correspondents Association roast of state political figures on June 8, journalists clutched drinks in an overlit anteroom outside Albany’s convention center, muttering about the complications caused by Mr. Cuomo. He had told the show’s organizers-statehousereporters all-that he was going to snub the event, a true insiders’ ball attended by lobbyists, political operatives and elected officials. But in fact, he wasn’t really going to snub it; he was only going to pretend he was, in a riff on his snubbing of the state Democratic convention several weeks ago.

But his strategy of leaking the news of his own attendance didn’t exactly work. A day before the event, everyone knew he was going to come. There was much consternation as the L.C.A. organizers made room for Mr. Cuomo at table 8, where Governor George Pataki, Mr. McCall and would-be spoiler Tom Golisano were seated. Mr. Cuomo’s campaign manager, Josh Isay, was placed at table 49 … out of 50.

Still,Mr.Cuomowastheman everybody was talking about, the one who carried the frisson . This has been Mr. Cuomo’s pattern for the last few months. He has a way of becoming the name on everyone’s lips at each of the campaign’s milestones. At each campaign-finance filing deadline, Mr. Cuomo created news by raising more money than Mr. McCall. And most recently, Mr. Cuomo turned the no-news state Democratic convention into a publicity event by announcing that he would boycott it. Sometimes Mr. Cuomo has even stolen the headlines from himself, like the time he upstaged one of his several campaign kickoffs by criticizing Mr. Pataki’s leadership after Sept. 11.

Still, even though there’s no love lost between Mr. Cuomo and Albany insiders, they wanted him at the show. Not having him there would have made this annual Albany highlight less exciting. There aren’t that many black-tie affairs in Albany, so everyone gets dressed to the nines, brings their spouse and really makes an evening of it. They do this despite the fact that the event is held in the Albany mall’s concourse, a drab underground strip of shops and restaurants linked to government buildings that allows aging State Senators to conduct their business in the winter without ever going out of doors.

Mr. Pataki had declined the opportunity to offer a rebuttal to the show’s mockery. In fact, because he had to be on Long Island to present the trophy at the Belmont Stakes, he missed the reception and the entire first act. While reporters seemed tired of Mr. Pataki, who is running for a third term, the barbs against him were mild, mostly centered on his appeals to Latinos and unions. “I’m proud to be a Dominican / And I’m Puerto Rican, too / My roots go deep in Mexico / Bronx Democrats are cool,” went one refrain, to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.”

And nobody felt confident in Mr. McCall’s ability to entertain. “I haven’t seen him confident in months,” sighed one high-level Democrat, a McCall supporter. That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment: Mr. McCall’s “rebuttal” to the reporters’ roast was placed first on the schedule of three-Mr. McCall, then Mr. Golisano and finally Mr. Cuomo.

A Starring Role

Despite holding his own against Mr. Cuomo in the polls, the early-morning line still has long odds for Mr. McCall-something like Sarava, who won the Belmont Stakes with 70-to-1 odds. The pundits and predictors just aren’t sure that he wants the Governor’s office badly enough, or that he’ll work hard enough to get it. “But in New York, a dark horse won,” Mr. McCall said, beginning the traditional post-roast rebuttal with a reference to the Belmont Stakes. And then he gave everyone the what-for.

His shtick was a slide show, a day-in-the-life of a political candidate. Even by the standard of these events, it was very self-deprecating. “Here I am, fund-raising,” Mr. McCall said, clicking to a slide that showed him scratching off a Lotto ticket. There was even a photo of the J.P. Morgan offices when Mr. McCall talked about fund-raising. “Oops! That’s not supposed to be here,” he said. (The Comptroller has been accused of soliciting the Wall Street and real-estate firms that do business with the state pension funds.)

There was also a slide of the endorsement by the Reverend Jackie Jessen in Rochester at 9:15, followed by the endorsement by Jackie Jessen Jr. (who is about 5 years old) of Andrew Cuomo at 9:17. This is, of course, a reference to the endorsement split between Jesse Jackson and Jesse Jackson Jr. (The elder is for Mr. McCall; junior is for Mr. Cuomo.)

There were frequent shots of Mr. McCall waiting in a diner, at various points playing with the sugar, wearing a Yankees cap and falling asleep reading Hillary Clinton’s best-seller, It Takes a Village . “I was supposed to meet with Senator Clinton to discuss her endorsement,” went the narration accompanying these slides. “Unfortunately, she had a scheduling conflict.”

There was even a photo of a sign saying “The Irish Brotherhood Welcomes Carl McCall.” Deadpanned Mr. McCall: “Surprise!” In 1994, it’s been said, Mr. McCall won handily upstate because voters thought he was Irish, not black.

And then he supplied the kicker, singing the refrain of his own campaign jingle, “I’m the real McCall.”

The performance produced a standing ovation from a crowd that had expected little from Mr. McCall. Afterwards, attendees murmured that they couldn’t remember any other standing ovations in the history of these L.C.A. rebuttals. And the applause was led by Governor Pataki, who hugged his rival as he returned to table 8. “It’s hard to be self-deprecating,” commented Pataki press secretary Mollie Fullington approvingly after the applause died down. “It’s hard to carry it off.”

But then Mr. Cuomo had to try, too. Despite (or because of) their 12 years as Albany insiders, the Cuomo family is not loved in the state capital-they were portrayed in the L.C.A. show as a family of vampires, with Matilda Cuomo, Mario’s wife, as the Bride of Frankenstein. “Yell like your Dad used to do” was the refrain of the song they performed, to much applause and cathartic laughter, to the tune of “Walk Like a Man.” In another segment, AndrewCuomowas described-ironically, of course-as “evil,calculating and ruthless.”

Ofcourse,Mr. Cuomo knows this. “I had a kitten once …. ” he said in his rebuttal, his voice trailing off. (Aides say he wrote this line himself.) And then there was his “explanation” of why he is really an outsider: “I grew up the son of an outsider, who much later became an insider. And I was a Washington insider, which automatically made me a New York outsider … and I’m an in-law of an insider, so that makes me an outsider.”

He also poked fun at his ego: “I myself drive hundreds of miles just to hear myself speak,” he said, setting up the speech he “would have” given at the state Democratic convention. And later: “Arrogance ultimately works. Arrogance works.”

Maybe it will. Maybe the confidence of Governor Pataki or the cockiness of Mr. Cuomo will prevail. But on this Saturday night in Albany, Mr. McCall’s humble pie provided the most satisfying dessert.