Mulrow Trying to Block Comeback by Alan Hevesi

On a late-August morning three weeks before Primary Day, Bill Mulrow, underdog candidate for State Comptroller, surrounded himself with state union leaders in a nondescript conference room at the state A.F.L.-C.I.O. headquarters in Albany. Mr. Mulrow pulled apart his campaign schedule to be at this event, a press conference announcing the endorsement of the 2.3-million-member union. In the words of Mr. Mulrow’s spokesman, “This is big.”

But was it big enough to bring attention to the candidate-or, in fact, the campaign itself? If, in these dog days of summer, few voters are following the Governor’s race, fewer still know there’s a Democratic primary for State Comptroller. They have no idea who Bill Mulrow is. In New York City, at least, they do know the other guy in the race-former City Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Mr. Hevesi came in last in last year’s Mayoral primary, but he’s still running some 20 to 30 points ahead of Mr. Mulrow, according to private pollsters. The conventional wisdom has it that Mr. Hevesi will win with relative ease-and so far, his campaign team isn’t breaking a sweat.

Still, Mr. Mulrow is doing his best to generate some interest in his candidacy. And he has some of the biggest names in politics helping him. There’s media man David Garth, fresh off another race people said couldn’t be won-Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for Mayor. There’s union leader Dennis Rivera, who opened his 42nd Street penthouse for a Mulrow fund-raiser a full year before his well-publicized endorsement of Governor Pataki. There’s former David Dinkins campaign manager Bill Lynch, and Fernando Ferrer’s alter ego, former Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez. And there’s the Reverend Al Sharpton, who’s been working extra hard to tout Mr. Mulrow.

Some of these high-profile supporters simply like Mr. Mulrow, who manages assets for clients with a high net worth at the Gabelli Asset Management Company. Even Mr. Hevesi describes him as “a likable guy.” But some of Mr. Mulrow’s supporters are in it-as one acknowledged on condition of anonymity-“to retire Alan Hevesi from public life.”

Mr. Hevesi has no interest in retiring. In an interview with The Observer, he made a point of saying, “I’m the only Comptroller running for Comptroller.” But still, does he need the aggravation of another run for office after 22 years in the Assembly, eight years in the City Comptroller’s office and a failed run for Mayor? “I made a personal judgment that I didn’t want to leave public service, and that no one had better credentials or was better qualified to be State Comptroller,” he said.

By contrast, Mr. Hevesi says of Mr. Mulrow, “He’s a nice guy, bright … but he probably would have been better advised to run for some more preliminary office, like County Legislature or State Legislature.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Mulrow disagrees. “The Comptroller’s office was the perfect synthesis of all my skills-the right office at the right time for me and my family,” he said. “This is not a consolation prize for me.”

But can he do it? “Polls don’t mean a lot in a primary, and they don’t mean a lot in invisible primaries,” said political scientist Gerald Benjamin, of the State University of New York at New Paltz. “What counts is organization. So you look at who has the unions and who has the party organizations.” In fact, Mr. Mulrow has the lion’s share of the labor movement. Mr. Hevesi attributes this to Mr. Mulrow’s early start; he’s been campaigning for more than a year. And outside of the city, Mr. Mulrow has 40 county organizations, including all the nearby suburbs.

“If Bill doesn’t win, it’s not his fault-it’s my fault,” said Mr. Garth in a rare interview. The 72-year-old consultant said he had planned to retire two years ago. “And then Mike [Bloomberg] came to me, and he was just kind of interesting. So I went to work for Mike. And when that campaign was over, I said that was it. And then Bill came to me and said, ‘Remember 20 years ago, you told me you would help me?’ And I had, so I did.” (The two men had met during Ed Koch’s ill-fated run for Governor in 1982.)

Still, Mr. Hevesi does have his partisans. Lots of office-holders remain his friends, and they’re endorsing him. So are constituencies, like gays and lesbians and environmentalists, who appreciated his activism as trustee of the city pension funds. And there’s Representative Charles Rangel, not exactly an electoral slouch.

“There are lots of non-whites who are supporting Hevesi,” said Jim Capel, Mr. Rangel’s chief of staff. “He was in the Assembly for more than 20 years and passed a lot of legislation. He was Comptroller for eight years. He has the history of being in government.” Of Mr. Hevesi’s opponent, Mr. Capel said he’s “a nice guy.”

The son of a unionized machinist and a waitress at Parkchester’s St. Clare’s restaurant, Mr. Mulrow went from Yale and Harvard to Wall Street. He’s been a fixture at Democratic Party fund-raisers, doling out tens of thousand of dollars in contributions over the years. He’s the kind of a guy who was invited to non-exclusive receptions at Bill Clinton’s White House. “You know, you would just see him at these events all the time,”saidMario Cilento, a spokesman for A.F.L.-C.I.O.chiefDennis Hughes,whomMr. Mulrow counts among his personal friends. “And he was a really nice guy and had a real interest in public policy.”

You hear this a lot when you ask people why they’re supporting Bill Mulrow. “He’s reallyenthusiastic about the job,” said Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattanborough president. “He brings a fresh perspective and a keen interest in the public sector. He did a lot of fund-raisersfor people-butifhe wanted to run himself someday, he didn’t present himself that way.”

But as soon as he decided to run, Mr. Mulrow’s thoroughness became unnerving, almost nerdy. Two years ago, political reporters began getting phone calls asking for sit-downs with the fledgling and largely unknown candidate. Mr. Mulrow memorized not only the names, but the faces, of aides to key political figures. Asked to send over some information about his candidate, his spokesman dispatched, via overnight express, a three-ring binder, complete with tabs and clips, containing speeches, position papers, news clips and endorsements.

Chicken-Dinner Hero

Mr. Mulrow has figured out who he needs on his side in order to win. And he’s gone after them single-mindedly. He has lots of upstaters with no allegiance to Mr. Hevesi. “He’s been to every county picnic, every chicken dinner,” said Mike Schell, who until earlier this month was chair of the Democratic Rural Conference.

In places like Watertown, Mr. Schell said, “people don’t see holding office in New York City as relevant to their needs.” As for Mr. Hevesi’s having been Comptroller, Mr. Schell said: “People don’t understand what a Comptroller is or does anyway. So they look at ‘Will this candidate care about us?’, and the way they demonstrate it is by campaigning in these areas.”

For all his energy spent upstate, Mr. Mulrow hasn’t neglected the city. At Al Sharpton’s annual Martin Luther King Day event earlier this year, Mr. Mulrow got an especially warm introduction by Bill Lynch. He was the only candidate or office-holder to get this kind of a plug, even though Mayor Bloomberg, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and City Comptroller William Thompson were seated on the stage. WLIB radio host Mark Riley has taken Mr. Mulrow under his wing.

Mr. Hevesi angered Mr. Sharpton and his supporters in 1997, when he said he could never support the reverend for Mayor if he was the Democratic nominee, and then again early in 2001, when he stood before Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network and admitted he “didn’t get it”-referring to the protesters being arrested by the hundreds in the wake of the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo.

Mr. Mulrow went out of his way to hire the team of Roberto Ramirez and Luis Miranda. In the Latino community, Mr. Ramirez notes, there’s lingering bad feeling over Mr. Hevesi’s support of Mark Green in the Mayoral runoff against Mr. Ferrer. Mr. Mulrow has been running ads on Spanish-language radio, touting his immigrant roots-he’s Irish-American-and his rise from union son to Wall Street millionaire. This is exactly the message that worked for Mr. Bloomberg, who got 48 percent of the Latino vote in last year’s Mayoral election.

Mr. Mulrow has another advantage, says Norman Adler, who is also on the Mulrow payroll. Upstate, in the gubernatorial race, Andrew Cuomo will be “pulling” white Catholics, who will also presumably be voting for Mr. Mulrow. In the city, Team Mulrow hopes, Mr. McCall will get out black voters, who will also be voting for their guy.

Still, Mr. Mulrow is currently swimming upstream. He’s got about the same amount of money as Mr. Hevesi, but he’s also spent a lot more without measurably moving his numbers. The primary is the day before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Many Democratic voters will go into the voting booth having heard nothing, or next to nothing, about the Comptroller’s race. Inside the booth, many more will know the name Alan Hevesi. But will they vote for him or will they think, “Not him again”?

Says Mulrow man Roberto Ramirez, “Exactly.”